MEMPHIS — Since her mother vanished in July 1990, Bernice Talley has heard many stories about what happened. In one, her mother left for Texas with a trucker. In another, she fled because she owed someone some money.
Worst of all was the rumor that Talley’s father beat her mother to death and buried her in the backyard. “Don’t be stupid,” Talley’s father said when she asked him about it. But it strained their relationship, and Talley never could quite shake the fear that she’d been walking over her mother’s body all these years.
Then, in winter 2019, she saw the drawing on TV. Samuel Little, believed to be the deadliest serial killer in America, had confessed to murdering a woman in Memphis in the mid-1980s. He offered police a hand-painted portrait: dark skin, big brown eyes, a cloud of curly hair.
“That’s my mama!” Talley exclaimed in calls to her father and aunt.
Since Little began cooperating with authorities in May 2018, he has confessed to killing 93 people in 19 states, virtually all women. Nearly half of them remain unidentified. Even as Little vividly recalls certain details of his crimes — the pattern of a sundress, a necklace nestled against a soft throat, a leg protruding from a shallow grave — he often cannot remember his victims’ names.
With Little now 80 and in failing health, police across the nation are racing to complete a wave of investigations in reverse: They have the culprit. Now they need to find the victims.
The FBI considers Little’s confessions credible, and has gone to extraordinary lengths to publicize details of the unsolved cases. The agency has circulated Little’s eerily lifelike drawings and created a webpage with video snippets of him describing his victims.
Meanwhile, local police are searching dusty files for crimes that match Little’s confessions — so far with uneven results. Several police agencies say they have found no evidence that Little committed a crime on their turf. Other agencies have developed significant leads, but have struggled to close cases involving victims from the margins of society, mostly women of color whose disappearances often failed to trigger extensive investigations or generate thick case files bristling with clues.
In Memphis, police quickly tied Little to an unidentified body pulled from the Mississippi River in July 1990. But the old case file was conspicuously thin, and the campaign to solicit tips from the public rapidly got complicated.
After Little’s drawing appeared on the local TV news, several families called, all claiming the woman as their loved one. One man, Anthony Jones, 40, remains certain it depicts his mother, even though her body was pulled from the Mississippi in 1996.
“Everybody know that’s my mama’s picture,” he said in a recent interview. “He drew that picture just perfect.”
Since then, the investigation has dragged on without obvious progress, hampered in part by the coronavirus pandemic. Talley’s family say they have not heard from the FBI or Memphis police in more than a year.
The wait has been hard on Talley, who was just 5 when her mother disappeared. Now 35 and working as a warehouse “picker” preparing orders for shipping, she questions the commitment of Memphis police to solving her mother’s case.
“I would try anything in the world just to have her … just to have some kind of insight on what happened,” Talley said, her voice cracking during an interview earlier this year.
“I just feel like she should be able to be laid to rest, too.”
[Bernice Talley recalls the moment she saw Samuel Little’s drawing.]
‘There wasn’t any cooperation’
After authorities in Los Angeles marked Samuel Little as a potential serial killer in 2012, they say they found it difficult to generate wide interest in him.
His name popped up when Mitzi Roberts, a Los Angeles police detective working cold cases, got DNA hits suggesting that two women found strangled in the late 1980s had been killed by the same man. DNA would later link a third victim to Little. As officials built their case, they were stunned by the length of Little’s criminal history and troubled to discover that he had been a suspect in a number of unsolved killings nationwide.
“The whole case makes me angry,” Roberts said, “because there were so many opportunities for him to be locked up forever and he wasn’t.”
Law enforcement in other states began to reexamine old files and DNA evidence. But Los Angeles County prosecutor Beth Silverman, who handled the case, said she got little help from local police in examining the decades-old homicides. “There wasn’t any cooperation,” she said.
For 35 years, Little had followed a routine. A drifter and shoplifter, he pulled into town, stole merchandise, rented a motel room and picked up a woman to kill — often a sex worker, someone with a drug addiction or a vulnerable alcoholic hanging out at the local bar.
But then his luck began to sour. In September 1987, his longtime shoplifting partner, Orelia Dorsey, died of a brain aneurysm. Without his accomplice, Little began getting nabbed more often for petty offenses. Meanwhile, advances in policing technology alerted authorities to outstanding warrants and prior convictions in other jurisdictions, prompting harsher charges and longer sentences.
After years on the run, Little began spending more and more time behind bars. In July 2000, he found himself seven months into a 2-to-10-year sentence stemming from an incident, years earlier, in which he pleaded guilty to stealing a carton of Winston cigarettes from a local Dairy Mart but then skipped town before he could be sentenced.
In desperate letters to an Ohio judge, he pleaded for early release, writing that his father — Paul McDowell, “my last love one” — was dying of prostate cancer and “I would like to stay with him till one of us dies.”
“I am writing you to ask you for one last chance to turn my life around,” Little, then 60, wrote in bubbly handwriting. “At my age, I no longer have the urge to run wild. I have reached the time in my life where I realize my life is getting short.”
Little’s pleas failed. In a cold, administrative response, the judge declared that he had found “nothing to determine early release would benefit either the defendant or the community.”
Little was still locked up when his father died in September 2001.
Coaxing out confessions
A decade later, using DNA evidence collected during Little’s increasingly serious brushes with law enforcement, Roberts tied him to the deaths of Carol Alford, 41; Audrey Nelson, 35; and Guadalupe Apodaca, 46, in Los Angeles. Tracked to a Louisville homeless shelter, Little was sent to California and tried for murder.
The jury deliberated less than two hours before finding him guilty.
After arresting Little, Los Angeles police contacted the FBI, which started piecing together Little’s criminal history and searching for potential victims. They quickly found a promising case in West Texas, the 1994 killing of Denise Christie Brothers. But they had no forensic evidence, and officials could not get Little to talk.
“Without any kind of confession, they were at a standstill,” said FBI analyst Christie Palazzolo, who worked on Little’s cases.
In late 2017, a Texas Ranger who specializes in extracting murder confessions was speaking at a conference on cold cases when he was approached by an investigator from Florida. The man mentioned Little, who was once a suspect in one of his own cold cases, and urged the Ranger, Jim Holland, to take a look.
Holland called someone he knew at the FBI, and before long was on a plane 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.”
If Little would just tell his story, the Ranger said, he could move him to “a jail cell set up like a hotel room” with a TV, food from McDonald’s, M & M’s — “whatever you want.” Maybe even an art studio where Little could paint. Holland even promised to persuade prosecutors to waive the death penalty for any crimes to which Little confessed.
About an hour into the meeting, Little admitted to killing Brothers. After that, the confessions tumbled out.
There was the woman in Houston. One outside Wichita Falls, Tex. There was his first one, whom he met in Miami in 1970, and his last one, Nancy, in 2005. Little said he lost track of the women after No. 84, but he estimated that he had killed 10 or 20 more.
He said he adored them all.
“I like to kiss and hug ’em, you know. And love ’em,” he said.
Though some serial killers have been found to exaggerate their crimes, investigators describe Little’s confessions as remarkably believable. “It’s really hard to express to people … how credible this man is,” said Angela Williamson, a Justice Department official who worked on Little’s case.
So far, authorities have conclusively tied 60 cases to Little, according to the FBI. “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,” Williamson said. “This is information that no one is going to know.”
More than 30 of Little’s confessions have not been definitively matched to a case, however. It’s unclear how hard some police agencies have worked to identify his victims.
In Phoenix, police said they continue to look for matches but would provide no additional information. In Monroe, La., police said they had found “no evidence” to support Little’s assertion that he killed a 24-year-old Black woman there in the late 1980s or early ’90s. And in Las Vegas, Officer Larry Hadfield said police looked through unsolved homicide cases and found nothing to corroborate Little’s claim to have killed a Black woman there.
Elsewhere, police say they have tackled the task with gusto. Looking through cold cases, they said, is often not enough.
In Savannah, Ga., for instance, police scoured every unsolved homicide from 1970 to 1990. After Little rejected their only good match, Sgt. Robert Santoro, then a supervisor for the city’s overworked homicide unit, recruited staff from a state criminal justice council to help slog through thousands of death certificates in a tiny break room at the local coroner’s office.
Within days, a colleague texted him about Frances Campbell, a 23-year-old Black woman whose body was found on a pile of trash in 1985. Late last year, Little was indicted based on a confession that included details matching the circumstances of Campbell’s death.
Failing to exhaust all leads would have been “a squandered opportunity,” said Santoro, who has since moved to another police department. “We have a guy who’s saying: ‘Look, this is what happened. I did it.’ And, really, to a point that’s highly credible in my mind.”
“If we don’t do everything in our power to figure this out, that’s doing a disservice to the victim,” he said. “It’s there. We just have to find it.”
In Los Angeles, police have 17 Little confessions under investigation, most not yet tied to a specific victim. He also confessed to the three killings for which he was convicted in 2014. Roberts, the Los Angeles detective who tied Little to those killings, said police have “very strong” leads in about five of the remaining cases, but are not yet able to say with confidence, “This is him, this is why.”
The task is complicated, she said, because as many as half a dozen serial killers using similar methods were operating in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The city “was like a killing field,” she said. “It was like 10 tigers hunting one elephant.” Last year, she and other investigators took Little on a ride-along to see if he could identify the locations of his crimes.
In Fort Myers, Fla., police detective Mali Langton fears that the woman Little claims to have killed may never have come to the attention of authorities.
“Is it possible we never found the body?” she said. “It’s unsettling to think that we may never resolve this.”
Closure for the victims’ families is not the only thing at stake: In Florida, at least two men have served time for murders now linked to Little.
The 1977 Miami killing of Dorothy Gibson, a Black 17-year-old, was initially pinned on Jerry Frank Townsend, a Black 27-year-old with the mental capacity of an 8-year-old. Accused of six murders and a rape, Townsend pleaded guilty to avoid the electric chair. Townsend spent 22 years in prison before the cases against him fell apart; he was released in 2001. Last month, Miami authorities identified Little as Gibson’s killer.
Little is also a convincing match for the 1984 murder of Willie Mae Bivins, a Black woman, near Tallahassee, according to a member of law enforcement who has worked on the case but who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. Eddie Daniel Harris, a Black, homeless man, pleaded no contest to manslaughter in the case and was released after multiple commitments to a mental hospital, according to his attorney and court documents.
Florida state police have reopened the murder investigation, and Assistant State Attorney Eddie Evans confirmed that Little’s statements prompted the reexamination.
In Memphis, the investigation into Little’s confession moved rapidly at first.
Little said he had picked up a Black woman in a hotel parking lot, strangled her in his car, threw her in the trunk and dumped her in the Mississippi River in 1984. Investigators have found that Little’s dates can be off by as much as a decade, so they put more stock in his uncanny memory for crucial details.
Across the river in Arkansas, Crittenden County Sheriff’s Lt. Darrell Prewitt realized he had a match: a woman pulled from a log on July 28, 1990. She was wearing exactly what Little described — blue jeans and a maroon shirt with a ruffled collar, according to a national database of unidentified people. Also found on the body: condoms, a crack pipe and bullets.
The remains were too decomposed to allow for fingerprinting, police said. The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory could not even say with confidence that the woman had been murdered. The case file on the body was paper-thin when Prewitt retrieved it in 2018.
Nowadays, he said, the file on a death like that would be an inch thick.
“I’m not saying that they did anything wrong,” Prewitt added. “I’m just saying” — he paused — “that was my case file.”
When the local TV news broadcast Little’s painting, multiple families called about their dead or missing relatives, propelling the investigation and raising questions about how thoroughly local law enforcement looked for leads in 1990.
Authorities said it is highly unlikely that Anthony Jones’s mother, Priscilla Baxter, is a match. Baxter, who was pulled from the river in 1996, had been stabbed, an autopsy found. Little has said he strangled his victims.
But police confirmed that multiple people remain under consideration, including Talley’s mother, Zena Jones.
Jones vanished on July 13, 1990, according to a missing-person report filed by family — a little more than two weeks before police discovered the woman in the maroon blouse.
A family feels forgotten
For Zena Jones’s family, the broadcast of Little’s portrait brought a burst of attention. Local TV stations filmed segments on the feisty, fun-loving young woman — 30 when she vanished — who used to turn her living room into a dance floor.
“The first time that her face ever been on the news,” said Jones’s niece, Tammy Green, 44. ” ’Cause nobody never really cared or really put effort to broadcast that she’d been missing all this time.”
Now the family is feeling forgotten again. Jones’s sister, Vickie Weddington, 62, kicks herself for not requesting business cards from the FBI agents who she says came to interview her and pick up Jones’s picture.
Meanwhile, Jones’s family says no one has asked for their DNA, the best way to determine whether they are related to the Memphis Jane Doe. A DNA profile created for the body was added to a national database, according to police. But the profile has never matched anyone in a national pool of DNA taken from people with missing relatives — a group Jones’s family should have been added to a long time ago.
“Why they haven’t contacted us and got DNA or anything?” Weddington said. “Look how many years it’s been.”
Weddington was living in Chicago when Jones disappeared. The last time they spoke, Jones said that she was dating an abusive man who got her hooked on heroin and that she was prostituting herself to support her addiction. But Jones said she wanted to get out of Memphis, so Weddington offered to send her a Greyhound bus ticket to Chicago.
Jones said she would come, but insisted on hitchhiking. Then she vanished.
Jones’s mother contacted the police about a month later, according to a missing-person report. She said she held off calling authorities, thinking her daughter might return. Weddington and other relatives remember police being dismissive because Jones was on drugs and “grown.”
Police notes from the missing-person file emphasize Jones’s wayward history: Her brother called his sister a “known drug user” who had “left home several times before.” Authorities wrote that they checked for Jones in the morgue and the jail without luck.
About a week later, someone filled out a form asking: “Further Police Action and Reporting Required?” They ticked a box: “No.”
Asked about the drawn-out investigation, Memphis police Lt. Anthony Mullins, a supervisor in the homicide bureau, said the coronavirus has slowed progress on the case and is one reason police have yet to collect families’ DNA. Meanwhile, the two primary investigators on the Little case have left the department, he said, and a part-time investigator died of covid-19.
“We have just not been able to get some of the things done that we would like,” he said.
He declined to discuss details of Jones’s disappearance but noted that some people are simply less likely to trigger swift alarms, even among family members. People with drug addictions, for example. Those who are “homeless by choice.” People liable to turn up in jail, or known to wander off.
People like Zena Jones, in other words. And many of the women who fell prey to Samuel Little.
Kate Harrison Belz contributed to this report.
To contact the authors with information about Samuel Little, send us an email at email@example.com.