The unsolved Jack the Ripper case — in which at least five women were murdered and mutilated in London in the 1880s — has long been the stuff of true-crime lore. The killer was never caught, but it was clear he preyed on women whom society often overlooks, including wives and mothers who had fallen on hard times, as well as two prostitutes.
Earlier this week, the FBI announced that 79-year-old Samuel Little admitted to 93 murders spanning 19 states and 35 years, making him the most prolific serial killer in United States history. Like London’s Victorian-era killer, Little targeted mostly vulnerable women, according to the FBI, including sex workers and transgender women.
In a recent “60 Minutes” segment detailing the case, correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi describes Little as a “drifter from Ohio who preyed upon the fringes of society: prostitutes, drug addicts, women he believed the police wouldn’t work too hard to find.” The clip also shows Little describing the women he targeted as “broke and homeless, and they walked right into my spiderweb.”
That Little was able to evade law enforcement for so long was a “coming together of the perfect storm,” says Mary Ellen O’Toole, a retired FBI profiler who has worked on some the country’s most high-profile serial murder cases. Little himself didn’t leave much of a paper trail, O’Toole says, and he also sought out what the FBI deems “high-risk victims”: people who may engage in “lifestyle practices or work that exposes them to dangerous people.”
Little, who murdered mostly women between 1970 and 2005, wasn’t convicted of murder until 2014, although he had been charged with killing women in Mississippi and Florida in the 1980s. (He escaped indictment in Mississippi and conviction in Florida.) And it wasn’t until more recently that Texas Ranger James Holland managed to win over Little’s trust, leading the imprisoned killer to confess to 93 killings. So far, 50 of the purported cases have been verified by FBI. On Sunday, the FBI released information on five of those unmatched cases in hopes that the public will help identify the victims.
In explaining why “60 Minutes” chose to highlight Little’s story, Alfonsi said it was about “the information” that Little has. “You really don’t want to celebrate this guy because he’s the most prolific serial killer in America. … We’re hoping people will pay attention — they’ll look at those videos the FBI has put out of these victims.”
Experts say that gender and sexuality are central to cases such as this one. “On the one hand, there’s masculinity, misogyny, a desire to kill women,” says Louise Wattis, a researcher at England’s Teesside University who examines how gender plays a role in serial murders. And on the victim side, “sex workers are some of the most vulnerable women in society.”
According to criminal justice expert Meredith Dank, whose research focuses on human trafficking and victimization, sex workers tend to be a “fairly common” target for serial killers for this reason. “In many cases, they’re estranged from family, they don’t necessarily have a supportive network that would report to law enforcement if somebody went missing,” she says.
The issue is even more acute when it comes to transgender individuals, Dank says. Because of the transgender community’s history of distrusting the police, they are also far less likely to report violence when it occurs.
Race plays an important role, too. Wattis points to Canada’s recent reckoning with the widespread killings and disappearances of indigenous women and girls since the 1980s, which were detailed in a national report. The report said the Canadian police and criminal justice system failed indigenous women by viewing them “through a lens of pervasive racist and sexist stereotypes.”
Some say that the Little case similarly raises larger questions about how America treats victims. “There’s still this idea of what constitutes a victim,” says Dank, the sex trafficking researcher. “There’s a sense that if you’re trans, if you’re hypersexualized, are you really a victim or are you seeking it out?”
It’s clear that Little chose his victims carefully. In a statement, FBI crime analyst Christie Palazzolo said that, for many years, “Little believed he would not be caught because he thought no one was accounting for his victims.”
“Was there a time years ago that these cases, because of the victimology, to some officers and detectives, maybe didn’t have the same importance? Yeah, that’s probably the case,” O’Toole, the former FBI profiler, says. “But in my experience, and I’ve been in this for an awful long amount of time, these are the cases we take home with us even after we’re retired and try to think, what did I miss?”
O’Toole adds that police “work very, very diligently” to solve cases involving sex workers, but they are often “very, very tough cases to solve,” noting that many such cases go unreported for days or even months.
Experts are hopeful that advancements in technology, including improved DNA testing and more widespread surveillance cameras, will prevent perpetrators such as Little from being successful in the future. But a larger shift in societal attitudes around sex work, says Dank, is still crucial: “There’s just a lot more work that needs to be done, and that’s not specific to law enforcement.”