Serial killer’s four-decade murder spree started with South Florida
Samuel Little confessed to 93 homicides, but his choice of victims -- those unlikely to be missed -- meant few paid attention
By Fred Grimm
South Florida Sun Sentinel
MIAMI — It depends on who you murder.
Samuel Little confessed to 93 homicides. Police verified enough of his gruesome recollections — more than 50 — to secure him an ignominious distinction as the nation’s most prolific serial killer. A dozen of his victims were killed in Florida. At least four in South Florida.
Yet, I doubt Samuel Little’s name rings a bell.
Notoriety eludes him for the same reason he was able to elude justice during four decades of killings that began, he told police, with a woman he met in a North Miami bar in 1971.
Most of his victims were prostitutes or runaway teens or women whose troubled circumstances were exacerbated by drugs and alcohol. In some respect, they were already missing persons when they encountered Little, exiled from mainstream society, adrift in a squalid netherworld where no one was likely to alert police if a woman disappeared from her regular street corner or her downtown flophouse.
His murders weren’t likely to generate headlines or community outrage. His victims weren’t the kind of promising young women, college students or young professionals, whose killings made Ted Bundy a synonym for serial killer.
The horror of Samuel Little was Ted Bundy times three. Except nobody was paying much attention.
Well, some noticed. During his depraved wanderings through 19 states, police detectives occasionally suspected they had encountered a criminal of far-reaching evil. But in the days before DNA tracing and high-tech crime-fighting tools, it was a daunting challenge to catch a random killer with no previous ties to his victims or the communities where they died, an untethered transient, aimlessly drifting from one police jurisdiction to the next, from one state to another. (Little’s trail of mayhem from Florida along the Gulf Coast to Texas, before he finally went on to California, paralleled the same I-10 corridor haunted by the nomadic serial-killer duo Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Elwood Toole in the 1970s and early ’80s. Police believe Toole was responsible for the murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh, kidnapped from a Hollywood mall in 1981.)
A Washington Post examination of 80-year-old Little’s long criminal history found that police and prosecutors, even when they were sure that he was guilty of violent rape, even murder, had difficulty assembling a case that would convince jurors. The survivors, often sex workers, were reluctant witnesses with their own criminal histories for defense attorneys to exploit. That is, if they showed up for the trial.
Last month, Miami-Dade police, who had already tied two local homicides to Little, added two more, including the strangulation of Dorothy Gibson, a 17-year-old runaway whose body was dumped behind a downtown Miami hotel in 1977. Her killing had been among six wrongful murder convictions police in Broward and Miami-Dade counties had hung on a mentally deficient carnival worker named Jerry Frank Townsend in 1979. Townsend, who would have confessed to any unsolved crime suggested by his shameless police interrogators, spent 22 years in prison before DNA evidence undid his shoddy convictions.
DNA tied two other murders attributed to Townsend to yet another serial killer, Eddie Lee Mosley. The illiterate Fort Lauderdale junk dealer had managed to sustain a rape and homicide spree — killing two dozen women, raping 60 others — from 1971 to 1987. Like Little, he committed his depravities in dreary, poverty-ridden places where the extent of his horrific crimes was obscured by police indifference.
Much of what we now know about Samuel Little’s crimes has to do with his weird genius for remembering long-ago details about circumstances and victims (disclosed as part of his deal to avoid the death penalty). And Little, serving a life sentence in California, has sketched portraits — unnervingly accurate — of many of his victims.
It’s not the first time his artistic endeavors have made the news. The Washington Post dug up a 1976 feature story about Little from the archives of the old Miami News. Confined to the Dade County Jail on larceny charges, Little had painted a large mural, featuring historical figures, on a jailhouse wall. He told the Miami News reporter that he intended to become an artist once he was freed. “The next time I’m out, it’s do or die.”
Yeah. Something like that.
As a kind of addendum to the Little story, I’m adding the names of his four known South Florida victims. Mary Brosley, Angela Chapman, Karen O’Donoghue and Dorothy Gibson deserve something more than perpetual obscurity.
Police suspect there were others. Murdered outcasts. No one noticed.
(c)2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)