Stalking the Unknown: Unsolved Serial Killer Cases

Joanna Schaffhausen is the award-winning author of Gone For Good, the first in a new mystery series featuring Detective Annalisa Vega who investigates a serial killer murder case. Read Joanna's new essay about several presently unsolved serial killer cases.

BONUS: Leave a comment on this post for your chance to win 1 of 3 hardcover copies of Gone For Good!

For a serial killer who enjoys provoking headlines, the greatest irony is that true fame requires being caught, and make no mistake—they do not wish to be caught. A few killers have managed to capture public imagination anyway. Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer have each inspired numerous books and movies. Theories about their true identities abound, but as the years go by, the chances that either case will be definitively resolved grow slimmer. There are dozens of other unsolved serial homicides that remain active and investigators hopeful for a resolution. They are all seeking that one witness, the one piece of DNA that might break the case. 


New Bedford Highway Killer

Debra Medeiros told her mother she was going to visit her boyfriend in New Bedford, MA. Days later, the boyfriend called Debra’s mother to say he hadn’t seen her. Debra’s body was discovered two months later, along with the bodies of five other women nearby. Debra’s case is part of an infamous unsolved serial murder investigation called the New Bedford Highway Killer near where I live in Boston. 

The serial killer first came to light in 1988 and 1989 when the remains of nine women were discovered near Interstate 195 and other local highways. Two other women who disappeared around the same time are believed to be additional victims, but their bodies have never been found.  The women were all drug addicts and/or sex workers, so in some cases, it took days or weeks for anyone to notice they were missing. By the time their bodies were discovered, decomposition made identification of the victims a challenge. DNA was not a widely available tool in the late 1980s.

The investigation focused on New Bedford, particularly an area called Weld Square where some of the women were known to frequent. Indeed, several of the women had known each other prior to the murders. Several had also known a defense attorney named Ken Ponte, who became a main suspect in the case. Ponte admitted to a relationship with one of the murdered women, and he had served as an attorney for three other victims. 

Police questioned Ponte numerous times and even dug up his yard with a backhoe looking for evidence, but there was never anything definitive to connect him with the crimes. Ponte died several years ago, and the cases remain open and unsolved.


Highway of Tears 

The “Highway of Tears” murders represent the work of more than one serial killer, with many cases still unsolved. The name derives from a 450 mile stretch of Highway 16 in Canada and the tears that the families have cried over the victims lost along it. Highway 16 transverses remote areas of forest, snaking through logging towns and Native American reservations. The region is plagued in places by poverty, which means many residents lack reliable transportation. Hitchhiking remains a common practice. The road itself is dark, without the lights and cameras that deter crimes in more populous areas.

From 1969 to the present, dozens of young women, most of them indigenous, have disappeared or been found murdered near Highway 16. Some people familiar with the cases suggest the total number of victims could be fifty or higher, and nearly all are unsolved. Three separate serial killers—Brian Arp, Edward Isaac, and Cody Legebokoff—have been charged with various murders in the area, but investigators believe there may still be others at large. 

Investigation of the Highway of Tears homicides has been dogged by complaints that the cases were not given enough priority or thorough examination. The victims were often young, poor, and indigenous. Government files related to the case have been suspiciously purged in response to attempts to gain more information. In 2005, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) founded E-Pana to focus on the reinvestigation of the Highway 16 murders, although the investigation expanded to include similar cases not connected to the highways. The task force has had some successes. Using DNA technology, the E-Pana project linked the 1974 homicide of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen with deceased American serial killer Bobby Jack Fowler, and Fowler is also suspected in two other killings. 

However, the homicides related to the Highway of Tears remain unsolved, and detectives are still pursuing these open cases.


The Long Island Serial Killer

The Long Island Serial Killer, also known as LISK, murdered between 10 and 16 people over a period of nearly 20 years, although most remains were discovered in 2010 and 2011. The majority of the victims were known sex workers, but the youngest purported victim was a toddler. In some cases, the victims had been missing for many years before their remains were discovered, which has hampered efforts to solve the case. The killer dismembered the bodies and left them at various places on the South Shore of Long Island, NY, which is how his nickname originated. 

Investigators believe the killer is a white male familiar with the Long Island region, and that he had easy access to burlap sacks, which were used to hold the remains of the victims. The press speculated that known serial killer Joel Rifkin, who had murdered at least nine women across other areas of New York, might be responsible for these deaths, since he had lived in Long Island for a time. Rifkin has denied any involvement.

In September of 2017, the Suffolk County prosecutor named Attorney’s office announced that John Bittrolff was a suspect in the case. A carpenter, Bittrolff had access to the type of sacks linked to the crimes and he had been recently convicted of murders of two other female sex workers in the 1990s, both of whom had been dismembered. However, an attorney for Bittrolff has denied any connection to the LISK cases.

Last year in an effort to spur new leads, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart released images of a belt found at one of the crime scenes. The belt features the letters “HM” or “WH” (depending on orientation) embossed in black leather and it was recovered near Ocean Parkway in Gilgo Beach. Investigators believe that the belt is connected to the perpetrator, not the victims, and they have asked anyone who might have information about the belt to come forward. 


The Monster of Florence

The “Monster of Florence” is a serial killer who has captured the imagination of Italy and cold-case aficionados everywhere. The killer preyed on young Italian couples in parked cars, not unlike the Zodiac killer in the USA. He is believed to have murdered at least 14 people between 1974 and 1985. In a ghoulish twist, the killer took the female sex organs from the victims, which may have been the ultimate motive for his crimes.

The murders have inspired episodes of television, a forthcoming movie, and a bestselling book. The investigation is complex enough to fill a set of encyclopedias. Multiple men have been suspected, and in some cases even convicted, of at least some of the murders, starting with the husband of one of the first victims.

Antonio Lo Bianco and Barbara Locci were the first known victims. As Locci was married, the pair of lovers met up for relations in a parked car—with Locci’s son, Natalino, asleep in the backseat. A gunman came and shot the lovers, waking Natalino. He reported that the killer carried him down the street to safety, singing to him to make him less afraid. His description of the killer has never matched any of the suspects. Despite this, police detained Locci’s husband, Stefano Mele. A paraffin test revealed Mele had recently fired a gun, and he admitted to being at the crime scene. He was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years in prison, although he later recanted his confession.

Unfortunately for investigators, the killings did not stop once Mele was arrested. By 1985, six other couples would meet the same fate as Bianco and Locci, and later, the police connected the killer to the earlier murder of a seventh couple. Further investigation turned up more suspects, including Pietro Pacciani. Pacciani had been convicted of rape and murder. He was alleged to be a satanic cult member and enjoyed taxidermy as a hobby.

In 1994, Pacciani was controversially convicted of all the “Monster of Florence” murders except the first ones attributed to Mele. But he appealed the conviction, and in a reversal, the prosecutor sided with Pacciani, citing overall lack of evidence and shoddy police work. As a result, Pacciani was acquitted and released in 1996. A new trial for Pacciani was ordered by the Supreme Court, but he died in 1998 before it could begin.


The Doodler

In the mid-1970s, five gay men in San Francisco were killed and their bodies found around the Ocean Beach area of the city. The killer earned his nickname “The Doodler” because witnesses reported seeing him sketching caricatures prior to the attacks. Some reports say he even sketched his victims and left the drawings at the scene of the crime, although police have never released any of his artwork. 

In 1975, two men attacked at an apartment complex were able to describe the assailant, whom the police came to believe was The Doodler. He was 19-25 years old, Black, around six feet tall with a slim build. Investigators released an artist’s sketch of the suspect at the time, and recently, they have updated the drawing with an “age progression” of what he might look like now.

The intriguing part of this story is that police have always had a suspect. The unknown man has never been publicly identified, but he has been questioned repeatedly and investigators say he remains a person of interest even now. Inspired by the unmasking of the Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo using forensic genealogy, investigators have reportedly submitted DNA findings in the Doodler case to see if he might be identified this way. The idea is that the killer’s relatives may have submitted their DNA to a public database, and if the killer’s profile is similar, they could reveal him this way. Thus far, however, there are no new leads in the case.

About Gone for Good by Joanna Schaffhausen:

The Lovelorn Killer murdered seven women, ritually binding them and leaving them for dead before penning them gruesome love letters in the local papers. Then he disappeared, and after twenty years with no trace of him, many believe that he’s gone for good.

Not Grace Harper. A grocery store manager by day, at night Grace uses her snooping skills as part of an amateur sleuth group. She believes the Lovelorn Killer is still living in the same neighborhoods that he hunted in, and if she can figure out how he selected his victims, she will have the key to his identity.

Detective Annalisa Vega lost someone she loved to the killer. Now she’s at a murder scene with the worst kind of déjà vu: Grace Harper lies bound and dead on the floor, surrounded by clues to the biggest murder case that Chicago homicide never solved. Annalisa has the chance to make it right and to heal her family, but first, she has to figure out what Grace knew—how to see a killer who may be standing right in front of you. This means tracing his steps back to her childhood, peering into dark corners she hadn’t acknowledged before, and learning that despite everything the killer took, she has still so much more to lose.

Enter the Sweepstakes!

Sign in and comment on this post for a chance to win 3 hardcover copies of Gone for Good by Joanna Schaffhausen!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Gone for Good Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) August 9, 2021. Sweepstakes ends at 11:59 a.m. ET August 23, 2021. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10271.

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    This is going to be a good read.

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    Can’t wait to start this series

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    Thanks for the chance to win.

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    Pick me

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  181. Martha Carbaugh

    Within the last six months or so, I watched a program about the LISK.

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    Thanks for offering this giveaway.

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  197. Donna Ariola

    I saw this book was coming out and neither of libraries around me has it. It sounds so good, I would love to read it.

  198. Tricia L.

    This went right to the top of my TBR!

  199. Michelle Willms

    My fascination with serial killers began many, many years ago. I studied them in college and continue to read about them, even now. I would love to win a copy of this book. It sounds very interesting.

  200. Anj

    It sounds great! So excited to read this 🤩

  201. Deborah Stelzle

    Most of the time it is said truth is stranger then fiction The book story peeks my interest

  202. Kristen Cox

    I am an avid true-crime/crime-show watcher!!! I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by crime and learning the motivation (or sometimes LACK of motivation) for crime. I will say, from the shows I’ve watched, no one is sneaking up behind me from my backseat…I make it a habit to check it before I climb into my car!! This book sounds right up my alley and my cuppa tea!! Thank you for the chance!!

  203. Elizabeth Foland

    Just the escape I’m looking for! So excited for a chance to read Gone For Good by Joanna Schaffhausen!

  204. shastajjjw15

    I have goosebumps

  205. Laura E

    How can I resist entering a sweepstakes for a book like that??

  206. Anne-Marie McDonald

    I enjoy mystery series with female investigators as the main characters. I look forward to reading Joanna’s new series.

  207. Sally Schmidt

    Great article and the book sounds really good. Thanks for the chance to win.

  208. cindy a houde

    Sounds intriguing……thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.

  209. Leslie A. Norman

    Definitely sounds like a good read and my sister would love it as well!

  210. Janice Milliken

    The twists and turns of tormented minds are fascinating, but also make them harder to apprehend

  211. Anne Hardy

    A chilling but informative essay. I have read about many of these serial murders but not a compilation. It is truly disturbing that so many remain unsolved – and continue.
    I am adding this book to my TBR

  212. Amber Pate

    Mystery books are awesome reads because they leave you guessing until the very end

  213. Robert Grieco

    Definitely looks like a top notch read. Fingers crossed!!!

  214. Shakeia Rieux

    This sounds like an interesting book worth reading. I have to check it out!

  215. Paula Adams

    I need to read this book!!

  216. Marisa Young

    Sounds interesting. Would like to read.

  217. tonituve

    This sounds like an amazing story, I love reading books like this, would love to win this

  218. Natalie Amos

    Sounds good!

  219. Karen Weese

    This sounds like a fascinating book to read. I enjoy reading the true story books, they are very interesting. Looking forward to reading 📚!!!

  220. Anita

    This sounds like a great mystery that I would love to read.

  221. cmsuto1359

    Sounds like a must-read! Thanks for the chance!

  222. Ann Muth

    Sounds intriguing

  223. barbara maselek

    Love a mystery!

  224. Ken Smith

    My wife and I have read all of J.S.’s books that our local library has on hand and have loved all of them. We are eager to read another but depend on these book giveaways or our library for books. We really hope we win one of them. Thank you for the chance.

  225. Connie Ruggles

    I would enjoy reading this. Thanks for the giveaway!

  226. Ruthie Bloszinsky

    I would LOVE to read this…thanks for the chance!

  227. Susan Morris

    This is definitely a must-read! Thank you for the chance to win!

  228. Elizabeth

    I read a book about the Long Island Killer. I think it was by Robert Kolcher. I’d like to read this book, too. It would be a new author for me to follow.

  229. Dorina Van Guilder

    Looks like a good read and I love to discover a new author.

  230. Beth Lechman

    I would love to win this book. It is so hard to imagine that many serial killers out there but unfortunately there are probably more. Hope bringing this to light will trigger some ones memory and help solve them.

  231. Rajee Pandi

    Love to win it

  232. Megan T.

    Thanks for a chance to win a copy!

  233. Anne McIntosh

    Wow this book looks like a winner. Would love to win a copy

  234. Taunya Miller

    Thank you for the chance to win! Can’t wait to read this!!

  235. vicki wurgler

    I love a good mystery book-thanks for the giveaway

  236. Susan Brown

    Love a great mystery/detective story and this one sounds fascinating! The excerpt has me hooked! Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy for my collection.

  237. Joyce Chamel

    Sounds so thrilling!

  238. AP430

    These stories are always fascinating and provide an insight into human behavior gone wrong !

  239. Jennifer P

    This book sounds so good. I think I think everyone would be so glued to the book that they would stay up all night reading it.

  240. Nancy Harman

    I think it will be easy to get caught up in these storylines! Thanks for a chance to win. 🙂 be blessed…

  241. Linda Jackson

    I am always very interested in unsolved crimes. Thank you!

  242. Johannah Brookwell

    Thanks for a chance to win! I love mysteries and thrillers!

  243. Sherri L Jackson

    Excited to read a new author

  244. Scott Leonard

    Please and thank you!

  245. LeMinou

    My kind of book. Sounds fascinating.

  246. Jay Hawley

    Sounds like a great read.

  247. Thomas Lawrence

    If it is as good as Ellery Hathaway, I am all for it

  248. Cynthia A Lang

    Sounds great! Will have to investigate this author for sure! I’d love to win this book —PICK ME

  249. rwilden

    Looks interesting!

  250. mcwinningkoff

    This looks like an interesting book. I’m excited to win it!

  251. Tawney Mazek

    An interesting premise with lots of possibilities. I enjoy the investigators unraveling mysteries. Will keep an eye out Gone for Good as well as other Joanna Shaffhausen books.

  252. Mona

    Fascinating post — thanks

  253. Sandi Ward

    Thanks for the chance to win this book.

  254. Jenne Turner

    Thank you for the chance.

  255. Virginia Campbell

    Trust no one.

  256. Grammio

    Ready to read!

  257. Dawn Newsome

    Sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for a chance to win a copy. These kind of books are my favorite.

  258. TCasteel

    Oh, this sounds like a must read!

  259. wolfen37

    Most intriguing

  260. Michael Carter

    This sounds good.
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.

  261. sherry smith

    with fall approaching now is the time to start entering and buying as well as visiting the library book sales to get ready to settle in for the cooler snowy months with a good book sharp cheese and cider all is good thank you for the chance good luck everyone

  262. Ruth

    Should keep me up at night.

  263. Lisa Garrett

    I’ve had this on my radar!

  264. Rgauche79

    How can I resist? Most books I read are about murder! 85% if them true. I have been fascinated with serial killers since elementary school, when Ray & Faye Copeland. I was amazed that people like my grandparents could do such things! Now, I read about serial killers and murderers all the time. I will be looking forward to reading your book. And giving an honest review after!

  265. Jennifer Perry

    Sounds like a great book!

  266. Danny Head

    Love to win this one.

  267. Lillian Lane

    This looks like an interesting read.

  268. Andrea

    I have read about some of these cases but would like to learn more.

  269. Beverly Laude

    Sounds like a great book!

  270. Patricia Revzin

    Thanks for this exciting opportunity. I read Dark Roads by Chevy Chase based on the Highway of Tears serial killer and posted my review on Facebook, Goodreads, and NetGalley. I’d love to receive an advance reader copy of Gone for Good and post my review on those sites as well.

  271. Corine Jacklin

    Sounds exciting, follows the podcast themes I’ve been listening to.

  272. Shelley Butcher

    This book sounds amazing!

  273. Jillian B Donahoo

    This looks very intriguing.

  274. Christal M

    Looks like a great read!

  275. Janet Allen

    I love a good serial killer book! Scary and exciting! Looking forward to it.

  276. Lorna Hubbard

    Looks like a must read!!

  277. Tina Matthews

    I can not wait to read this book it going to be great!! I’m so excited!!!

  278. Ellie Wright

    Sounds like a great book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  279. Sue Hooley

    I’m hooked on mysteries and this book has piqued my interest. Definitely want to check it out.

  280. donna

    This giveaway is great. I really want this book. So pick me please!!

  281. katherine stephens

    Sounds Great!

  282. Annette Estell

    I’d love to read this! Thank you for the chance.

  283. Joyce Benzing

    Sounds like a great read.

  284. Susan Pertierra

    Sounds like a good book!

  285. Karyn M. Newton

    My daughter and I watch Criminal Minds, CSI, Forensic Files, etc. all the time, and she’s planning to study forensic science in college – we would love a copy of this book!

  286. Theresa Swiecicki

    I love to read mysteries.

  287. Joanne Ahearn

    Sounds intriguing!

  288. Andrew Beck

    I am fascinated by serial killer sagas and am curious how an amateur detective, albeit one with a network of fellow amateurs, can succeed.

  289. Wendy Pesce

    Can’t wait to read this one!

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  295. Terri McLeod

    Adding this to my TBR list immediately!!

  296. Debbie Flynn

    Should be a great read.

  297. MicheleReader

    This is my type of book!

  298. Lori Mahan

    I would love to win this so I could read it. Just the synopsis/tease caught my attention.

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    I am always looking for new authors to read. This books sounds like one I would enjoy reading.

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    Gone for Good sounds like a page turner!

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    Love a book that keeps me on the edge of my seat. Thanks for the chance!

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    Never read Joanna Schaffhausen before, but this post has ne very intrigued. Will add her work to my list of books to research.

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    I like to read about cold cases like these!

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