American Monsters Volume 2

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Patrick Kearney

The Trash Bag Killer


“Murder excited me and gave me a feeling of dominance.” – Patrick Kearney.

The Seventies were a tumultuous decade in American history. After the summer of love in 1969, a new and more tolerant era beckoned. The whole country seemed to be in motion and many young people were drawn to California, attracted by its great weather, carefree lifestyle and permissive attitudes.

Hitchhiking was a popular mode of transport for these young travelers and, in the main, those who stuck out their thumb and headed west, arrived safely. Others though, were not so lucky. During that time, a number of prolific serial killers prowled the highways and byways of southern California - men like Randy Kraft, William Bonin and Patrick Kearney.

Patrick Wayne Kearney was born in East Los Angeles in 1940, the youngest of three sons. His childhood appears to have been relatively stable, at least as far as his home life was concerned. At school, though, he was an easy target for bullies – a thin, sickly and diminutive child who was painfully shy.

Like many children set upon by their peers, Patrick retreated into his own world, although where other kids might lose themselves in books or games, Kearney (according to his later confession) began developing violent revenge fantasies. By age eight, he said, he knew that he was going to kill people; by his mid teens his fantasies had developed into keenly detailed visions of murder. By his mid-twenties, those fantasies had been transformed into reality.

Yet, nothing in Patrick Kearney’s life suggested that he might become a serial killer. He was an intelligent boy, who did well at school. After graduating, he served in the military, married and moved with his wife to Texas. Then, after his marriage failed, he met and fell in love with David Douglas Hill, a 6'2” high school dropout from Lubbock, Texas.

Like Kearney, Hill had spent time in the Army, but he’d been discharged after being diagnosed with an unspecified personality disorder. He’d returned to his hometown and married his high school sweetheart. Then he’d met Patrick Kearney and, not long after, he’d divorced his wife and moved with Kearney to California.

In 1967, the pair set up house together, Kearney finding a job as an aeronautics engineer with the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, Hill staying home and looking after domestic affairs. Their relationship, which would last ten years, was often stormy. Hill would often leave in a huff and spend the night with friends or pick up a one-night stand out of revenge. Occasionally, he even went back home to Lubbock, remaining there for days at a time.

It was on these occasions, with Hill out of the picture, that Kearney's repressed rage would simmer to the surface. That was when he’d hit the streets, cruising the interstate or trawling gay bars, picking out victims who often reminded him of those who had bullied him during his childhood.

Kearney’s M.O. was simple, efficient and consistent. He was primarily a necrophile, meaning he had no interest in keeping his victim alive for torture or any other purpose (unlike his contemporaries Kraft and Bonin). Also, he was a slight man, just 5'5” tall, unable to physically subdue victims who tended to be bigger and physically stronger than him. The method he developed compensated for both these factors

After picking up a man, Kearney would typically shoot him in the head with his Derringer .22. He’d do this while still driving the car in order to catch his victim by surprise. He became particularly adept at steering the car with his left hand while firing with his right. With the victim now under his control, Kearney would drive to a secluded spot where he’d have sex with the corpse. Then he’d dismember the body with a hacksaw, place the sections in trash bags and dispose of them in various locations along the freeways, or out in the desert, where coyotes and insects would consume the remains.

On the occasions that he killed people in his own home, he would dissect the body in the bathtub, drain it of blood and wash the body parts carefully. Then he’d pack the pieces in bags secured with duct tape. He was very careful not to leave any trace evidence, something he’d learned by studying various books on serial killers.

How many men did Kearney kill in this way? He was charged with 21 murders and confessed to 35. Investigators who worked the case believed the number could be as high as 43. And there were child victims too, among them eight-year-old Merle Chance, and Ronald Dean Smith, aged just 5.

Kearney committed his first murder in 1968, while living in Culver City, California, with David Hill. During one of Hill’s absences, Kearney picked up a man he knew only as “George”. He brought George back to his apartment, shooting him almost immediately after they entered. Then, he dragged the body to the bathroom and dismembered it with an X-Acto knife. He then extracted the bullet from the head so that it couldn’t be traced to his gun. Later, he buried the remains behind his garage and didn’t kill again for a year, fearful that he’d be caught.

He wasn’t, of course, and eventually he returning to stalking the freeways and bars of southern California in his VW Bug or truck, sometimes taking a victim a month. It was easy he said, easy to pick them up, easy to kill them and easy to get rid of the bodies.

The Trash Bag Murders first came to the attention of police on April 13, 1975, when the body of Albert Rivera, 21, was found packed in a heavy-duty trash bag, near Highway 74, east of San Juan Capistrano. Soon police were inundated with gruesome new discoveries, each of them bearing the killers unique signature, bodies neatly dismembered and packaged, none of them bearing any viable clues. The killer was elusive, the case complicated by other serial killers working the same turf at that time. It seemed that police were never going to catch a break in the case.

And then, on Sunday, March 13, 1977, seventeen-year-old, John LaMay disappeared.

LaMay had told a neighbor that he was going to Redondo Beach to see a guy by the name of Dave, who he’d met at a gym in downtown L.A. When he didn't come home that night, or the following day, his frantic mother called the police, certain that something had happened to him. The police were less concerned. John LaMay was probably out partying with friends. They dealt with calls like this all the time.

Except LaMay wasn’t out partying. He’d gone to the address that David Hill had given him, only to find that Hill wasn’t home. Hill’s roommate was though, and he told LaMay to come inside, to wait for Dave’s return. Once inside Kearney invited the young man to watch TV, then snuck up behind him and shot him in the back of the head (on a whim, he’d later tell police). Kearney then cut up the body, packaged it, and disposed of it along the highway.

John LaMay’s remains were discovered five days later, on March 18, beside a stretch of road near Corona. He had been dismembered, the body parts washed and drained of blood, and then packed neatly into five trash bags. The bags was sealed with nylon filament tape and crammed into an empty 80-gallon oil drum. The head was missing, but a distinctive birthmark clearly identified the victim.

Police returned to John LaMay’s home and questioned his neighbors, one of whom told the story of him going to visit someone named Dave in Redondo Beach. The name was familiar to police, in fact they’d recently called on the Kearney/Hill residence during routine questioning in the disappearance of Merle Chance.

When they called at the house again, Kearney and Hill welcomed them in, expressed their concern for the missing teen, and assured police that they hadn’t seen him. They seemed genuine enough, but during the questioning, one of the detectives took the opportunity to secretly pull a few fibers from the carpet. Kearney, usually so careful not to leave trace evidence, had slipped up in the LaMay murder. The tape used to bind the bags had some fibers caught up on it.

Although this evidence would be inadmissible in court, the police ran some tests on the fibers – and got a match. Kearney meanwhile, was destroying all of the cuttings he’d collected on the Trash Bag Killer Case and discarding his collection of serial killer literature. Then, when the police called again and asked him and Hill to supply samples of their pubic hair, he decided it was time to run. By the time police returned with a search warrant, he and Hill were long gone.

Police nonetheless searched the apartment, turning up a hacksaw that contained minute traces of human blood and tissue. They also found rolls of nylon filament tape and trash bags similar to those used in the Trash Bag Murders. But the most damning evidence was found in the bathroom. Here police found traces of human blood, invisible to the naked eye, but clearly visible when exposed to Luminol.

The pressure was now on to find the fugitives and their photographs were distributed to law enforcement agencies around the country. Kearney and Hill had fled to El Paso, Texas, but Kearney had already decided that he wasn’t suited to a life on the run. At the urging of relatives, he and Hill returned to California.

On July 1, 1977, they gave themselves up to the Riverside County Sheriff, reportedly marching into the precinct building, pointing to a “Wanted” poster and declaring, “We're them.” They were arraigned on two murder charges, with bail set at $500,000 each.

Kearney cooperated fully with the police, telling officers that he found hurting and killing people sexually exciting. “The murders excited me and gave me a feeling of dominance,” he confessed.

At one point in the interrogation, officers asked him about drugging and torturing his victims. Kearney seemed at first confused, and then appalled by this line of questioning. “I am not the Wooden Stake,” he said, referring to the serial killer Randy Kraft, who was still at large at the time.

Eventually, the matter came to trial, with the grand jury refusing to indict David Hill and Riverside District Attorney, Byron Morton, saying that information unearthed by investigators seemed to exonerate Hill. Kearney, too, confirmed that Hill was neither involved in, nor aware of the murders.

Acting against the advice of his attorney, who advised him to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Patrick Kearney entered a guilty plea. He also asked to be sentenced immediately, apparently because he believed that it would rule out the possibility of the death penalty (a moot point, all of Kearney’s crimes had been committed while the death penalty was suspended in California).

Kearney was eventually charged with 21 counts of murder and received 21 life sentences. He is currently serving his prison terms at California State Prison, Mule Creek, California.

American Monsters Volume Two includes 11 more riveting stories of America's worst serial killers