The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deadliest serial killer in American history dies at 80, with police still searching for his victims

Prolific serial killer Samuel Little, who confessed to strangling 93 people, died at a California hospital on Dec. 30, the state corrections department said. (Video: Reuters)

Samuel Little, the deadliest serial killer in American history, died Wednesday at the age of 80, with police around the country still searching for his victims — women on the margins of society repeatedly failed by the criminal justice system.

Little said he killed 93 people across 19 states and evaded accountability for more than four decades, targeting sex workers, drug users and poor, mostly Black women whose murders authorities either did not solve or struggled to prosecute. Little might have died in obscurity in a California prison, the vast majority of his crimes unknown. Then, late in life, he started confessing.

Police began scouring old files and reopening cold-case investigations, with uneven results. Nearly half of Little’s confessed victims remain unidentified, and his death could set back efforts to bring families long denied closure.

Little was pronounced dead early Wednesday morning at a hospital, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Officials did not immediately release a cause.

Little was convicted of three murders in 2014 with the help of DNA evidence but maintained his innocence until 2018, when he detailed his crimes to a Texas Ranger while serving several life sentences. He boasted to investigators of killing with impunity and avoiding “people who would be immediately missed.”

“I’d go back to the same city sometimes and pluck me another grape. How many grapes do you all got on the vine here?” he said in an interview obtained by The Washington Post in its three-part investigation of law enforcement’s failure to catch Little. Little said: “I’m not going to go over there into the White neighborhood and pick out a little teenage girl.”

Sixty murders have been definitively tied to Little, according to the FBI, which declined to comment after Little’s death. But law enforcement officials say the killer’s other confessions are credible, pointing to his uncanny memory for details. Little often struggled with dates or names but could recall precise scenes — the pattern of a sundress, a leg protruding from a shallow grave.

“We had one case where there was no physical evidence, but he talked about her last meal, which matched her stomach contents in the autopsy report,” said Angela Williamson, a Justice Department official who worked on Little’s case, in a previous interview with The Post. “This is information that no one is going to know.”

Some of Little’s killings were poorly investigated. One woman believed to be his likely victim, Mary Ann Jenkins, was found naked in 1977 but for jewelry; officials in Illinois incorrectly concluded that she had been killed in a lightning strike.

Other times, law enforcement arrested Little and built what they believed to be strong cases against him. Before his convictions in 2014, he was linked to at least eight sexual assaults, attempted murders or killings. But he escaped serious punishment time and time again, benefiting from a fragmented justice system where information wasn’t shared, as well as the perceived unreliability of his victims.

In San Diego in 1984, for instance, police caught Little in the act. Searching for a suspected rapist, they found Little still zipping up his pants as he emerged from a car where a Black woman lay bloody, seemingly dead. The woman survived and testified against Little, but she was a sex worker, and Little said he had only beaten her in a dispute over a consensual transaction.

Jurors declined to convict Little on the most serious charges, and he spent less than two years in prison.

“I was devastated,” said Gary Rempel, who handled the case for the San Diego County district attorney’s office. “This is probably the worst guy I ever prosecuted.”

Rempel and a sheriff’s official in Florida say they tried to warn the FBI about Little in the 1980s, when authorities managed to connect Little to a string of murders in the South. But both men say they never heard back, and it is unclear what steps, if any, the FBI took to investigate Little while he was carrying out murders from 1970 to 2005.

The FBI has declined to address the matter further, citing its “longstanding practice not to confirm or deny inquiries regarding specific investigative matters.”

Los Angeles police eventually tied Little to cold cases from the 1980s, sending him to prison, and the FBI pieced together Little’s travels, searching for other potential victims. But authorities say they had difficulty generating wide interest in Little even then, despite suspicions that he had killed far more than three women.

Los Angeles County prosecutor Beth Silverman said she got little help from local police departments in examining decades-old homicides. “There wasn’t any cooperation,” she said.

Then, in late 2017, a Texas Ranger who specializes in extracting murder confessions heard about Little. The Ranger, Jim Holland, was speaking at a conference on cold cases when an investigator from Florida approached, saying Little was once a suspect in one of his own cold cases and urging a closer look.

Holland called someone he knew at the FBI and flew to California to interview Little in prison. Little, by then in a wheelchair, at first insisted he had nothing to share. But Holland appealed to his ego.

“No one knows your name,” Holland said, according to audiotapes obtained by The Washington Post. “No one knows much about it, to tell you the truth. But I think you’re probably one of the most interesting people in the history of our country.”

About an hour into the meeting, Little admitted to a murder in Odessa, Tex. After that, the confessions tumbled out. An artist, Little also drew portraits of his victims that some police have publicized, in the hopes a family will recognize their lost loved one.

Closure for relatives is not the only thing at stake: In Florida, at least two men have served time for murders now linked to Little.

Yet some cases remain in limbo, with investigators fearing they may never be confidently matched to a victim.

“Is it possible we never found the body?” Mali Langton, a police detective in Fort Myers, Fla., told The Post previously. “It’s unsettling to think that we may never resolve this.”

Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.

Indifferent Justice

PART 1: How Samuel Little, America’s deadliest killer, got away with murder

PART 2: How America’s deadliest serial killer was caught, charged and tried — but never stopped

PART 3: Samuel Little has confessed to killing 93 people. Now, police must find them.