Delaware November 25, 2017
The Story Of The Serial Killer Who Terrorized This Small Delaware Town Is Truly Frightening
Delaware is generally considered a peaceful place to live. We have great beaches, rural farming towns, and vibrant communities that tend to watch out for each other. In the 1980s, though, one small Delaware town lived through the nightmare of Delaware’s first — and only — serial killer. Do you remember the fear felt in Bear?
From 1987 to 1988, the small town of Bear, Delaware was home to the unthinkable — the very first Serial Killer in our small state's history.
It began on a chilly November night when Shirley Ann Ellis was bringing a Thanksgiving dinner platter to an AIDS patient at Wilmington Hospital. She was hoping to hitchhike, rather than walk the 14-mile journey. A car pulled up and offered her a ride — but her body was found less than three hours later. The autopsy revealed torture and mutilation. The small New Castle County town was immediately on high alert.
Many of us take Route 40, or the Pulaski Highway, in New Castle County on a daily basis, but in the late 1980s, it became the focus of the investigation.
Two other victims were identified as being picked up along Route 40, in Bear, and their bodies were later found tortured in the same way as Ellis's. Work tools were identified as being used to mutilate the bodies. There were no common links between the victims, but detectives were given one clue by the second body found.
Blue carpet fibers were found on both of the first victims — a strange clue indeed. Delaware's department of Justice got to work trying to identify the source of these carpet fivers.
An undercover policewoman had been conducting investigations along route 40, posing as a prostitute. One night, she was approached by Steven Pennell in a blue Ford panel van — the same vehicle that was spotted picking up a previous victim. The detective was able to subtly pull some fibers from the van's interior blue carpet before Pennell got suspicious, and sped off. The fibers were found to match those on the victims.
Steven Pennell was arrested November 29, 1988, and convicted of the November 1987 murder of Shirley A. Ellis, and the June 1988 murder of Catherine A. DiMauro. Eventually, he pled no contest to the September 1988 murders of Michele A. Gordon and Kathleen Anne Meyer. He was also suspected of the August 1988 murder of Margaret Lynn Finner, though her body was found in such a decayed state that conclusive evidence was impossible to find.
When Pennell was finally arrested, his van was searched, and detectives found hair, blood and the same brand of duct tape used on his victims. They also found his torture kit of pliers, handcuffs, needles, knives, and restraints.
Pennell defended himself in Delaware's superior court and requested that he be executed by lethal injection. He did deny his crimes, but requested execution for the sake of his wife and family, whom he did not want to burden by spending life in prison.
The execution was carried out on March 14, 1992, on the grounds of the Delaware Correctional Center, in Smyrna.
Delaware hadn't executed a prisoner since 1946, but the state also had no criminals quite like Pennell. In the years following Pennell's execution, Delaware's stance on capital punishment softened, and sixteen other convicted murderers were put to death at the correctional center in Smyrna. In 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional, thus shutting down the program in the small state that had the third highest number of executions per capita.
Luckily, most Delaware towns are free of violent crime like this, and it’s easy to pick a safe place to live. Check out our list of
The 10 Safest And Most Peaceful Places To Live In Delaware… but still, don’t forget to lock your doors at night.