Rachel Monroe is a freelance writer and volunteer firefighter who lives in Marfa, Texas. In 2019 Simon and Schuster published her first book, Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession. It was named Best Book of 2019 by Esquire and received Honorable Mention for the Chicago Tribune’s Best Books of 2019. An NPR review described the book as “Necessary and brilliant.”
Monroe writes about diverse topics; her articles have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2018, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine.
She generously agreed to be interviewed on June 15, 2021:
SK: Thank you so much for your time, Rachel. I love your book Savage Appetites. It is the analytical book about true crime readers that I have long hoped someone would write. What precipitated your writing it?
RM: It began with my own interest. As an adolescent I used to sneak my mother’s copies of People– not to read about celebrities, but about murders. It was the language of love between my mother and me, a subject that deserves its own kind of analysis.
As I got older, I saw that this interest was not mine alone. Many women shared it. I wanted to know why.
SK: You centered your book around four women who were obsessed with crime, each representing a category of enthusiast: Detective, Victim, Crusader/Defender, and Killer. Did you choose the categories first, or begin with the women?
RM: Actually, it was a little of both. For 10 years I’ve been collecting stories about women who followed crimes they had no direct connection with. I began to realize through my research that women had different motives for their obsessions. They weren’t all attracted by the same thing.
My perspective in reading true crime also shifted depending on what was going on in my own life. Sometimes I wanted to solve the crime, other times I identified with the victim. Some cases just demanded advocacy. Less often I focused on the killer. I wanted to know what motivated him (it was always “him”).
SK: In the book, talking about Frances Glessner Lee’s collection of miniature crime scenes, the Nutshell Cases of Unexplained Death, you said “I like things that are small and things that are macabre; those interests don’t usually overlap.” That statement stunned me briefly. This spring I posted a piece on my blog site about the Nutshell Cases, and I said at the timethat they combined two of my favorite things: miniatures and murder. So, you see, you are not alone in that! Maybe there is some unconscious connection between the two?
RM: That’s interesting. I saw the Nutshells in person and something in me relaxed there in the room with them. There is an accuracy and precision in most miniatures that is deeply satisfying. Glessner-Lee’s tiny scenes, however, destabilize that sense of comfort. Among the perfect little tables and lamps and carpets and bedsteads are murder victims, blood, disorder. Domesticity is undergirded with malice. Regardless, I felt that those mysteries were on a scale that I could handle. –Maybe if I examined them closely enough, I could figure out what happened and why.
SK: You make me think of your whimsical comparison between your own true crime obsession and Harriet the Spy, the children’s book character, who has a passion to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”
RM: That may be the wish, but in reality, we have to consider our blind spots and biases and the facts we will never have access to. We may never find the answer to “why.” There is another aspect to women’s obsession with these crimes. CrimeCon is a national weekend conference sponsored by the television network Oxygen. Not surprisingly, most attendees are women like me. As we listen to presentations by detectives and forensics experts and psychologists, watch the video clips, and participate in the “victim” exercises, we are not there—as many experts hypothesize– to learn how not to become victims while maintaining a safe distance from real danger. We find pleasure in these dark accounts of kidnappings and torture chambers. You can tell by the way we describe the experience in the language of appetite, bingeing, and obsession.
SK:I remember that part in the book. Let me find it… You end the paragraph with “A different, more alarming hypothesis was the one I tended to prefer: perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.” I don’t like to face it, but I think you are probably right about that.
RM: Another fact about the conference: None of the cases were about the people who are proportionately more at risk of homicide, like sex workers, young men of color, trans women. Most stories were about white women, most of them middle class mothers.
SK: Race seems to matter in murder as it does in everything else in America. I used to wonder why there were no black serial killers, but now I realize that they are perhaps just not covered the way white victims and perpetrators are. It seems to me, though, that I just read somewhere that the most prolific serial killer in the U.S. was a black man.
RM: You are right. His name was Samuel Little. He confessed to killing 90 victims, although, like some other serial killers, he may be inflating that number. His victims were not so visible because he chose people whose absence was less likely to be noticed or reported, like sex workers.
The definition of “victim” is socially determined, and it changes over time. Black and brown people and the violence done to them is considered political and so undercounted statistically in homicide cases, at least those with no obvious motive.
SK: Are black and brown victims featured more openly and with more sensitivity since the murder of George Floyd and the prominence of Black Lives Matter?
RM: I think they will be, and similarly I think the #MeToo movement has increased awareness of women who have been treated less sensitively in the past as well.
SK: I could interview you all day, but I think our time is up. Just one final question: Is there another book in your future?
RM: Yes, there is, but I am not ready to talk about the details yet.
SK: I’ve enjoyed your journalism on many subjects besides true crime, so whatever you write next, I’ll be eager to read!
left and center, William Edward Hicks; right, Israel Keyes
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS ACCOUNTS OF HORRIFYING GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, SOME OF IT INVOLVING A CHILD VICTIM. IT IS NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL AUDIENCES.
More details about each of these murderers is easily available on the internet and in many excellent true crime books, blogs, and podcasts. One source I highly recommend is Deranged LA Crimes, the blog site produced by LA writer, actor, and social historian Joan Renner, where she discussed the Hickman case among many other LA-based crimes. Black Lyon Publishing LLC has launched a new line of true crime books, all of which are very well-written and cover cases not widely known otherwise.
TRUE CRIME fascinates me because I want to understand what separates the psyche of people who kill with no obvious motive from “the rest of us.” Twenty-first century psychiatric opinion suggests that multiple factors combine in some people to create this criminal personality. Deprived childhood is not sufficient, nor are genetic factors. Three motives seem to dominate: A desire to exercise power over the victims, lust, and monetary gain. Men are statistically more likely to kill for the first two reasons; women kill most often for monetary gain.
William Edward Hickman and Israel Keyes, I think, killed for an altogether different reason: They got pleasure from causing their victims pain, terror, and death. They were evil human beings.
William Edward Hickman and the Marion Parker Murder
William Edward Hickman was a handsome young man who excelled in school and participated in numerous extra curricular activities. He was one of five children raised by his mother Eva after his father deserted the family. After graduating from high school, he wanted to go to college but did not immediately have sufficient financial resources. To expand his bank account, he committed numerous armed robberies—at least one of which he was convicted—and killed one of his victims but was not caught in that case.
Hickman worked briefly at a Los Angeles bank but was fired when he stole and forged $400 in checks. Perry Parker was an officer at the bank and the father of twin 12-year-old daughters, Marion and Marjorie. In December 1927, Hickman, at the time age 19, followed the twins from their home to Mt. Vernon Junior High School. Later that morning he appeared at the school office where he introduced himself with a false name and reported that he was a bank employee and had been sent by Perry Parker who had been seriously injured in an auto accident and was asking for his daughter. He was well-dressed and courteous according to the school secretary and a teacher who asked him which daughter Parker wanted to see. “The younger one,” Hickman said, unaware that the girls were twins. When told, he said “the smaller one.” Marion was summoned and Hickman knelt at her level and explained why he was there. Marion began to cry, and he comforted her by assuring he would take her to her father. They left without incident.
Mrs. Parker was immediately alarmed when Marjorie returned from school alone and notified her husband who then called police. That evening the Parkers received a telegram telling them to “do nothing” and await further instructions. Other telegrams and a letter followed shortly after. Parker was directed to obtain $1,500 in twenty-dollar gold certificates and bring them to a location where Hickman would them swap the ransom for Marion. The Parkers were warned not to notify police, or they would never see their daughter again. A handwritten postscript from Marion was included with the letter: “Daddy, please do what this man tells you, or he’ll kill me if you don’t. Your loving daughter, Marion Parker.”
After abducting Marion from her school, Hickman drove aimlessly around LA with Marion in the car and later told police that he stopped to take her to an afternoon movie. They returned to his apartment at the Bellevue Arms where he tied her to a chair while he negotiated with her parents over a period of two days. He later told police that he and Marion conversed and became quite well acquainted, and that she had not been frightened.
Eventually she began to insist rather loudly that she be released. Aggravated, he strangled her from behind with a towel, then dragged her into his bathroom and laid her in the tub. He put a recording of “Bye, Bye, Pretty Baby,” on his phonograph and listened while he disemboweled and dismembered her corpse. He was not certain she was dead when he began.
Afterwards he thought about what he had done and decided her father might insist on seeing her before he released the ransom money. He reassembled her head and torso, affixed wire around her hair to which he attached her eyelids so her eyes would be open to appear lifelike, then he wrapped her body in a blanket, propped it in the passenger’s seat of his car, and drove to the appointed street to meet Perry Parker.
Parker had arrived before Hickman. The latter drove up parallel to Parker’s car and rolled down his window, extending a loaded shotgun and demanding the cash. Parker saw Marion in the dark car and addressed her, but she did not respond. He thought she might have been drugged with Chloroform. He passed the money to Hickman who then directed him to follow while he released Marion. He drove a few hundred feet forward, leaned over and opened the passenger side door and rolled Marion onto a lawn adjacent to the road. Perry parked quickly and rushed to Marion, gathering her in his arms before he realized she was no longer alive.
The medical examiner determined that Marion had been dead for at least 12 hours. Her limbs were missing, and her body cavity had been stuffed with a towel bearing the name of Hickman’s apartment building. The following day detectives identified the missing body parts and organs scattered and wrapped neatly in newspaper throughout nearby Elysian Park.
Hickman left LA quickly, driving 1,700 miles to Pendleton Oregon where he was apprehended driving a stolen car and returned to California where he was tried and convicted of Marion Parker’s murder. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging at San Quentin Prison, a sentence that was carried out in the fall of 1928.
His motive for the kidnapping was, he testified at trial, that he needed money for college. He said he bore no malice toward Perry and had not intended to hurt Marion. Her parents mourned her for the rest of their lives.
Author Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) patterned several of her protagonists after William Edward Hickman whom she greatly admired although she said she did not approve of the murder.
Israel Keyes and His Final Victim, Samantha Koenig
When he was apprehended after confessing to 11 homicides committed between 2000 and 2010, Israel Keyes told detectives he had not patterned his behavior on any other serial killer. While there is no evidence that he knew the details of William Edward Hickman’s case, these men were cut from the same cloth.
Like Hickman, Keyes was handsome, sociable, and intelligent. He was born the second of ten children to Heidi and John Keyes in Utah in 1978. Theirs was an unusual family. They did not interact with their neighbors, were opposed to government interference in personal lives, homeschooled all the children, belonged to a fundamental Christian white supremacist, racist, anti-Semitic church, and disavowed modern life—living in a crude 2-room cabin John built in an isolated site without plumbing or electricity. Like many serial killers, Israel enjoyed torturing small animals. He was fascinated by serial killers. By the age of 14, he realized that things that did not bother him were much more disturbing to his peers.
He joined the army where he served without incident and was honorably discharged in 2001. By all accounts, he lived quite an ordinary life for the next ten years. He lived with Tammie Hawkins, a woman he met online, and they had a daughter together who may have been named Sarah. The relationship did not last, though, and he moved to Anchorage Alaska with nurse practitioner Kimberly Anderson. Keyes had shared custody of his daughter, and she lived with him and Kimberly one year, then with her mother the next.
Keyes was unique in the annals of serial killers; he organized the means to his crimes before he selected his victims. He assembled what he dubbed “kill caches,” which consisted of 5-gallon orange buckets he bought at Home Depot and filled with firearms, ammunition, large knives, rope, tape, cash, and Drano. He criss-crossed the United States and buried the kill kits in remote locations which he memorized. When he felt the urge to kill, he traveled to those areas by air or car and scouted potential victims. He had no “type.” Keyes killed people who were young, old, male, female, and no particular body type or physical characteristic.
By 2012, after having committed at least 10 undetected murders and numerous armed robberies to support his lifestyle, Keyes’s psyche began to unravel. Unlike his previous crimes, his last was committed close to home. Like Hickman, he abducted his victim and tried to collect ransom from her family. Samantha Koenig was an 18-year-old barista who worked the night shift at a tiny coffee kiosk located in a commercial parking lot. As she was closing for the night about 11:30 p.m. on February 1st, her final customer was Israel Keyes, who ordered an Americano coffee. When she produced it, Keyes pointed a gun at her, climbed through the order window, and forced her to his car where he secured her hands. He used her cell phone to text her employer, notifying him that she would be out of town for the weekend, and her boyfriend Dwayne to explain she was upset by a recent disagreement they had and would be going away with friends for a few days. Then he assured Samantha that this was only a kidnapping, and that as soon as he collected the ransom, he would set her free. He was lying.
He drove to the small home he shared with his nurse-practitioner-girlfriend Kimberly and his 10-year-old daughter. There he carried her into a heated shed in the yard, secured her to metal rings in the walls, turned up the radio to cover any noise she might make, and double padlocked the door. Throughout the next two days, he visited the shed, raped Samantha repeatedly, and brought her water. Finally, he strangled and stabbed her to death, wrapped her body in vinyl, and turned off the heat to retard decomposition. Then he went into the house and packed for a planned family cruise. Early the next morning he woke his daughter, and they took a taxi to the airport to fly to Louisianna where they would begin their Caribbean adventure. Kimberly who was never allowed into the shed and unaware of its contents, went to work and lived her ordinary life while Israel and his daughter cruised.
In the meantime, Samantha’s father Jim and her boyfriend Dwayne had reported her missing immediately after receiving Keyes’s text sent from her cell phone. Police were not too alarmed at first; teenagers often left home and returned, uninjured, just as suddenly. Jim and Dwayne had a different viewpoint: They knew it was unlike Samantha to have taken off so suddenly, especially without talking to her dad with whom she was very close. They peppered the neighborhood with flyers and contacted all her friends, hoping to find someone who knew where she might have gone. As time passed, they became increasingly more alarmed.
The Keyes family vacation ended two weeks later, and at home again Israel got busy writing a ransom note with a typewriter he had bought at a thrift store. He wore gloves while he typed. Like William Hickman, he realized that Samantha’s father might want proof his daughter was alive before paying any ransom. Upon his return, he saw that Samantha’s body had frozen and her appearance did not improve when he thawed her with a hair dryer. Keyes drove to Walmart where he bought women’s makeup, strong thread, and sturdy sewing needles. He did his best to apply makeup, then washed and braided her hair. Finally, he sewed her eyelids open to make her appear alive, a strange practice William Hickman had also used with Marion Parker’s body. Keyes snapped an instant photo of Samantha with his own hand in the picture holding the local newspaper dated February 13th. He drafted a second text message to Dwayne: “Conner park sign under pic of Albert ain’t she purty,” it read. Then he dismembered Samantha’s body and disposed of the parts while ice-fishing in deep Matanuska Lake. He cooked the fish he caught there for his family’s dinner.
Jim and Dwayne immediately notified police and rushed to Conner’s Lake Park, a popular recreation spot on the outskirts of Anchorage. There on a bulletin board they found a plastic sandwich bag thumbtacked above the photo of a missing dog named Albert. They waited for police to arrive. The latter opened the bag and found a lengthy typed ransom note demanding $30,000 for Samantha’s return and the intentionally fuzzy photo Keyes had taken.
Since Keyes had secured Samantha’s debit card and pin, Jim made the first of several deposits into the account. Detectives were able to trace Keyes’s whereabouts through his ATM withdrawals. After making a few transactions in various Anchorage locations, Keyes began to travel further from home. He drove 4,000 miles in a rented white Ford Focus, traveling to New Mexico and Texas. Hickman and Keyes were both travelin’ men, perhaps both trying to escape from themselves. Police finally located Keyes in Texas during a traffic stop. His car’s image had been captured on an ATM security camera. Samantha’s cell phone and debit card were in the car. He was arrested there; as he later told detectives, he was getting careless.
FBI investigators interviewed Keyes for many hours, multiple times. He agreed to confess his crimes with some stipulations. He wanted to be supplied with Starbucks brand Americano coffee, a specific type of cigar, and Snickers candy bars. He demanded that his identity be kept from media because he did not want his daughter to know the details of his crimes. Last, he wanted an execution date. Agents explained that he could not be executed without due process, but if he were to provide them with details about other murders, they thought that would yield a speedier trial and better chances of execution.
The only power left to Israel Keyes was the power to give or withhold information, He gave up what he knew slowly. While he confessed to 11 homicides, he only named two victims, the middle-aged couple Bill and Lorraine Currier of Vermont. He had selected them at random and took them from their home to an abandoned farmhouse where he raped and strangled Lorraine and shot Bill to death. He hid their bodies in the basement. The house was demolished several months later, and the bodies were never recovered. The FBI had circumstantial evidence linking Keyes to other murders, but he would not confirm details.
He was being held in jail in Anchorage Alaska on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and burglary in early December 2012, when he finally beat the system he had viewed with such contempt: He committed suicide in his cell by cutting his wrists and hanging himself with a bedsheet. Beneath his cot were images of 11 skulls drawn in his own blood and a long dark poem he had written, a kind of ode to death.