Are there warning signs of a serial killer in the making? Around the world, people who commit the ultimate act of murder are either locked in prison for the rest of their lives or are sentenced to death by capital punishment. Why? Because the worst crime that can ever be committed is taking another person’s life.
While some people are killed by accident or in crimes of passion, there are other murders that are planned and strategized with a clear intent to harm not one victim but many over the span of days, months, weeks and even years. These horrific and tragic acts are committed by some of the world’s evilest and most psychologically unstable menaces – serial killers.
Who are the worst serial killers in history and what led them to such horrible acts? Did they have normal childhoods or were there any warning signs of impending tragedy? We searched across the globe to find 20 photos of the most famous serial killers when they were children that are sure to haunt you. Get ready to travel abroad to countries like England, Germany and Norway but first let’s start our list right here in America’s backyard.
20 – James Holmes
Mass murderer James Eagan Holmes turned 28 years old on December 13, 2015 and, thankfully, he had to celebrate his birthday behind bars – much like he’ll do for the rest of his life. Holmes walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012 and fired countless rounds into the dark crowd killing 12 people in the ambush and injuring 70 others. He also booby-trapped his apartment with explosives with the intent to harm police and other first responders who entered.
The tragedy left many to wonder if there were early signs of Holmes becoming a killer. Growing up in San Diego, California, his father was a mathematician and scientist while his mother worked as a registered nurse. By the age of 11, Holmes attempted suicide and was diagnosed with mental health issues. His teenage years proved to follow the same pattern and, just weeks before the shooting, one of his psychiatrists suspected he could be dangerous but felt committing him would only make matters worse. Moments before the shooting, Holmes called a crisis hotline with the hopes that someone would talk him out of committing the massacre.
19 – Dr. Josef Mengele
One of the sickest men in history to ever carry out plans of experimentation and torture, Dr. Josef Mengele was a German officer and physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Charged with the task of deciding who lived and who died, Mengele chose victims for the gas chambers and others for his deadly human experiments that earned him the nickname as the “Angel of Death.” Leaving Auschwitz in 1945 shortly before the Russians liberated the camp, Mengele fled to South America and spent the rest of his life hiding from his rightful punishment.
As a child, Mengele was the eldest of three children whose parents owned a farm machinery manufacturing company. A well-rounded and star student, he went on to study medicine at Goethe University and earned his PhD from the University of Munich in 1935. From there, he studied biology when his interest in genetics was born. By 1937, he had joined the Nazi Party and was given a free pass to conduct the most horrific and tragic genetics study in world history.
18 – Adam Lanza
Responsible for the deadliest shooting since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Adam Lanza invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 and murdered 20 children and six staff members. That morning, before ever leaving home, he had already shot and killed his own mother. Never intending to pay for his crimes, 20-year-old Lanza committed suicide as police arrived at the school
A former Sandy Hook Elementary student, Lanza grew up at his mother’s home a few miles from the school and was an honors student before being homeschooled during high school. Described by many teachers as “intelligent, but nervous and fidgety,” Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder when he was 13 years old in what, according to his father, might have actually been undiagnosed signs of schizophrenia and psychotic behavior that led to his final and tragic mental breakdown.
17 – Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Thousands of runners look forward to crossing the finish line each year at one of the biggest races in the United States, the Boston Marathon. The 2013 marathon festivities, however, were ruined when Russian brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placed a pair of pressure cooker bombs at the finish line killing three people and injuring nearly 300 more. Escaping the scene, a massive manhunt for the brothers followed until Tamerlan was killed in a firefight and Dzhokhar was arrested and sentenced to death.
Ostracized from an early age by their roots in Chechnya, the brothers emigrated with the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2002 and were granted an asylum to escape persecution. Tamerlan enrolled in a local college but dropped out to pursue his dreams of joining the U.S. Olympic boxing team while his younger brother studied marine biology in Dartmouth. While both were recognized as Muslim extremists, Dzhokar was considered to be the more “normal” and “level-headed” of the two.
16 – Richard Ramirez
Better known as “The Night Stalker,” Richard Ramirez was an American serial killer and rapist whose series of home invasions terrorized Los Angeles and San Francisco residents between 1984 and 1985. Never showing an ounce of remorse, the Satanist was charged with 13 murders, 11 sexual assaults, 14 burglaries and 5 attempted murders using a variety of weapons including tire irons, machetes, knives and guns. Caught in 1985, he was sentenced to death row where he died from leukemia in 2013.
The youngest of five children growing up in El Paso, Texas, Ramirez was abused by his father whose temper would often lead to physical beatings. Experiencing epileptic seizures throughout his early teens, Ramirez looked up to his older cousin Mike, a war veteran, who shared pictures of the women he raped while fighting overseas. With little idea of right and wrong, Ramirez turned to drugs as Mike taught him how to kill with confidence. By the age of 13, Mike’s lessons became reality when Ramirez saw him shoot his wife in the face during an argument. Already mentally unstable, a killer was born.
15 – Alexander Pichushkin
Another killer and another nickname, Russian serial killer Alexander Pichushkin was better known as The Chessboard Killer and The Bitsa Park Maniac who haunted his native Moscow from 1992 until 2006. Believed to have murdered as many as 60 people with at least 49 confirmed kills, Pichushkin lured his victims with a game of chess in the park before making them his final checkmate.
First remembered as a social child, Pichushkin’s personality changed after he fell off a swing set and hit his head, which damaged his brain. With little ability to control his impulses, Pichushkin showed signs of rage and aggression which only worsened when he was bullied by others. Sent to live with his grandfather, he learned to channel his energy on chess and quickly became an outstanding player. Unfortunately, when his grandfather died and he was forced to return home, Pichushkin’s progress and focus disappeared as he failed to control his evil urges to kill.
14 – Andrei Chikatilo
Staying in Russia for the next serial killer on our list, Andrei Chikatilo was nicknamed The Red Ripper and The Butcher of Rostov after terrorizing the Soviet Union for 12 years between 1978 and 1990. Confessing to murdering 56 women and children total, Chikatilo was found guilty in 1992 for committing 52 of the murders and was sentenced to death with his execution set for February 14, 1994.
Growing up in extreme poverty and living in a single-room hut, Chikatilo was often verbally abused by his mother while his father was a kind man who was later drafted into the Red Army during World War II. Witnessing bombings, fires and shootings during the war, Chikatilo was scarred and spent much of his teenage years trying to fit in. Eventually becoming a teacher, the impotent and awkward Chikatilo molested his first student in 1973 and lost many teaching jobs as a result of ongoing complaints until committing his first murder in 1978.
13 – David Berkowitz
Best known as the Son of Sam and the .44 Caliber Killer, David Berkowitz ravaged New York City in the summer of 1976 when he killed six people and injured seven others in a series of shootings. Leaving a trail of letters threatening that the killings would continue, Berkowitz mocked police on a massive manhunt before he was finally caught in 1977. Confessing to all of the crimes and claiming a demon ordered him to commit them, he is now serving six life sentences.
Born as Richard David Falco to a single Jewish woman, Berkowitz was adopted a few days after his birth by a Jewish couple who ran a local hardware store. Showing signs of high intelligence, Berkowitz was more interested in bullying and causing trouble, leaving his adoptive parents concerned about his behavior. Making contact with his birth mother at the age of 21, Berkowitz grew even more troubled over his identity, which many believed was the root of his horrific crimes.
12 – Fred West
At 25 years old, English native Fred West became a serial killer and rapist only to later be joined on his killing spree by his second wife, Rosemary. Together, the couple tortured, raped and killed over 13 young women, some of whom were family members, between 1967 and 1987. Many of the victims were killed at the Wests home and found buried on or near the property. Arrested and charged in 1994, Fred committed suicide before the trial while Rosemary was imprisoned for life.
Also coming from a poor family like so many others on our list, West’s father was a horrible man who taught his son bestiality at an early age. His mother wasn’t much better as she began abusing him when he was 12 years old making it clear that his parents’ disturbing and shocking behavior was passed on to him. Suffering from a motorcycle accident as a teenager, West later experienced fits of rage that culminated into early molestation, imprisonment and a 20-year killing spree.
11 – Albert DeSalvo
Born and raised near Boston, Massachusetts, Albert DeSalvo became known as the Boston Strangler after he confessed to murdering over a dozen women in the area. While many believed his confession was debatable, DeSalvo was imprisoned for another series of crimes when he raped several women between the ages of 19 and 85. Sentenced to life in prison in 1967, DeSalvo was found stabbed to death in the prison hospital on November 25, 1973.
As a child, DeSalvo watched his father, a violent alcoholic, continuously beat his mother which led him to follow suit by torturing animals and stealing. Arrested for the first time at just 12 years old for battery and robbery, it was clear that DeSalvo was heading down a dark path of destruction. By the age of 15, he stole a car and served a second sentence at which time he enlisted in the army but not even that was enough to keep him out of trouble.
10 – Timothy McVeigh
Tragedy struck in the American heartland on April 19, 1995 when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people and injuring over 600 more. In what was, at the time, the deadliest terrorist act in United States history, McVeigh was sentenced to death for terrorism in 1997 and was lethally injected in an Indiana prison on June 11, 2001 at 33 years old.
Raised by his father in New York, McVeigh claimed he was often bullied as a child and spent much of his time living in an imaginary world where he could get revenge. Often described as being shy, McVeigh developed an interest in firearms as a teen which led him to the Army. With growing hatred of the government throughout his service as well as resentment over being bullied, McVeigh’s extremism continued to build until it was far too late.
9 – Gary Ridgway
From 1982 until 2001, the Pacific Northwest was on the lookout for the Green River Killer who would later be identified as Gary Ridgway. Convicted of 48 murders and confessing to nearly 50 others, Ridgway has the highest victim count of any serial killer in United States history. Committing most of the murders throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ridgway targeted prostitutes and vulnerable women in Washington State whose bodies he left on the banks of the Green River.
With a troubled home life and parents who argued violently, Ridgway showed early signs of anger as a child and tested below average in intelligence. Described by many of his classmates as quiet and forgettable, Ridgway wet the bed until he was 14 years old partly because he enjoyed the arousal he felt when his mother bathed him. By the age of 16, he stabbed a six-year-old child who remembered Ridgway walking away laughing and saying, “I always wondered what it would be like to kill someone.”
8 – Heinrich Himmler
The second German officer on our list, Heinrich Himmler was Adolf Hitler’s right hand man during World War II when Hitler appointed him to lead the Holocaust so that he could focus on battle tactics. Becoming one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, Himmler was directly responsible for ordering the death of nearly seven million people until his detainment by the British Army and suicide on May 23, 1945.
Born in a Roman Catholic family in Munich in 1900, Himmler was an outstanding student who was remembered as hardworking but socially awkward. From his journal, which he kept from the age of 10, Himmler proved to have a strong interest in adult topics such as religion and sex which intrigued him well into his adulthood. By the age of 22, his interest in antisemitism heightened leading him to join the Nazi Party in 1923 where he rose to a devastating and tragic level of power.
7 – Anders Behring Breivik
One of the youngest serial killers on our list, Norway native Anders Behring Breivik was 32 years old when he killed 77 people and injured 300 others in the 2011 Norway attacks. First setting off a van bomb in Oslo and killing eight people, Breivik then shot 69 others at a summer camp in Utoya as part of his plan to distribute and publicize his political manifesto. Convicted of mass murder and terrorism, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison with ongoing incarceration if he proves to be a danger to society.
With his parents divorcing a year after he was born, the court ordered Breivik to live with his mother who was physically and verbally abusive, often telling him that “she wished he were dead.” Suffering from mental health problems as early as the age of 4, Breivik was rebellious as a teenager and, by 23 years old, had already started strategizing a nine-year-plan to finance the 2011 attacks supporting his far-right political beliefs.
6 – Dennis Rader
Better known as the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Strangler, Dennis Rader is one of the worst criminals in American history. Terrorizing residents in and around Wichita, Kansas from 1974 until 1991, Raider committed 10 murders after each of which he sent letters to the police and local media detailing the crimes. Taking a hiatus from killing in the 1990s, Rader and his letters reappeared in 2004, ultimately leading to his 2005 arrest and sentencing to 175 years in prison.
Raised in a quiet Wichita neighborhood, Rader made a habit of torturing cats as a child but seemed to blend into society better as a teen after getting a job at a local grocery store. Marrying in 1971 and welcoming two children, Rader graduated from Wichita State while working at ADT all while living the secret life of a murderer whose cat-and-mouse game with Kansas police gave him a false sense of power and intense pleasure and satisfaction over his growing fame.
5 – John Wayne Gacy
One of the most infamous serial killers in world history, John Wayne Gacy gave people a legitimate reason to fear clowns. Known as the Killer Clown, Gacy dressed as “Pogo the Clown” and performed at children’s events around Cook County, Illinois. Convicted of murdering at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978, Gacy strangled his victims and buried the majority of them in the crawl space of his home before being arrested and sentenced to death in 1980.
Overweight and bullied as a child, Gacy’s father was also a bully and an alcoholic who regularly beat his wife and children. By the age of seven, Gacy was caught fondling a girl and, a few months later, he too was molested by a family friend. Desperate for his father’s approval but never receiving it, Gacy ended up marrying only to live a secret life where he regularly cheated on his wife with male employees in a never-ending ring of prostitution, pornography and drugs.
4 – Charles Manson
The evil mastermind behind the Manson Family, Charles Manson established a commune in the California desert during the 1960s and led his followers on a five-week killing spree in the summer of 1969 in which nine people were murdered. Although it remains unclear who in the group actually committed the murders, Manson was convicted as jointly responsible and sentenced to life in prison on January 25, 1971.
Born to a 16-year-old single mother, Manson never knew his father growing up and has become notorious for making up stories about his childhood. What remains factual, however, is that Manson’s mother and brother were imprisoned for robbing a gas station in 1939 leaving Manson to live with his aunt and uncle. With no real supervision or stability at home, Manson turned to a life of crime and spent the majority of his early life in institutions or behind bars.
3 – Myra Hindley
The only female serial killer on our list and known as one of the evilest women in Great Britain, Myra Hindley makes up one half of the Moors Murderers of Greater Manchester, England. Pairing up with her boyfriend Ian Brady, the couple sexually assaulted and murdered five children between the ages of 10 and 17. Arrested in 1965 and denied her plea of insanity, Hindley was sentenced to life in prison where she died in 2002 at 60 years old.
Beaten regularly as a child by her parents, Hindley was raised in poverty until she was sent to live with her grandmother when her sister was born. By the age of 13, Hindley’s life forever changed when she let her friend Michael go swimming alone in a local reservoir and he drowned. Shortly after, her behavior and physical appearance changed as she dealt with her grief and became infatuated with Brady whose criminal past and seedy character only attracted her even more.
2 – Jeffrey Dahmer
Known to some as the Milwaukee Cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer was a gruesome man who was convicted of not only killing 17 men but also of raping and dismembering them. Covering a 13-year span between 1978 and 1991, Dahmer’s murdering spree continually got worse over time as he took an interest in having sex with the corpses (necrophilia), eating his victims (cannibalism) and taking body parts as souvenirs. Finally caught and sentenced to life in prison in 1992, Dahmer was found beaten to death in his cell two years later.
Living in a tense home with his constantly sick or suicidal mother and his father working as a chemist, Dahmer was quiet and reserved leaving his teachers to feel he was neglected. Developing an interest in animals as a child, Dahmer spent his free time dismembering body parts and storing them in jars after learning the technique from his father. By puberty, he knew he was a homosexual and struggled with fantasies of overpowering his conquests and making use of their bodies, an early sign psychotic behavior that would eventually surface.
1 – Ted Bundy
The final serial killer on our list is also one of the most notorious in American history, Ted Bundy. Murdering dozens of women throughout the 1970s, Bundy lured victims to his car by faking an injury or impersonating a police officer only to kidnap, rape and kill them in a secluded area where he would then molest and decapitate his victims. Denying the crimes for over a decade, Bundy finally confessed to 30 murders across seven states between 1974 and 1978 shortly before his execution in January 1989.
With his actual father unknown, Bundy’s family members often suspected that his abusive and unstable grandfather, whom he later lived with, was actually his father. Showing early signs of disturbing behavior, Bundy’s aunt once awoke from a nap only to find herself surrounded by knives as the three-year-old Bundy stood next to her smiling. Continuing to struggle with his social skills, Bundy spent his adolescence buried in crime magazines and fascinated with corpses, giving his family an early glimpse into a very sad and tragic future.