Samuel Little’s depravity is matched only by his prodigious memory.
Little, a California inmate considered by the FBI to be the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history, has confessed to 93 slayings committed across the country between 1970 and 2005, recounting the crimes with astonishing, near-photographic detail. He even drew color portraits of dozens of the women he strangled.
His case, featured on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, has offered a frightening look inside the mind of a killer and the wrongheaded assumptions on the part of law enforcement that enabled him to escape justice for so long.
Little, who is 79 and has been behind bars since 2012 for several killings, preyed on prostitutes, drug addicts and other women on the margins, many of them black like Little himself, and many of the deaths were originally deemed overdoses or attributed to accidental or undetermined causes. Some bodies were never found.
In a case out of Tennessee, for example, Martha Cunningham’s body was found bruised and nude from the waist down in the woods in 1975, her pantyhose and girdle bunched around her knees. Detectives initially attributed her death to natural causes; the cause was later classified “unknown.”
But in 48 straight days of interviews with Texas Ranger James Holland, who kept the killer supplied with pizza and Dr. Pepper, Little offered a wealth of details that were used to corroborate his accounts one by one.
One woman wore dentures, for example. Another was killed near a set of arches in Miami. There was a 5-foot-6 woman with brown skin in Florida in the mid-1980s. In 1984 in Kentucky, there was a 25-year-old woman outside a strip club with short blond hair, blue eyes and a “hippie” look.
And in a case from Florida in the 1970s, Little remembered the flowered sundress and necklace the victim wore, and how he played with it before he choked her to death.
Fort Myers, Florida, homicide detective Mali Langton, who was among a number of investigators from other jurisdictions who talked to Little in prison as well, said she was astonished by his memory.
“I couldn’t tell you who I bought a burger from yesterday,” she said.
Noticing that Little liked to draw, Holland gave him art supplies behind bars. Little went on to produce more than 30 portraits of his victims that proved remarkably helpful.
Serial killers are often world-class liars and manipulators who crave notoriety and exaggerate or confess to crimes they didn’t commit, according to criminal justice experts. But Little stands apart.
Law enforcement authorities in several states have verified 50 of his confessions so far and are scrambling to link dozens more cold cases to his recollections.
“I would be suspicious of believing him, except it was actually corroborated,” said Marina Sorochinski, a professor of criminal justice at Mercy College in New York.
As Holland said on “60 Minutes”: “Nothing he’s ever said has been proven to be wrong or false. We’ve been able to prove up almost everything he said.”
All told, Little is believed responsible for more killings than Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer combined.
Little’s modus operandi made it hard to link him to victims. The former boxer often delivered a knockout punch to women, authorities said, then strangled them while masturbating. He would dump their bodies and soon after leave town.
He claimed to have killed in 19 states. The biggest concentrations of killings were in Florida and California, he said, with about 20 in Los Angeles alone.
He was repeatedly arrested for various offenses over the decades, including murder and assault, and served time for some things, but escaped prosecution for his most serious crimes. He was finally caught when a Kentucky arrest in 2012 on drug charges led authorities to link his DNA to three slayings in California.
“It makes sense that he could have gotten away with so many” for so long, Sorochinski said.
Crimes scattered across several states can lead to communication gaps between jurisdictions and a failure to recognize that a single murder is the work of a serial killer. Also, because the women were mostly living on the dangerous edges of society, relatives may not have realized they were gone and reported them missing to police, Sorochinski said.
Langton said that Little flirted, laughed and was “giddy” as he recounted a particular slaying.
In a 2018 prison interview with New York magazine’s website The Cut, he was asked how it felt to kill the women. He replied: “Oooeee, it felt like heaven. Felt like being in bed with Marilyn Mon-roe!”