MIAMI, Fla. – (Warning: Some listeners and readers may find details of this edition of The Florida Files disturbing and explicit.)
Hear Season 6, Part 1, of The Florida Files: Miami’s Murderous Serial Killer. Listen below.
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Serial killers who are household names. You know of Jeffrey Dahmer. He killed 17 people between 1978 and 1991.
Ted Bundy? Executed in Florida's electric chair in 1989. Bundy killed at least 36 women in the 1970s.
Gary Leon Ridgway, not exactly a household name. Maybe you have heard of him as the Green River Killer, who pled guilty to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder. He killed his female victims in Washington state telling authorities that he raped and strangled to death as many as 80 women.
Since 2001, Ridgway has held the title of the U.S.’s deadliest convicted serial killer and is serving life in prison in Colorado.
But in 2019, the FBI proclaimed another man as America’s most prolific serial killer. That’s Samuel Little and he got his murderous start in Miami.
I had been working on the story of the prolific serial killer before COVID hit. Nine months after the lockdown, Little died in a Los Angeles County prison. Dec. 30, 2020. It wasn’t from COVID. He was 80 and had health issues. Lung and heart ailments.
Little was 78 years old when the FBI named him one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history.
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In 2018, Little confessed to the murder of 93 women nationwide from the 1970s through 2005. The FBI says it believes all of his confessions are credible. So how did Samuel Little become part of the Florida Files?
This murderous monster began his four-decade killing spree right here in Miami.
Law enforcement is seeking the public’s help to identify many victims they are unable to close cases on because they have no positive identification. Little has described in detail where he picked up the women and where he dumped their bodies. Some unclaimed bodies and bones are in the medical examiner’s office, but authorities aren’t sure if they are linked to Little’s confessions.
Located in a Kentucky homeless shelter
He was serving three life sentences in California State Prison in Los Angeles County, convicted of killing three women in California in 1987 and 1989. Through DNA evidence he was convicted of those murders in 2014. Picked up in a homeless shelter in 2012 in Kentucky, he was taken to Los Angeles where he would face outstanding drug charges.
Crime Analyst Christina Palazzolo, with the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program or ViCap as it is known, and Angela Williamson with the Department of Justice’s who is also involved in for ViCap, both based in Washington, D.C., tell me how things started to unravel that eventually led to Little confessing to so many killings.
When Little was in custody for the narcotics charge, the Los Angeles Police Department detectives obtained a match to Little on victims in three unsolved murders that happened between 1987 and 1989.
They charged him with three counts of murder. These are the crimes for which he was sentenced in 2014. For those convictions, he will serve three consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. At 79 years old, it is certain he will never get out of jail.
"Cold case homicide detectives out of Los Angeles got a DNA hit on Little and they started to dig into his background," explains Palazzolo. "They realized he had been an extremely transient individual and, because of that they knew there was a possibility that he was responsible for additional cases."
That's when they ask the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program to get involved. ViCAP is part of the FBI and assists law enforcement agencies across the country and around the world identify and apprehend violent criminals. Initially created in 1985 to study the behavior of serial killers and rapists, ViCAP now assists in solved and unsolved homicides, kidnappings, missing persons, sexual assaults and unidentified persons.
ViCAP operates the ViCAP-Web, the nation’s largest repository of criminal cases that involved violence.
A promising lead out of Texas
There was a “promising lead” out of Odessa, Texas, where a white female was killed. “It had all the trademarks of Little based on his timeline,” says Palazzolo. “He had been traveling in through that area at the time. He wasn’t cooperative and wasn’t talking, so there really wasn’t anything else law enforcement could do with it. But, in December 2017, Palazzo and Williamson were at a conference in Tampa, Fla., where Texas Ranger James Holland had presented a session about interviewing psychopaths and sociopaths.
“Jim and I were talking about another case,” says Williamson. Then Texas called her again about this “Samuel Little” guy. They asked her if she had heard of him. She had. Getting Holland involves was all about timing – here he was a Texas Ranger with a skill set in being someone who was able to get killers to talk and now Odessa is trying to solve a cold case that matches Little’s M.O.
"Christie identified the Odessa case," says Williamson. "His M.O., the type of victims he chose, how he disposed of their bodies, what he had done to the victims – no stabbing, no shooting." Little only strangled his victims. ViCap sent that lead out to the Texas Rangers, who were eager to follow up on the Odessa cold case.
"We decided to put all of our resources together and take a stab at this and see what we might get," says Williamson. "I think we all went in thinking that maybe he would talk about a few more crimes, but as you now know, we got a lot more than we bargained for."
Williamson, Palazzo and Holland went to visit Little in California in 2018. He was then extradited to Texas, where he pled guilty to the Odessa, Texas, murder. It also put him in a Texas prison, closer to Holland where the Ranger could continue to interview him. Even when he was returned to California to serve out his sentences for his convicted murders there, Holland would continue his conversations.
Holland spent about 700 hours interviewing Little. Through investigations and the conversations, law enforcement across the country believe that Little is responsible for 93 murders.
At least a dozen of his victims were killed across from the East Coast to the West Coast Florida. Florida and California are where Little admits to killing the most. All women, except for two transgender victims and all strangled. He admits to drowning only one of his victims.
The Miami years
Samuel Little was a charmer back then. A self-proclaimed former boxer, he had a way with the women.
Law enforcement hopes someone remembers crossing paths with Little during his days in Miami. He went by many different names, his real name Samuel McDowell, other aliases were Samuel McDaniel, William A Clifton, William Lewis and William Little. Anything that detectives say might also jog people’s memories of the good-looking self-proclaimed boxer who had a way with women and help them ID some of the still unidentified victims.
They do have some good details from Little. In interviews, he talked about the cars he was driving. The fine automobiles he had to impress women.
In taped interviews with Holland he says, "I was in my stepdaddy's car, a Pontiac Le Mans . . I bought an El Dorado . . . That was a Cadillac. . We walked outside and she saw my Lincoln and she said oh, that's a beautiful car."
David Denmark, Cold Case Detective in Miami-Dade Police Department’s Homicide Bureau has been working the Little case. I meet with him at headquarters eager to hear about his face to face interview with America’s most prolific serial killer.
His trail of murder started in Miami, where local law enforcement believes Little left five victims (those are the ones that they know of). They have positively identified two of the women, and are still putting the pieces together for others.
"He targeted mentally challenged females," says Denmark. "Drug or alcohol addicted females, the naïve. (In Miami) he usually picked them up from the same areas by the Turf Motel. He focused on their necks because he told us that is how he believes a woman should be killed."
Police and the FBI now know that Little's first kill, a woman named Mary Brosley, was in 1970 and that was in Miami.
Why was he in Miami? Palazzo and Williamson tell me he returned to Miami, where his biological mother was living. She was a teenager who left him on the side of a dirt road in Ohio as a baby.
"He knew Miami well," Palazzo says. "He was familiar with the backstreets with access road and not only terms of where to dump the bodies but where to pick up the most vulnerable victims, the runaways the prostitutes, he knew where to take them as we're finding their bodies have never been found. He would dump the bodies where it would buy him enough time to get out of town so he wouldn't be identified as a suspect. He wasn't trying to prevent their bodies from being found."
Detective Denmark says there are ways he learned the roads here.
“I know he was a sanitation employee and a truck driver, so he knew roadways and pathways. To listen to him to talk about roadways. I don’t remember the roads here and I grew up here; I’ve been here all my life. He remembers specific highways in each state. He keys in on the car he was driving at the time of the murder and he remembers it. ‘I was driving an Impala, a Chrysler. He tries to remember the date and the year by the car he was driving.”
But with the high volume of women he killed, Denmark says, sometimes the years blend, making it more difficult for them to identify the women.
He told Holland that he loved all the women he killed. "When they die, they are all your favorites. They belong to you."
Palazzo says that Little will talk about how he's spent time with the women, and how he loved them. "She was beautiful, but his stories would always end with then I killed her. Those are his exact words."
And while he remembers some details, such as what he and the women did, where they went out to dinner, and what they ate, when it comes to exact dates of when he met a woman and when he killed her are off.
Williamson explains what she’s learned of Little’s motivation. That Little wasn’t a rapist; Little’s sexual pleasure came from strangling the women.
"Although these were sexually motivated crimes, he wasn't a rapist. That wasn't how he got his sexual satisfaction. It came from strangling the women. This was his sexual excitement," said Thompson.
Los Angeles Police nicknamed him the Choke and Stroke Killer because he often masturbated while strangling his victims.
In one interview, Little remembers when he became attracted to a woman's throat. Only four or five years old he says and in school in Lorain Ohio. He became transfixed by how his teacher was rubbing her neck, He says he realized it was "turning him on."
It wasn’t until he was 30 years old when he started acting out on his fantasies. For years, he repeated the same pattern, picking up women, befriending them, sometimes spending days with them, then eventually beating and strangling them.
Little told Holland that he got away with murdering women for more than 50 years.
He said before he began his confessions to the Texas Ranger, he had never told anyone but God about his killings.