How Did a Serial Killer Escape Notice? His Victims Were Vulnerable and Overlooked

The families of women killed by a man the F.B.I. has described as America’s most prolific serial killer say their cases went unnoticed for years. “It just tears me up,” one relative said.

A composite image made available by the F.B.I. depicting Samuel Little, who had been arrested dozens of times over several decades before the first murder charges were brought against him in 2013.
A composite image made available by the F.B.I. depicting Samuel Little, who had been arrested dozens of times over several decades before the first murder charges were brought against him in 2013.CreditCreditFederal Bureau of Investigation

By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Timothy Williams and Richard A. Oppel Jr

When Martha Cunningham was found dead near Knoxville, Tenn., in January 1975, her body was bruised, her clothes had been pulled off and she was missing her purse.

Not long after, the police closed the case. A medical examiner’s report listed the cause of Ms. Cunningham’s death as unknown, according to David Davenport, a retired investigator for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office who later reopened the case.

Nearly half a century later, Ms. Cunningham’s family has learned what they and the police now believe is true: that Ms. Cunningham, 34, was one of scores of people killed by Samuel Little, whom the F.B.I. identified this week as the most prolific serial killer in United States history. Jessie Lane Downs, Ms. Cunningham’s sister, said she was still pained that the case was closed so quickly, all those years ago.

“The police department did not ask the family any questions or anything when this happened,” Ms. Downs said. “They could’ve settled this, and look at all the people that got killed.”

Mr. Little, who the authorities say has confessed in recent months to 93 killings between 1970 and 2005, told them about killing a woman in the Knoxville area that he remembered only as Martha, officials say. Mr. Little has not been charged in Ms. Cunningham’s death, but Mr. Davenport said the authorities believe that Mr. Little was alluding to her in his confession.

Representatives at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office said no one was available to speak about Ms. Cunningham’s case. But Mr. Davenport, who retired from there in the last year, said it was clear that her death had not gotten the attention it deserved.

“There was no file in existence, except for the medical examiner’s report,” he said. “That speaks for itself, that it wasn’t investigated the way it should’ve been.”

In the year since Mr. Little, 78, began confessing to killings from a prison cell in California, a portrait has begun to emerge of his victims that offers one explanation for how a serial killer could have managed to go undetected, unnoticed for so many decades.

Many of the victims were vulnerable women. Most of them were black, and many were poor. Some were estranged from family members or living far from relatives. And some were isolated, users of drugs or alcohol, or prostitutes. And, in many cases, their deaths did not draw the same level of attention and outrage as other killings.

“One of the unfortunate realities of policing is that departments that are under pressure to solve a variety of murders may pay less attention to victims from a more vulnerable population if they don’t have the same organized community pressure to solve those crimes,” said Jim Bueermann, the former police chief of Redlands, Calif., and the former president of the National Police Foundation. “If a killer wants do as many murders as possible, they’ll start to exploit those gaps in the social fabric and those weaknesses in law enforcement with victims that few people care about.”

Mr. Little drew little attention until 2014, when he was sentenced to life in prison for three murders. No one representing Mr. Little, who has been convicted of at least eight murders, could be reached for comment. Prosecutors around the country are still weighing whether to formally charge him for the many killings in at least 14 states that he has told the authorities about in recent months, though the authorities say they believe his confessions. It is uncertain how many charges he will ultimately face.

In 2014, Pearl Nelson, left, held a photo of her mother Audrey Nelson, a victim of the serial killer, beside Mary Louise Frias, a goddaughter of another victim.
In 2014, Pearl Nelson, left, held a photo of her mother Audrey Nelson, a victim of the serial killer, beside Mary Louise Frias, a goddaughter of another victim.CreditNick Ut/Associated Press

But for families who believe their loved ones were among Mr. Little’s victims, the flood of confessions has brought a sense, for some, of closure, but also new pain.

“The Lord kept us through this and I had gotten myself together, until this came up,” Ms. Downs said. Ms. Cunningham’s family described her as less vulnerable than some of the other victims; she was a gospel singer who played the piano in church, they said, and someone who put religion first.

“I was so mad when I saw this man grinning,” she said of Mr. Little’s videotaped confessions. “He’s grinning and my sister is dead. It just tears me up.”

Minnie Hill said the last time she spoke to her daughter, Rosie Hill, was during a rushed telephone call from Florida in August 1982. Ms. Hill said Rosie sounded uncharacteristically worried.

“She let me know she was up into something and the only way she could get out of it was to come home,” Ms. Hill recalled.

Rosie, who was 20 years old, never made it back home to Memphis, and her mother said she never found out what sort of trouble her daughter had been in.

Within 72 hours, the authorities say, Rosie Hill became a victim of Mr. Little.

Mr. Little has not been charged in the case, but he has told detectives that he strangled Ms. Hill after he met her in a bar in Marion County, Fla. He said he dumped her body in a wooded area.

Investigators have said that he remembered her because she had fought back.

Minnie Hill said that by the time her daughter’s body was discovered, she was unrecognizable. Rosie Hill was ultimately identified through X-rays. Yet the elder Ms. Hill said that even then, she had not quite believed that her daughter was dead.

“For two years, I waited for a call from her,” she said. “Or for her to come home.”

Minnie Hill, who raised her daughter’s young child — she was 2 when Rosie Hill died — said she was not convinced that the authorities had done all they could have to solve the crime.

“When I went down there to ask around, no one knew anything,” she said.

She said she had forgiven Mr. Little, though she said she was troubled especially to learn that Mr. Little told investigators that he believed God intended him to carry out his crimes. “That is between him and the good Lord,” she said.

Experts said Mr. Little’s case was eerily similar to that of Lonnie D. Franklin Jr., the so-called Grim Sleeper, who was convicted of murdering nine women and one teenage girl in South Los Angeles beginning in the 1980s before he was convicted and sentenced to death in 2016.

The effort to capture Mr. Franklin was muddled by the high number of murders in Los Angeles in the 1980s, which included homicides attributed to other serial killers.

But, like Mr. Little, Mr. Franklin had targeted young black women, including drug users and prostitutes. Relatives complained that the police and the media paid less attention to Mr. Franklin’s victims. They said that slowed efforts to bring Mr. Franklin to justice.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.The Samuel Little CaseThe latest on the investigation.Samuel Little Is Most Prolific Serial Killer in U.S. History, F.B.I. SaysOct. 7, 2019He Says He Got Away With 90 Murders. Now He’s Confessing to Them All.Nov. 26, 2018F.B.I. Hopes Samuel Little’s Drawings Will Help Identify His Murder VictimsFeb. 13, 2019

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs reports on national news. He is from upstate New York and previously reported in Baltimore, Albany, and Isla Vista, Calif. @nickatnews

Rich Oppel is a national enterprise and investigative correspondent based in New York. Since joining The Times in 1999, he has also covered business, Washington, a national presidential campaign, and for six years was a war correspondent in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 9, 2019, Section A, Page 22 of the New York edition with the headline: A Killer Escaped Notice For Decades. His Victims Were Overlooked, Too..
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