Serial killers have long been the stuff of which legends were made – Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and the Mansons, just to name a few. I admit, these stories freak me out, even though I did binge watch all 8 seasons of Dexter. But while, Dexter, America’s most beloved television psychopath, might create a more sympathetic view of serial killers, the fact remains, murders that occur repeatedly and with eerie patterns and similarities are absolutely terrifying. It’s hard to imagine what goes through the minds of people able to kill with such premeditation – and it leaves the rest of us more than a little prone to looking over our shoulder.
These 5 stories of serial killers in Virginia are no exception. Ranging from 3 sisters who killed off family members for insurance money to a cold case in Eastern Virginia, these stories will have you thinking twice about the people you pass every day. You just never know…
1. The Black Sisters, Christiansburg
Mary Snead, Caroline Martin and Virginia Wardlaw may have committed their crimes more than 100 years ago – but their legend remains very much alive today. The sisters, called “the Black Sisters” because of their black clothing, came to Christiansburg around 1902, where Virginia Wardlaw ran the Montgomery Female Academy. Her sisters, Caroline and Mary, were widows who helped the unmarried Virginia run the boarding school for girls. During their time there, a number of mysterious events occurred, including the “disappearance” of an illegitimate baby birthed by one of the students and the death of Mary’s son, John, found burned to death in his bed. Just one week before, his mother and aunts had taken out a sizeable life insurance policy on him. But it wasn’t until the women showed up in New Jersey in 1909 that authorities caught on. After the suspicious drowning of Caroline’s daughter, Ocey, in a bathtub, police arrested the sisters. Ocey, who was married to her first cousin (and Mary’s son), Fletcher Snead, also left a significant life insurance policy behind.
Caroline was convicted of murder and sentenced to 7 years in a state mental hospital where she later died. It was later suspected that she had likely killed her husband and her young son, Hugh, who died after a fall down the stairs in 1888.
Mary pleaded guilty but got off on a technicality and fled to Colorado. Virginia starved herself to death before the judge could make a ruling. Her body was sent back to Christiansburg and buried in the Sunset Cemetery.
2. The Golden Years Killer, Richmond
When Leslie Leon Burchart was arrested in 2000, he admitted to murdering at least 7 elderly women in 1996 during a killing spree that spanned 6 months. The wave of murders, known as the “ Golden Years Killings”, included more than a dozen elderly women in total, some of which remain unsolved cases. In addition to the women, Burchart, a homeless schizophrenic, later admitted to killing another 3 homeless men. Although he died in prison within a couple of years of his arrest, further investigations into 2 other murders occurring at the same time can be linked to Burchart based on testimonies he gave. Burchart was off his medications at the time of the killings and claims to have murdered the women because they reminded him of his mother - and the men because they reminded him of himself.
3. The Southside Strangler, Richmond
Timothy Spencer, better remembered as the Southside Strangler, began his killing spree as early as 1984. However, it wasn’t until he went on a 10-week bender in 1987 that he was finally caught and convicted. During that time, he raped and murdered 4 women in the Richmond and Arlington areas. He was sentenced to death and electrocuted in April of 1994. Like most serial killers, Spencer was clever and left little evidence – or so he thought. Despite maintaining his innocence until his death, Spencer was the first person ever convicted of a capital crime based on DNA evidence. This legal milestone resulted in the state of Virginia opening the first DNA lab in the country. DNA also exonerated David Vasquez, who had been convicted of the 1984 murder in Arlington, a crime later attributed to Spencer.
The Southside Strangler inspired several books, including "Stalking Justice: The Dramatic True Story of the Detective Who First Used DNA Testing to Catch a Serial Killer", by Paul Mones, Chapter 11 of John Douglas' 1996 memoir, "Journey into Darkness" and possibly Patricia Cornwell's bestselling novel "Postmortem", which showed considerable plot similarities to Spencer’s real-life crimes.
4. Colonial Parkway Murders: A Cold Case (York, Williamsburg and James City)
In what looks to be almost undeniably the work of a serial killer, the Colonial Parkway Murders remain unsolved after nearly 30 years. Between 1986 and 1989, at least 8 people disappeared along the stretch of highway connecting Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. The victims included 3 couples, whose bodies were all found in the surrounding area, and another couple who still remains missing. While no one has ever been convicted of the crimes, investigators continue to search for clues and answers. The closest they’ve come is the arrest of Frank Atwell, a former Gloucester deputy sheriff, who had ties to the case – although nothing conclusive came from the arrest. No more murders have occurred matching the killer’s profile, but a case like this leaves you wondering if he’s still out there...waiting.
5. The Beltway Snipers, DC, Maryland and Virginia
While the Beltway Snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, were finally convicted and sentenced in Virginia, their terror spread throughout the country. One of the largest national news stories of the last 15 years, Muhammad and Malvo shot 13 people in Washinton, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, killing 10, in October of 2002. Another 12 victims, 6 of whom died, were shot between February and September of the same year in Washington, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Maryland and Georgia. When the 2 were finally caught sleeping in a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice in Maryland, they had already killed 4 people in Virginia and wounded another. Muhammad was tried, convicted and sentenced to death at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia. Although he was not the “triggerman”, Malvo, who was only 17 at the time of the killing spree, remains in Wise County at the Red Onion State Prison where he is serving multiple life sentences as an accomplice to Muhammad’s sadistic killings.
The monument shown here, located in Wheaton, MD, honors the victims.
There’s really no way to say how or why a serial killer is created, but the destruction they leave behind is undeniable. And like every state, Virginia has its share of the good, bad…and serial. Let us know what you think of this story and tell us about any other notorious crimes you may have heard about.