We may recoil in horror when reading the gruesome details of a murder, but it’s undeniable that many of us are more than just a little bit fascinated by the murderer themselves. Throughout history, serial killers have generated huge amounts of media coverage and public interest. Why, who can say? Whether it’s driven by a desire to understand something utterly incomprehensible, or whether it’s something else entirely, the only thing we can say with any real confidence is that the name of a murderer tends to far outlive the names of their unlucky victims. Something to reflect on, perhaps, as you read our rundown of the 20 worst serial killers of all time.
20. Dennis Raider
Known by the infamous nickname of the BTK killer, Dennis Raider was responsible for the deaths of 10 people in Sedgewick County, Wichita, between the years of 1974 and 1991. The fame-hungry killer became famous for sending taunting letters to the police after his crimes, signed with the initials BTK (short for Blind. Torture. Kill). Raider managed to evade arrest until 2005 but was eventually bought to justice after police managed to trace a floppy disk he’d sent to the press straight to his door. After his arrest, he immediately confessed and is currently serving 10 consecutive life sentences.
19. Donald Henry Gaskins
In 1975, Donald Henry Gaskins was arrested after an associate informed police he’d witnessed Gaskins kill two young men. He was later convicted of murdering 8 hitchhikers (he claimed to have killed more than 80). His death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment without parole, despite the fact he’d managed the singular feat of killing another inmate on death row while being held at the high-security prison.
18. Peter Mandel
Peter Mandel is suspected of killing at least 18 people in Scotland during a two-year crime spree between 1956 and 1958. Police eventually managed to link him to the crimes after he was found using banknotes stolen from his victims while paying for drinks at a Glasgow pub. In 1958, he was hanged at Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison, one of the very last prisoners to be executed in Scotland before capital punishment was abolished.
17. John George Haigh
English born John George Haigh was one of the most prolific killers of the 1940s. A con man of the worst kind, he tricked wealthy people into believing he was a professional businessman, before luring them to their deaths in a derelict warehouse. His chosen means of disposal was to dissolve the corpse of his victim is a vat of acid (earning himself the nickname of Acid Bath Murderer in the process). As it turned out, his cleanup methods proved less successful than he believed, with police managing to gather enough forensic evidence to allow his eventual arrest, conviction, and execution in 1949.
16. Fred and Rose West
For 20 years, Fred and Rose West tortured, raped and brutally murdered at least 11 young women and girls. Their terrible secrets were eventually revealed after police located the remains of several bodies beneath the floorboards and garden of their Gloucestershire house of horrors. As it turned out, Rose was the only one of the pair to be convicted; during his trial, Fred hanged himself from the ceiling of his jail cell. In 1995, Rose was found guilty of 10 counts of murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
15. Arthur Shawcross
In 1972, Arthur Shawcross sexually assaulted and murdered a 10-year boy after luring the child into the woodlands near Watertown in New York. The first kill apparently gave Shawcross a taste for blood, and he subsequently went on to rape and kill an eight-year-old girl. After serving 14 years in prison, Shawcross was released in 1988… completely unrehabilitated. After killing 12 prostitutes between the ages of 22 and 59, he was eventually recaptured and sentenced to 250 years in jail. As it turned out, he served very few of them, dying of a heart attack in 2008.
14. Peter Sutcliffe
Peter Sutcliffe (also commonly known as “The Yorkshire Ripper”) is widely regarded as one of the most heinous and prolific serial killers the UK has ever spawned. Like Jack the Ripper before him, Sutcliffe targeted prostitutes; 13 sex workers in total met their deaths at the hands of Sutcliffe, whose later plea of not guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibly was rejected by the Jury. Sentenced to life without parole, Sutcliffe is now living out the rest of his life at Broadmoor Maximum Security Mental Hospital.
13. Richard Ramirez
Question: What do you get when you combine a serial killer with a Satan worshipper? Answer: Richard Ramirez. “The Night Stalker” (as he was later named by the press) carried out a reign of terror in Los Angeles between 1984 and 1985, breaking into the homes of his victims before shooting, stabbing, raping and mutilating them. Before leaving the scene of his crime, he would smear pentagrams across the walls. Following his arrest in 1985, Ramirez served 23 years on death row before dying of natural causes in June 2013.
12. Jeffrey Dahmer
Jeffrey Dahmer earned the inauspicious title of The Milwaukee Cannibal after he was found guilty of murdering and sexually assaulting 15 young men and boys between 1976 and 1991. In a gruesome final flourish to the grisly tale, it was also revealed he would commit sex acts on his victims after their death, and would routinely dismember, cook and eat parts of their bodies. The murderous necrophiliac was sentenced to 15 life sentences but died just two years into his sentence after being beaten to death by a fellow inmate.
11. Dennis Nielson
British serial killer Dennis Nielson was responsible for the murder of 15 gay men in London between 1978 and 1983. After assaulting and killing his victims, he dissected their bodies, and either disposed of them by burning or by flushing them down the toilet. His “clean up” methods eventually proved his downfall: after human remains were discovered in his sewage system, he was arrested and convicted of six counts of murder, and two attempted murders. He is currently serving life without parole in Full Sutton maximum security prison in Yorkshire.
10. Ted Bundy
As one of the few serial killers to achieve household name status, Ted Bundy’s story needs little introduction. His 1970s crime spree resulted in the deaths of multiple young women, at least 12 of whom were decapitated following vicious sexual assaults (in a grim twist, he was later found to have kept the severed heads as bloody trophies in his apartment). After evading capture on numerous occasions, he was finally arrested and executed by electric chair in 1989.
9. Charles Ng and Leonard Lake
Between 11 and 25 victims are believed to have met their death at the hands of Charles Ng and his accomplice Leonard Lake at Lake’s ranch in Calaveras County, California. Lake committed suicide shortly after his arrest, while Ng is currently on death row at San Quentin after being arrested while shoplifting at a hardware store.
8. John Wayne Gacy
Between 1972 and 1978. John Wayne Gacy sexually assaulted and murdered 33 teenage boys and young men in his home town of Chicago, Illinois. His normal procedure was to entice his victims into his home with the promise of work before strangling them with a tourniquet. Following his arrest, 26 of his victims were unearthed beneath the grounds of his home; the rest are believed to have been dumped in the Des Plaines River. After serving 14 years on death row, Gacy was executed on May 10, 1994.
7. Andrei Chikatilo
As one of the only Russians to have almost as much blood on his hands as Stalin, Andrei Chikatilo’s crimes were so brutal, they managed to earn him the infamous title of “The Butcher of Rostov”. Between 1978 and 1990, he carried out a series of frenzied sexual assaults and attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least 52 women and children. Following extensive surveillance, Chikatilo was eventually arrested, tried, and executed by firing squad in 1994.
6. Tommy Lynn Sells
Currently serving a life sentence in a high-security prison in Livingston, Texas, Tommy Lee Sells is widely considered to be one of the most dangerous inmates in the American penal system. Between 1985 and 1999, he carried out a series of brutal murders across the state of Texas. He was eventually caught after breaking into the bedroom of a 10-year-old girl, viciously stabbing her and leaving her for dead. Fortunately, the girl survived and was able to provide a detailed enough description of her attacker to lead to Sells’ eventual capture.
5. Gary Ridgway
Gary Ridgeway was arrested in 2001. At the time of his arrest, it was believed he’d killed 4 women. As it turned out, Ridgeway had been an extremely busy boy throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, something he was only too happy to admit during his interrogation. After confessing to killing 70 women, he narrowly escaped the death penalty after having the courtesy to reveal the burial sites of his victims, 5 of whom he’d unceremoniously dumped in the Green River (leading to the rather unimaginative nickname of “The Green River Killer”). Ridgeway was eventually convicted of 49 murders and is currently serving life without parole.
4. Pedro Rodrigues Filho
Brazilian serial killer Pedro Rodrigues Filho, or The Brazilian Maniac as he’s sometimes known, was arrested in 1973 on suspicion of murdering at least 71 people. In 2003, he was sentenced to serve 128 years imprisonment. His murderous ways began at the age of just 14 years old; by the time he was 18, he’d killed 10. The crime spree continued until his arrest, and even after; after being sentenced to 128 years behind bars (despite a Brazilian law that stops anyone serving more than 30 consecutive years in prison), he went on to murder at least 47 of his fellow inmates, including his own father, who was also serving time for murder. Despite his sentence increasing to 400 years, he was bizarrely released from prison in 2007 after 34 years, only to be arrested again in 2011.
3. Daniel Camargo Barbosa
During the 1970s and 1980s, Daniel Camargo Barbosa operated a reign of terror across Ecuador and Columbia, raping and killing over 150 young girls. In 1989, he was sentenced to Ecuador’s maximum sentence of 16 years but was murdered in prison by the cousin of one of his young victims just 5 years into his sentence.
2. Dr Harold Shipman
Dr. Harold Shipman sent shockwaves through the medical community (and, indeed, the world) when he was found guilty of over 250 deaths. For years, Shipman had been, at least on the face of it, a trusted and respected doctor: secretly, he was one of Britain’s deadliest serial killers, purposely injecting his elderly patients with lethal quantities of diamorphine in order to inherit huge sums of their inheritances. Further to his arrest, it was found that not only had Shipman been forging his patient’s wills, he’d also forged cremation requests to ensure the victims’ bodies were destroyed. Despite the, quite literal, “burning of evidence”, he was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to 16 consecutive life sentences. In the event, he served less than one; in January 2004, England’s most prolific serial killer was found hanging from his cell at Wakefield prison.
1. Pedro Alonso Lopez
Columbian serial killer Pedro Alonso Lopez is one of the most prolific serial killers of all time, and undoubtedly one of the evilest. During the 1970s, Lopez carried out a series of attacks in South America, luring young girls into secluded areas of deserted buildings before proceeding to rape and murder them. Lopez was caught after an attempted abduction went wrong: after his arrest, he admitted to over 300 murders. Police were at first inclined to dismiss the staggering number as bravado, but quickly discovered the truth of his tale after a flash flood uncovered a mass burial site of his victims. After serving 18 years in an Ecuadorian prison, he was released, deported to Columbia, promptly rearrested, and in now serving life imprisonment.