America's Most Famous Murder Cases

A Look at 10 of the Country's Most Notorious Killers

From serial killers to celebrity victims, some sensational murder cases grab our collective imagination and won't let go, like the unsolved Oakland County murders. The following is a look at a handful of the most infamous murder cases in recent American history. Some of the killers have been caught, tried, and punished. Other cases remain open and may never be solved.

of 10

John Wayne Gacy: The Killer Clown

Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

An entertainer who played "Pogo the Clown" at children's parties, John Wayne Gacy was one of the most infamous serial killers in America. Beginning in 1972, Gacy tortured, raped, and murdered 33 young men, most of whom were just teenagers. His reign of terror lasted six years.

While investigating the disappearance of 15-year-old Robert Piest in 1978, police were able to track Gacy down. Authorities discovered 26 bodies of young men in the crawlspace under Gacy's home. The bodies of three other victims were found on his property, and the rest were found in the nearby Des Plaines River.

Gacy was charged with 33 murders. He went to trial on February 6, 1980. After an unsuccessful attempt at an insanity defense, Gacy was convicted on all 33 counts of murder. The prosecution sought and was granted the death penalty as sentencing for 12 of Gacy's murders. John Wayne Gacy was executed by lethal injection in 1994.

of 10

Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy in Court
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Ted Bundy is probably the most notorious serial killer of the 20th century. Though he admitted to killing 36 women, it's speculated that the actual number of victims is much higher.

Bundy graduated from the University of Washington in 1972. A psychology major, Bundy was described by his classmates as a master manipulator. Bundy lured his female victims by faking injuries, then overpowering them.

Bundy's murder spree spread across many states. He escaped custody on more than one occasion. It all ended for him in Florida with his 1979 murder conviction. After numerous appeals, Bundy was executed in the electric chair in 1989.

of 10

David Berkowitz: Son of Sam

Son of Sam Killer is Led to Court
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

David Berkowitz (born Richard David Falco) terrorized the New York City area in the 1970s with a string of brutal, seemingly random homicides. Also known as "Son of Sam" and "the .44 Caliber Killer," Berkowitz wrote confession letters to police and media after his crimes.

Berkowitz's rampage began on Christmas Eve in 1975 when he reportedly stabbed two women to death with a knife—but he was better known for walking up to parked cars and shooting his victims. By the time he was arrested in 1977, he had killed six people and wounded seven more.

In 1978, Berkowitz confessed to the six murders and received a sentence of 25 years to life for each. During his confession, he claimed that a demon came to him in the form of the dog belonging a neighbor named Sam Carr and had commanded him to kill.

of 10

The Zodiac Killer: Unsolved

Handwritten Note from Zodiac Killer
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The identity of the Zodiac Killer, who haunted Northern California from the late 1960s to the early ’70s leaving behind a trail of lifeless bodies, is still unknown.

This bizarre case involved a series of letters sent to three California newspapers. In many of the missives, an anonymous perpetrator confessed to the murders. Even more chilling, however, were the threats he made saying that if his letters were not published, he would go on a murderous rampage.

The letters, which continued through 1974, are not all are believed to have been written by the same man. Police suspect that there may have been several copycats in the high-profile case. The man who came to be known as the Zodiac Killer confessed to 37 murders. However, police can only verify seven attacks, five of them resulting in death.

A similar California cold case, the Keddie Cabin murder case, has been unsolved since 1981.

of 10

Charles Manson and the Manson Family

Charles Manson Returning to Los Angeles Jail, 1969


Bettmann/Getty Images

In the late 1960s, a charismatic drifter with delusions of rock and roll grandeur named Charles Manson coerced a number of young women and men, many of whom were vulnerable teenagers, to join a cult called "The Family."

The group's most infamous murders took place on in August 1969. On the night of August 8, directed by Manson, several of his "family members" invaded a home in the northern hills of Los Angeles. Over the course of the night and into the next morning, they killed five people, including director Roman Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time and Abigail Folger, heir to the Folger Coffee fortune. The next night, Manson family members continued their spree, murdering supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary.

Manson was indicted and convicted along with the family members who'd carried out the murders at his behest. Manson was sentenced to death, however, he was never executed. He lived the rest of his life in prison and passed away in 2017 of a heart attack.

of 10

Ed Gein: The Plainfield Ghoul

Edward Gein on his Way to Take a Lie Detector Test

 Bettman /Contributor/Getty Images

Plainfield, Wisconsin was home to an unassuming farmer turned handyman named Ed Gein, but the rural farmhouse Gein called home masked the scene of a series of unspeakable crimes.

After his parents passed away in the 1940s, Gein began to isolate himself. He became infatuated with death, dismemberment, bizarre sexual fantasies, and even cannibalism. His forays into his gruesome predilections began with corpses from local cemeteries. By 1954, he'd escalated and was killing elderly women.

When investigators searched the farm, what they found was a literal house of horrors. From the collection of body parts, they were able to determine that 15 women had fallen victim to the Plainfield Ghoul.

Gein was incarcerated for life in a state mental facility without the possibility of release. He died of cancer in 1984.

of 10

Dennis Lynn Rader: The BTK Strangler

BTK Killer Dennis Rader


Pool/Getty Images

From 1974 through 1991, the Wichita, Kansas area was gripped by a string of murders that were attributed to a fiend known as the BTK Strangler. The acronym stands for "Blind, Torture, Kill." The crimes went unsolved until 2005.

After his arrest, Dennis Lynn Rader confessed to killing 10 people over the course of 30 years. He had notoriously toyed with authorities by leaving letters and sending packages to local news outlets. His last correspondence in 2004 led to his arrest. Even though Rader was not apprehended until 2005, he committed his last murder prior to 1994—when Kansas enacted the death penalty.

Rader pled guilty to all 10 murders and was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences in prison.

of 10

The Hillside Strangler: Angelo Anthony Buono Jr. and Kenneth Bianchi

Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

In the early 1970s, the Zodiac killer had ceased preying on victims in California but by the end of the decade, the West Coast was once again being terrorized by a serial killer—or in this case, killers—dubbed "the Hillside Strangler."

Investigators would eventually learn that rather than a lone murderer, there were two culprits behind the chilling crimes: the killing duo of Angelo Anthony Buono Jr. and his cousin, Kenneth Bianchi. Beginning in 1977, in a killing spree that started in Washington State and extended all the way to Los Angeles, the heinous pair raped, tortured, and murdered a total of 10 girls and young women,

After their arrest, Bianchi turned on Buono, and in order to avoid the death penalty, he confessed to the killings and sexual assaults. Buono received a life sentence and died in prison in 2002.

of 10

The Black Dahlia Murder

Black Dahlia Murder Letter
Archive Photos / Getty Images

The 1947 Black Dahlia case remains one of the best-known unsolved murder cases in America. The victim, dubbed "The Black Dahlia" by the media, was a 22-year-old would-be actress named Elizabeth Short whose mutilated body (the corpse was cut in half) was found in a Los Angeles by a mother out for a walk with her young child. There was no blood found at the scene. The woman who found her initially thought she'd stumbled across a store mannequin.

In all, almost 200 people have been suspected in Short's murder. A number of men and women even confessed to leaving her body in the vacant lot where she was found. Investigators have never been able to pinpoint the killer.

The case is similar to the more modern Bonny Lee Bakley murder, for which her husband (actor Robert Blake) was tried but not convicted.

of 10

Rodney Alcala: The Dating Game Killer

Penalty Phase Trial for Serial Killer Rodney Alcala
Ted Soqui/Contributor/Getty Images

Rodney Alcala received the nickname "The Dating Game Killer" thanks to his appearance as a contestant on the popular TV show of the same name. His date from that appearance declined the rendezvous, finding him "creepy." Turns out she had good intuition.

Alcala's first known victim was an 8-year-old girl whom he attacked in 1968. Police found the raped and strangled girl holding onto life along with photos of other children. Alcala had already gone on the run, though he was later captured and sentenced to prison.

After being released from his first prison sentence, Alcala killed four more women, the youngest just 12 years old. He was later convicted of one murder and sentenced to death in California. However, given the number of photos recovered from a rented storage locker, it's believed that he's responsible for many more brutalities.

In March of 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on capital punishment in the state, effectively granting Alcala, along with more than 700 other death row inmates, a stay of execution.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "America's Most Famous Murder Cases." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, August 1). America's Most Famous Murder Cases. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "America's Most Famous Murder Cases." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).