The recent publication of another speculative Zodiac book got me thinking about killers who communicate, whether it be through messages left at the crime scene (William Heirens), or letters to the media, like Jack the Ripper and Zodiac. Motives vary with communicators; some seem to get off on taunting law enforcement, others reveal hints of guilt, or offer explanations for their behavior.
Communicative killers are unusual, but they’re also especially perverse, I think, because murder isn’t enough for them. Their violence is voluble. In ending a life they felt like they got to play God, and in reaching out after they extend the role-play. They’re cloaked in anonymity and always in control of the discourse. One essay on the subject characterized it as “needing to vent.” I’d call it “needing to re-injure.”
As much as I loathe communicators I’d take one over a silent killer any day because of the treasure trove of clues they inadvertently reveal in their correspondence. Even the smartest criminal can’t help but tip his hand when he writes something (I’m looking at you, Unabomber).
The unsolved murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley is one of less well-known cases, and most haunting, involving a communicative killer.
April 1, 1988 was Good Friday and Tinsley, a first grader at Fairfield Elementary in Fort Wayne, Ind., got together with two friends to play after school. Around 3:30 p.m. Tinsley indicated she was going to walk down the street to fetch an umbrella she’d left at a friend’s house. A witness later described seeing Tinsley forced into a battered blue pickup by a white man in his 30s. On April 4, a jogger discovered Tinsley’s body in a ditch in Spencerville, about 20 miles northeast of Fort Wayne. She’d been raped and suffocated.
Tips came in, but the case went cold. Two years later, on May 21, 1990, a teenage boy in northeast Fort Wayne called police with a peculiar story. Over the course of several days he’d noticed a message scrawled on a barn door getting progressively darker and more readable.
Someone had first written the macabre message in pencil, then returned the next day and drew over it in crayon, then returned a final time to write over it in black marker.
“I kill April Marie Tisley” it said, misspelling her last name. “I kill again.” There’s also a “ha ha.”
Message on barn door
Investigators say they believe whoever wrote the message was April’s killer. They haven’t said why, but there are two possibilities. The writing implement, said to be crayons, was found nearby, and DNA from the crayons could have been matched to a sample found on April’s body. The second possibility has been discussed on message boards, but not confirmed by investigators. It’s alleged that when April’s body was found she was fully clothed but missing one shoe. The rumor is that above “ha ha” was the question, “did you find the other shoe?”
Three weeks after the message was left at the barn 7-year-old Sarah Bowker disappeared from her Fort Wayne apartment complex. Her body was found the next day in a nearby ditch. Like April, Sarah had been sexually assaulted and suffocated. For unknown reasons the FBI, after analyzing the cases, said they didn’t believe the same perpetrator was responsible. But a coroner who examined both bodies, Dr. Phillip O’Shaughnessy, publicly stated he believed it was the same killer.
Nothing happened for fourteen years. Then, on March 25, 2004, a 5-year-old girl discovered a note sealed in a plastic bag left in her bike’s basket. “Hi Honey I Been watching I am the same person that kidnapped an Rape an kill Aproil tinsley…” the note began. The letter writer said that he had a “present” for the girl. The present was a used condom, left along with the note in the bag.
Note left by April Tinsley's killer
Three more messages, all similar in tone and style but increasingly aggressive, were discovered over the next several months. A mail carrier found a note and used condom in a plastic beg left for a young girl in a rural mailbox. The next note was found on a 7-year-old girl’s bicycle, which had been on her family’s front lawn. The fourth note was the most vulgar. Instead of a used condom the suspect included Polaroid photographs of himself naked from the waist down.
Forensic testing has conclusively matched April Tinsley’s killer and the note-sender. But despite impressive public outreach, investigators don’t appear to have any strong suspects. The FBI released a behavior profile on the unknown man, describing him as a Preferential Child Sex Offender who would show an unhealthy interest in young girls and who is from or is comfortable with northeast Fort Wayne. Interestingly, the FBI’s report says that that even though a Preferential Child Sex Offender may kidnap and kill once, they don’t necessarily continue, and can engage in more nuisance type sex offenses instead of violence.
Fort Wayne Police Department map of April Tinsley case
Aside from hoping that investigators really looked into who’d be comfortable returning to that barn three days in a row --- I see on Google Maps there’s a church at that intersection now, but don’t know if it was there in 1990 --- I only had one “eureka” moment when reading up on the April Tinsley case.
I wondered what would make the killer resume communication suddenly after 14 years of silence. I thought back to March 2004, and what was going on around that time. It hit me. Of course.
The BTK killer (the acronym stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”) was a serial killer who was active in Wichita in the ‘70s. He frequently wrote letters to the police and media, detailing his crimes and demanding more attention. In 1979 he appeared to stop communicating, and the case went cold. In January 2004 The Wichita Eagle wrote a story about the 30th anniversary of the unsolved case. Two months later, on March 19, the newspaper received a letter from someone purporting to be the BTK killer, along with pictures and a driver’s license of a homicide victim from 1986 not previously thought to be a victim of BTK.
The Wichita Police asked the Eagle to hold the story for a few days while they verified its authenticity, and in exchange the police agreed to give the paper an exclusive interview.
On Wednesday, March 24, 2004 the shocking news broke that the BTK killer was back. The story went national.
The next day the message from April’s killer appeared in the little's girl bike basket.
It’s said that BTK’s letters are similar in tone and style to the Zodiac’s, who would have still been big news in 1974, when BTK began. As Zodiac influenced BTK it seems BTK influenced April Tinsley’s killer, a contagion of violence and twisted self-regard.