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I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

Have you ever sat in a room designed especially for killing people, looking into the eyes of a serial murderer, watching and waiting for some sign of remorse for his crimes, wondering if he would take back what he’d done, if he could?

Have you ever smelled the searing flesh of a condemned killer as 1,800 volts of electricity ripped through his body, nonstop, for thirty seconds?

Have you ever witnessed a legal homicide carried out by a “man behind the curtain” who, during his career, caused the death of 62 humans who were convicted of their crimes and then received the ultimate punishment, execution. No? Well, twenty-six years ago this month, I sat in a chair just a few feet away from a serial killer and I watched him die a gruesome death. Here are the details.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer, the Southside Strangler

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I was selected to serve as a witness to his execution. I accepted, figuring that if I had the power to investigate and arrest someone for capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, a corrections official met me at the state police area headquarters where I’d parked my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice. It was around 8 p.m. when I climbed into his van, a vehicle typically used for transporting inmates. It had been freshly washed and waxed and the interior was immaculate. The light scent of pine cleaner lingered in the air.

My driver du jour was an always-smiling, short and portly, white-shirt-wearing lieutenant whose skin was the color of caramel. His round head was bare and slick, with the exception of a few small tufts of white hair that brought to mind the fluffy clouds of a summertime sky. He was a friend and sometimes colleague who headed up the prison’s “death squad.” I’d known him for several years and enjoyed his company since his sense of humor was a great match for my own … quirky.

I’d worked with the lieutenant in the past when he approved my request for the loan of several prison K-9s, the nasty, snarling ones that enjoy biting, and their handlers, to assist with a large drug and weapon eradication operation in the city.

During the ride to the prison we occupied our time with small talk and banter about the usual—cop and corrections stuff, and our lives dealing with the worst of the worst. I put them away and he babysat them for the next one to 100 years, or, until the end, which was soon to be for Timothy Spencer.

The lieutenant eventually turned the van onto the long and straight paved road that led to the maximum security compound. The van’s headlamps illuminated a few yards of swampland that flanked the road on both sides. Beyond that … eerie and inky blackness as far as imaginations allowed.

During the approach we passed two groups of people, those who supported the death penalty and those who did not. Many of them carried signs. Some held candles. On the “against” side, a man played a guitar while others swayed from side to side while singing. Some prayed. A minister held both hands above his head while addressing four or five young people, possibly teenagers.

Numerous media vans lined the roadway, with the telescopic antenna standing tall, with cables winding around the poles. Network reporters faced cameras and bright lights while speaking into handheld microphones. One reporter interviewed a visibly angry woman.

A few members of the anti death penalty protestors approached our van and shouted and shook their fists toward it. Others aimed middle fingers at the dark tinted windows. Deputy sheriffs and state troopers, all of whom I knew personally, herded the agitated folks back to their “For” and “Against” roped-off areas.

Finally, after traveling a mile from the main road, bright lights appeared in the sky above the tree line. It was like approaching a sports stadium at night. Then, as if out of nowhere, the prison came into view. It was massive. More inmates lived there than the number of residents in the nearest town.

What looked like miles of a double row of very tall, razor-wire-topped fencing surrounded  individual concrete pods designed to house over 500 inmates each. Each housing unit is separated from the others by its own set of fencing. Six 52-foot guard towers were positioned around the perimeter, with heavily-armed officers standing ready as the last means of stopping an escape attempt. The officer in tower one, the nearest to the front gate, stood out on the catwalk holding a rifle, a mini-14/.223, i assumed. It was execution night and everyone was on high alert.

We entered the prison’s interior grounds through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside a building where I then was escorted to a briefing room where the other execution witnesses sat waiting. The Virginia Department of Corrections’ eastern regional manager stood at the front of the room. Once I was seated he began to explain to our small group what it was we were about to see.

When he was done, we, in single file, were taken to “L” Building, nicknamed “Hellsville” by the inmates. Building “L,” is where death row inmates are brought from death row to await their hour to die. It’s  the building where the electric chair and the lethal injection gurney sit quietly until their next time in the spotlight rolls around.

We were seated in a small theater-style room, and much like waiting for a famous play to begin, we all knew the name of the leading man. He was a solo performer who would be dead when the curtain finally closed at the end of the evening.

The room was packed full, a small group consisting of members of the press, two or three attorneys, a few others who’ll remain nameless to respect their privacy, and me, the only cop in the place.

The room where I and the other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room made of concrete blocks painted a bright white. Sitting center stage was Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

As part of our duties as official witnesses, we observed a test of the chair which indicated that the chair was in proper working order. To do so, officials placed a resistor across the arms arms of the chair and then connected it to the two electrical cables that would soon be attached to the condemned prisoner. When they switched on the system for the test, a light on the resistor resistor emitted a bright orange glow, then gradually a duller glow. Satisfied that the system was working, we waited.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 p.m.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did, revealing the handful of prison officials who entered first, and then Spencer who walked calmly into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained, uniformed corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own, without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber.

I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer, though, seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it. His face was absent emotion. No frown. No tears. No smile. Nothing. He was a man who seemed more like a robot than a human with a beating heart, a thinking brain, and a conscience.

The man who’d brutally and killed so many women, was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp like raindrops on a freshly-waxed car.

Spencer looked around the room and the area where we sat. His eyes moved slowly from side to side and up and down, taking in the surroundings and the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims.

Perhaps the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

Spencer blinked a bit when looking at the bright overhead lights. Other than that tiny movement his actions were totally and absolutely unremarkable. Had I not know what was about to take place, I’d have assumed he was settling into an easy chair to watch a bit of television before retiring for the evening after a long day at work.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. As they secured his arms and legs tightly to the oak chair, he looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing.

I sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so.  Not even a remote sign of sadness, regret, or fear. Either he was brave, heavily sedated, or stark-raving mad.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap, like the leg connection, was lined with a brine-soaked sea sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub and doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

Yes, I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. He kept his gaze on me, all the way to the end.

Some of the people in the room focused on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor—Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It remained silent.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber, out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, a mask with only a tiny opening for his nose. Then he and the other team members left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, the executioner sent a second jolt to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes. I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it.

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair where he placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest and listened for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America’s history was dead, finally.


Strange, but true facts about Spencer’s case:

– Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

– Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

– David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

– Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

– Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.


Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the Commonwealth of Virginia—the man who executed Timothy Spencer—described his opinion of the death penalty when he said, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.”

Givens, after executing 62 people, now strongly opposes the death penalty.

And then there are the cases of the men and women on death row who’ve been exonerated based on evidence that proved that didn’t or couldn’t have committed the crime of which they were accused and convicted. Such as Ray Krone, a friend of this site who spent nearly a decade on death row before DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Ray detailed the experience in an article for this blog. To read his story please click here.

Ray Krone is scheduled to tell his incredible story at the 2020 MurderCon.  Sign up today to reserve your spot!

Serial killers may attack anywhere at any time. However, depending upon whether or not the murderer is organized or disorganized, those two factors can affect location and timing.

The set up, or initial place(s) where the killer(s) first meet their intended victim(s) varies. However, the majority of initial contact locations are areas known for vice activity, such as places frequented by prostitutes and/or drug users and dealers.

Secondary target areas include outdoor locations such as public parks and vehicle parking areas, etc.

A third choice location, but not the most favored, is the victim’s home, either by forced entry or by ruse. Also, indoor public locations such as bus stations, shopping malls, and places of business.

Breaking this down even further, we know from past experience and knowledge, that initial assaults by serial killers tend to most likely occur in outdoor public locations. Again, public parks, etc. The next prime attack location is a victim’s home. And, if the killer knows his victims, his own home may be another choice spot to kill.

Organized Killers

Organized killers are typically of above average to average intelligence. They’re often thought to be attractive. They’re neat and tidy and are often married or living with a partner during the times they committed their crimes. They hold jobs, are typically educated, and are skilled at their profession. They look to be in control. And they often have above average knowledge of police and forensics procedures. They enjoy reading and hearing about their crimes, with a particular affection for seeing their crime scenes in the media. It is not unusual at all  for an organized killer to make contact with the media, or even the police.

Having carefully plan their crimes, organized offenders frequently go the extra mile to prevent leaving evidence behind. Their killings may be premeditated.

Killers in this group are antisocial and often psychopathic—they lack of empathy and other emotions. They’re manipulative of others. The tricky thing when dealing with organized criminals is that they perpetually appear quite normal, and they’ll do their best to use charm to their advantage.

They’re not insane and they definitely know right from wrong, but they lack conscience and feel or show no remorse for the deeds.

Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, is an example of an organized killer/criminal.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a renowned expert on serial killers and she details Rader’s crimes in her book Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Denis Rader the BTK Killer. As part of her research, Dr. Ramsland spoke with Rader by telephone once a week for an entire year. Each week, Rader called her from the El Dorado Correctional Facility and the two of them talked for an hour or so. Also as part of her process of delving into Rader’s mind, Dr. Ramsland played chess, by mail, with the killer.

As many of you know, Dr. Ramsland is a regular presenter at the Writers’ Police Academy.

Disorganized Killers

Disorganized killers/criminals typically do not plan their crimes in advance. They quite often leave evidence at the scenes of their crimes, such as fingerprints, footprints, DNA, tire tracks, or blood. They’re also known to simply leave the body as is, making no real attempt to conceal it or to prevent leaving telltale evidence such as semen or saliva. Their crimes are sometimes chaotic.

Disorganized killers tend to be younger in age. They’re unskilled workers who have no problem depersonalizing their victims. They may be mentally ill. They’re often of below average intelligence who lack communication and social skills. Many come from dysfunctional and/or abusive families. They may have been sexually abused by relatives, and they may present with sexual detestation. They’re loners who often travel on foot to commit crimes due to a lack of transportation. These are the neighbors of their victims. They’re often under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol when they commit their crimes.

Jack the Ripper, for example, was a killer who made no effort to conceal the bodies of his victims.

This is the killer who uses a sudden and quick attack to overpower their victims.

Race

White offenders are far more apt (over double) to meet their victims in an outdoor public place (a park or somewhere similar), while African American offenders tend to prefer a less conspicuous location. African American offenders, however, are more prone to choose a meeting place that’s in vice areas (locations where prostitution is known to exist, etc.) than do white offenders.

Location

Serial killers tend to commit murder in public locations. Their next choice is typically the homes of the victims.

For example, in the late 1980s, serial killer Timothy Spencer (the Southside Strangler) raped and killed four women—Debbie Dudly Davis, 35, an account manager, Susan Elizabeth Hellams, 32, a neurosurgeon, and Diane Cho, 15, a high school freshman, and Susan M. Tucker, 44, a federal employee.

Spencer committed those brutal murders while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He killed the first three women on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

Officials had not yet linked Spencer to the murders, so they granted him a furlough to visit his mother’s home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Susan Tucker’s body was found shortly after the time Spencer returned to and signed in at the halfway house.

Police learned that Spencer entered the women’s homes through windows. Then he raped, sodomized, and choked them to death using ligatures. He’d made the ligatures in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

All four were discovered nude or partly clothed. Their hands were bound, and either rope, belts, or socks were tied around their necks.

Spencer had left no evidence behind other than DNA evidence. At the time DNA testing in criminal cases was new.

Spencer later was also implicated in the murder of lawyer Carolyn Jean Hamm, 32, in Arlington, Virginia. He was also thought to have raped at least eight additional women. However, he was never tried in those cases because he’d already been sentenced to death.

Spencer, by the way, was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.

In the spring of 1994, I served as a witness to Spencer’s execution by way of the electric chair. His death was gruesome.

 

When looking at murder cases, detectives occasionally find that some charactistics and aspects of the crimes and killers are similar to those of others. Then, as time and investigations move forward, patterns sometimes begin to emerge, such as that the causes of death are identical (multiple stab wounds in identical patterns, etc.), physical locations of crime scenes are in close proximity to one another, and the timeframe matches the timeframes of other murders, such as the slayings always take place on Monday mornings, in or very near to a specific city park.

Victims are often of the same ethnic backgrounds, with the same hair color, size and body shape, and are potentially from the same or similar neighborhoods inhabited by those specific racial groups.


Serial Killers

  • single killer who acts alone
  • killed at least two people at separate locations at separate times ~ FBI

Serial killers must be able to move about freely, without attracting attention while they’re “hunting.” Therefore, it’s a good indicator of the suspect’s race if the killings occur within a racially specific location—a blue man would stand out in a neighborhood occupied by green people. But a green man would not stand out in a neighborhood inhabited by a mixture of both green and blue people. Likewise, a blue man would also fit in nicely and could and would most likely go unnoticed as he moved about within the area. These details serve as clues that help police narrow the search field.

Forensic evidence in these types of cases often indicate that it is one person, a serial offender, who leaves the same types of evidence at each crime scene—same body fluids in the same places on a victim’s body, same type of bite marks at the same locations on a victim’s body, a specific brand of tape used to bind hands and feet, ropes, electrical cords, tool marks at entry points, same type of paper and ink used to write notes, same kind of items removed from the scene, etc.

Other factors that point to a serial killer/killing is the means in which they come in contact with their victims. Do they patrol certain areas to hunt specifically for prostitutes. Similar neighborhoods for tall women or men with blonde hair, blue eyes, and lots of tattoos?

Type of weapon used to kill could be a clue as to the background of the killer. For example, a suspect whacks his male victims on their heads with a shovel, and then uses a Burdizzo castrator, a tool for castrating bulls, to remove a couple of “takeaway trophies” from the body, well, there’s a good possibility that the murderer just may work in the cattle farming industry. After all, there’s not much use for a bull castrator in the everyday household.

How a serial killer disposes of the body could also point to his identity.

Do they always …

Transport the body to a location other than where they were killed? Do they conceal the bodies or simply dump them on the side of a country road, or within a specific area of the city? Do they bury their victims? Weight them down with bags of concrete and then submerge the bodies in a pond or lake?

Serial killers sometimes have multiple motives for committing murder. However, there’s often a primary motive for doing what they do.

Primary Motives

  • Sexual
  • Mental Illness/psychosis
  • Greed/Financial Gain
  • Anger

*This post is the first of a brief series of factual posts about serial killers and how to incorporate them into a work of fiction. Part two is coming soon.

 

Investigating a murder can be, and often is, a methodical and meticulous slow-grind of information gathering. It’s knocking on many doors, speaking with countless numbers of people, digging in the dirt and leaves and mud, pawing through mounds of garbage, searching through closets and hampers filled with grimy and disgusting clothing. It’s collecting solid bedding and mattresses, stained underwear, and body fluids. It’s hours and days and months and years of clue-chasing rollercoasters that seem to go round and round and round and up and down and back again. All to catch a person who ended the life of another human.

In the end, it’s extremely satisfying to ratchet cuffs around the wrists of a suspect who used a weapon of some type to kill. All that hard work coming to a close leaves an investigator with a combined sense of relief, success, and satisfaction that they’ve help bring a small bit of closure for surviving family members.

Sometimes, even though mountains of potential evidence piles up during an investigation, it’s the tiniest bit—a trace—such as a carpet fiber, that serves as the cornerstone of a case. And such was the key element that helped Delaware investigators nab a serial killer known as The Corridor Killer.

A dark and story night

As it’s been said to not be said, it was a dark and story night on November 29, 1987, when 23-year-old ex-prostitute Shirley Ellis hoped to to catch a ride into Wilmington by hitchhiking along Route 40 near Bear, Delaware. She was on her way to deliver a Thanksgiving dinner for an AIDS patient who was undergoing treatment at Wilmington Hospital.

At approximately 9:25 p.m. that evening, a teenage couple pulled into a popular make-out spot to do the things teenagers do in those types of secluded locations. It was then that they discovered Ellis’ partially clothed body. Her legs were spread apart and autopsy later revealed evidence of torture and mutilation—she’d been bound at the feet and the ankles and scraps of black duct tape were still attached to strands of her hair. It was likely that the tape had been used to prevent her from screaming. She had not been sexually assaulted.

Seven months later, on June 28, 1988, Catherine DiMauro, a 31-year-old woman with a history of prostitution arrests, was walking along Route 40, near Bear, around 11:30 p.m. It’s not known if she was soliciting customers or simply using the route to go from point A to point B. But it was that night when she accepted a ride from a man driving a blue van. Her nude body was discovered by workers building a nearby apartment complex. Her wrists and ankles were bound and, like Ellis, duct tape had been used to silence her. And again, like Ellis, there was no indication of sexual assault.

This time, though, a vast amount of blue carpet fibers were found on DiMauro’s body. Finally police had a clue. A minor clue. But a clue. And the police were all over it. They assembled a 60 member task force with access to airplanes, helicopters, rental vehicles, and an unlimited budget. No stone or fiber was to be left unturned or untested.

The task force consulted with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, and they concluded that these acts were the acts of a serial killer.

The team decided to send out undercover female police officers dressed as prostitutes to walk the stretch of Route 40 where the killer had picked up the victims. They flirted with the men who stopped, and there were several, but they never got into a vehicle. In the meantime testing was underway to identify the blue fibers found on DiMauro’s body. Without fibers to use for comparison, however, these blue pieces of evidence would remain on hold.

On Aug. 22, a prostitute named Margaret Lynn Finner went missing. She was working the streets along U.S. 13, near the stretch of Route 40 connected to the crimes of the serial killer. Finner was last seen climbing into a blue Ford panel van with round headlights. The van was driven by a white male.

Roughly three months later, Finner was found dead near the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Due to the advanced stage of decomposition a cause of death couldn’t be determined. No clues were found and no one was charged for death.

Undercover Ops Begin

On Sept. 14, 1988, a 23-year-old New Castle County, Delaware undercover officer dressed as a prostitute headed out to walk the Route 40 corridor, hoping to snare the killer. It wasn’t long before a line of 5 or 6 vehicles lined up on the side of the road. The drivers of those vehicles included doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and they all wanted to talk to “the prostitute.”

But the vehicle that caught the undercover officer’s attention was a blue Ford panel van with round headlights that drove past. Her cops’ alarm bells sounded loudly inside her head when the van stopped a little farther down the road and turned around to make another pass. The driver of the van repeated the action, driving past and then U-turning, seven times within a twenty-minute period.

The officer walked to a more secluded area, hoping to tease the driver into stopping. Finally the van pulled over and a white male opened the side panel. The officer immediately saw blue carpeting covering the van’s interior. She later said the man was different than any other person who stopped for her. His demeanor was cold and he was difficult to engage in conversation. He seemed to stare through her.

The Blue Fibers

While talking to the man, the undercover officer used the time and distraction to rub her hand on the carpeting, pulling out a few blue fibers for testing. The driver, though, demanded that she get in the van, but she refused, saying that she tired from partying and needed to sleep. The man gave up and drove away. A task force member in the area recorded and ran the plate numbers on the van. It was registered to Steven Brian Pennell, a Delaware electrician. His record showed no arrests.

Police sent the blue fibers were sent to a lab for testing. In the meantime, on September 16, Michelle Gordon, a 22-year-old known prostitute was seen on Route 40 climbing into the passenger side of a blue Ford panel van. But there was a witness and she knew both Gordan and Pennell, and she recognized Pennell’s van

This time, however, police caught a major break. The lone witness to the abduction knew both Gordon and Pennell, and she immediately identified the vehicle. Sadly, Gordon’s body was found four days later when it washed up on the banks of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal on Sept. 20. Gordon died while being tortured.

Three days later, 26-year-old Kathleen Meyer was last seen alive hitchhiking along Route 40 around 9:30 p.m. This time the witness was an off-duty police officer who saw Meyer accepting a ride from a man driving a blue Ford van. The officer ran the plates and learned the vehicle was registered to Pennell. Meyer’s body was never found.

After having to wait for evidence (carpet fibers) to be processed and Delaware Attorney General Charles Oberly to approve a search warrant for Pennell’s van, police took matters into their own hands and pulled Pennell’s van over for a routine traffic violation. This allowed them to take Pennell into court to pay his ticket.

Icing on the Investigatory Cake

In the meantime, officers searched the van and immediately discovered carpet fibers that matched those on the victims. They also found hair and blood and even the same brand of duct tape used to silence DiMauro. The icing on the investigatory cake was Pennell’s gruesome “torture kit”—pliers, needles, a whip, handcuffs, knives and various types of restraints.

Police had their suspect.

Pennell opted to remain silent and did not offer a statement.

The blue carpet fibers were indeed the cornerstone of the entire case against Pennell. Without them, the state’s case could not have moved forward because any other actions and evidence would have been ruled as fruit of the poisonous tree.

So, of course the defense attorney attacked the fibers, stating the officer did not have a legal right to remove those fibers from the van without a search warrant. However, Superior Court Judge Richard Gebelein denied the defense claims and ruled that the carpet was in plain view once Pennell opened the door to invite the undercover officer inside the van.

Justice Arrives

On November 23, 1989—Thanksgiving Day—as a massive snowstorm blanketed the area, Pennell was convicted of murdering Ellis and DiMauro. The jury, however, deadlocked on the Gordon case. They also deadlocked on the death penalty.

In 1990, Pennell was sentenced to two life terms in 1990 and, as a result, Pennell filed appeals, alleging that the fiber seizure was unconstitutional. During this time, police continued their investigations and, based on new evidence, Pennell was indicted for the murders of Meyer and Gordon. Pennell asked the court if he could be allowed to represent himself for the new charges. The court granted the motion.

Pennell then did the nearly unthinkable. Even though he did not offer a confession, he pled no contest to both murders and asked the Superior Court to impose a sentence of death.

At a hearing to determine if Pennell’s life should be spared, Pennell offered a bizarre argument for his own death –  “‘The law was developed from one book, and it’s that book I quote from,” he said. “‘In Numbers, chapter 35, verse 30, ‘Whoever kills a person, the person shall be put to death.’ “‘Also, in Genesis, chapter 9, verse 6, ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood by man, his blood shall be shed.'”

“This court has found me guilty on the testimony of witnesses. So I ask that the sentence be death as said by the state’s laws and God’s laws. That’s all I have to say.”

Perhaps it was both fitting and somewhat spooky that, on Halloween day in 1991, Pennell was sentenced to death. As part of Delaware’s mandatory death penalty appeal process, Pennell appeared before the to the state Supreme Court court on Feb. 11, 1992, where he again asked for his own execution. He remains the only person to represent himself before the state Supreme Court, and the only one, of course, to ask for death.

During the entire case, Pennell always referred to himself in the third person. Never in first person.  During the appeal, Pennell said to the court, “The perpetrator must have sensed a pleasure in the killings. Since he did not commit just one, but continued in the same depraved manner on the others, this pleasure is evident.”

On March 14, 1992, Steven Brian Pennell was the first man executed in Delaware in 46 years.

Pennell died by lethal injection, and as a result of a savvy undercover police officer who thought to grab a couple of tiny blue carpet fibers.

 

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

Have you ever sat looking into the eyes of a serial killer, watching for some sign of remorse for his crimes, wondering if he would take back what he’d done, if he could? Have you ever smelled the burning flesh of a condemned killer as 1,800 volts of electricity ripped through his body? No? Well, I have.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

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Timothy W. Spencer, The Southside Strangler

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I requested to serve as a witness to his execution. I figured if I had the power to arrest and charge someone with capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, corrections officials met me at a state police area headquarters. I left my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice there and they drove me to the prison. We passed through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside the building where death row inmates await their turn to die.

Once inside, I was led to a room where other witnesses waited for a briefing about what to expect. Then we, in single file, were led to where we’d soon watch a condemned man be put to death.

The room where I and other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room, with the exception of Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

 

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

State executions in Virginia are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did. A couple of prison officials entered first, and then Spencer walked into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber. I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.

Spencer was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp.

Spencer scanned the brightly lit room, looking from side to side, taking in the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims. Perhaps, the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated only by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub where he doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. All the way to the end, he kept his gaze on me.

In those remaining seconds everyone’s thoughts were on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor. Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It did not ring.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber and out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, then he and the rest of the team left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, the executioner sent a second burst to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes. I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it.

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair where he placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America was dead, finally.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm.


Unusual facts about Spencer’s case:

– Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

– Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

– David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

– Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

– Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.