- A new book offers responses from serial killers to a set of unique queries.
- A picture emerges about how they view their post-incarceration experience.
- Some serial offenders also provide guidance for their legacy, including an epitaph.
Briar Lee Mitchell wanted to write a book about serial killers. The author, artist, and search and rescue (SAR) dog handler read some accounts and decided she wasn’t interested in discussing the details of their crimes. She wanted to learn about their post-conviction lives, their current sense of themselves, and their day-to-day experiences. Her acquaintance with a cop who’d known three notorious inmates put Mitchell on the road to writing Serial Killers Then and Now.
To see if any of the killers on her list would respond, Mitchell sent out a slew of letters. She posed questions that were different from what these offenders ordinarily receive from true-crime fans and murderabilia collectors. “Once they realized that I wanted to have a real conversation, find out who they are now," she writes, "their demeanors changed.” Some were surprisingly forthcoming.
Among the “SKs” with whom Mitchell corresponded were Keith Jesperson, Todd Kohlhepp, Dennis Rader, Terry Blair, William Devin Howell, and Monk Steppenwolf (formerly Larry Ranes). Many of these inmates have talked at length to other writers, so in some cases, Mitchell covers old ground.
Still, she offers new nuggets or a different perspective, and some of these killers are not well known. A handful of Mitchell's correspondents are more articulate than others, notably Kohlhepp and Steppenwolf. Several get brief treatment, but clips from those who were more verbose appear in multiple places.
The types of questions that Mitchell posed to her “loved ones” (an automatic prison designation) were about how they currently spent their time, what they think of themselves today, what they would do if they were to be released, how they want to be remembered, whether they have remorse, how they deal with amorous fans, which victim they might want to bring back, what items collectors request, and what they might want to say that Mitchell didn’t think to ask.
After she explores the world of serial killer fans and describes numerous cases (including those of spree and mass murderers), she gets to the substance of her book with excerpts from letters these killers sent her. Here, in Chapter 6, is the raw material most readers will be looking for.
These accounts are fascinating. On the whole, none of the men believed themselves to be evil or monstrous. Some thought they’d been unfairly represented in exaggerated or shallow media accounts.
An interesting question put to each one was what they wanted on their tombstones. Keith Jesperson said, “He loved them to death.” From Dennis Rader, we have “I took the wrong path, please forgive me.” Monk Steppenwolf wants people to know that “He learned to care,” while Todd Kohlhepp requested a blank stone: “That’s what the world really knows of me, more questions than answers.”
Kohlhepp calls Mitchell the “serial killer den mother.” She likes this. Her aim was to view these killers as people and to get to know aspects of them that most of their correspondents miss. Lots of people who write to serial killers just ask about the crimes or for items they can treasure or (more often) sell. There’s a chapter here for them, as well as for the groupies who seek mates—or, in one case, a submissive partner.
My own approach to such interviews is to watch for what’s evident between the lines: what their choice of phrasing, reactions to questions, and patterns of behavior reveal. Mitchell has plenty of material to tackle a more penetrating view.
For example, she could examine and compare subjects’ styles of responding: brief vs. verbose, reticent vs. assertive or boastful, direct vs. oblique, or genuine vs. manipulative. Todd Kohlhepp repeatedly says he isn’t (and wasn't) angry, yet his responses crackle with annoyance and irritation. The weary philosopher Monk Steppenwolf fired back two questions before he’d answer any. Their distinct personalities come through.
Dennis Rader managed to acquire a copy of this tome. He thinks it is “a good reference book.” He said that Mitchell had fairly represented him. She continues to keep in touch with him and others who want more contact.
Fans of serial killers will appreciate the extra info, and perhaps learn something from Mitchell for their own approach. Other types of readers might enjoy the story Mitchell tells throughout the book about her experiences. Her commentary is insightful and entertaining. Ultimately, she succeeds at her goal—deepening our sense of individuals who are more typically labeled as monsters.
Mitchell, B. L. (2022). Serial Killers Then and Now. Crossroad Press.