For 14 years, Israel Keyes crisscrossed the country committing a series of monstrous — and completely random — rapes and murders. His methods defied the FBI’s understanding of the traditional serial killer profile. He preyed on men and women, young and old, in broad daylight and under the cover of darkness, with the aid of “kill kits” he stashed in different states, sometimes years in advance of a crime.
And yet, despite these horrific acts, most people have never heard his name. When journalist Maureen Callahan stumbled upon a small news item about Keyes, she became determined to find out more about him: his crimes, his victims, his life, and why the federal government seemed intent on saying as little as possible about one of the most terrifying serial killers of our time.
Her book, American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century is the result of her years of diligent research. A chilling and riveting read, it’s a peek into the mind of a killer and the investigators who eventually tracked him down.
When Keyes killed himself in prison in 2012, he left behind a dark mystery. Refinery29 spoke with Callahan about Keyes and the many questions we still have about his life and crimes.
How did you hear about Israel Keyes?
“I saw a small news story about his crimes in December 2012. It ended with what I thought was a bombshell, which was that the FBI and the federal government had Israel Keyes in custody for nearly a year and had kept his existence a secret even though he’d been killing all over the United States for the past 14 years. It just struck me as really odd. I thought it was a really compelling mystery, and I began researching.”
In the course of your research, what did you find out? What makes Israel Keyes such an unusual killer in comparison to someone we know a lot about like Ted Bundy?
“It’s interesting because Ted Bundy was a kind of hero to Keyes. But Bundy is a very specific archetype: He had rage against his mother. He went after a very specific kind of woman, and it was typically a young girl who was white, who had long, straight hair parted down the middle. But Keyes had no victim type. He would go after men and women. He didn’t care about ethnicity. Most serial killers, when they first start to kill, go after a victim they think “won’t be missed,” so people from vulnerable populations like sex workers and runaways. But Keyes would take people alone and in pairs — it could be a mother and daughter. And he would take them in broad daylight from very public places.
“He liked to hunt in the daytime in national parks, campgrounds, lakes, beaches. He told investigators he liked to hunt for people in cemeteries because nobody ever questions a person on their own in a cemetery. But then he would also take people in the dead of night from their own bedrooms in well-off suburbs where a crime like that would be unthinkable.
“He did tell the FBI at one point that he had a rule about not killing kids. He was a father with a young daughter at the time, and he was very devoted to her. But I don't believe him. I find it extremely self-serving. Keyes was a student of serial killers, both fictional and nonfictional. And to me the idea that he had any kind of rule sounds a little bit too much like the fictional serial killer Dexter who had this “moral code.” And in fact, the FBI was investigating Keyes for the murders of two little girls in the small town in Washington where he spent the bulk of his adolescence. I think that’s a case that should definitely be reopened.”
Can you tell us about his childhood? I know it was difficult to get information.
“I had a lot of access to the FBI agents working this case. I spoke with them often and in-depth for a year and a half. One of the things they would never really talk to me about and one of the things I could never find any record or documentation of was: What was the childhood like? What was his adolescence like? What was his upbringing like? That’s a key part of the narrative when you’re trying to figure out how a person becomes a killer.
“I became very determined to know more about what the FBI was hiding. And so I wound up suing the federal prosecutor in Alaska to the tune of like $30,000 to get interrogations with Keyes that they had been hiding, 13 hours worth. They’d ordered psychological evaluations, which were done very soon after his arrest, and are the greatest self-report we have about his childhood.
“I also spoke to his mother, who calls her son evil. His upbringing could not have been more conducive to raising a budding psychopath. He was the second of 10 children, the eldest son, and his parents moved to a small town in Washington when Israel and his older sister, America, were toddlers. (I find those names very interesting.)
“All of the children were homebirths. The children never see a doctor. They never go to school. They live in a tent for the first seven years in Washington state while their father builds them a cabin by hand. As the oldest boy, Israel is learning how to find and dress game, so he can feed his family. He's basically the father, because his own father — when he's not building this cabin by hand — is either working down the mountain or out in the woods praying for hours.
“And Israel begins to manifest the textbook signs of psychopathy at a very young age. By age 10, he's breaking and entering. He's stealing guns. He's setting fires. By 14, he’s torturing and killing household pets. He told the FBI that by the age of 14, he realized that he was very good at sitting out in the woods for hours on end without making a move. He committed his first abduction and stranger rape at about age 16.
“And then he’s able to join the military at 20 even though he has no birth certificate or social security number.”
And you find that fact very strange, right?
“Right. I think the FBI has kind of whitewashed this part of the narrative. What did the military see in him? They made all these exceptions for him. In what way did the U.S. army or the government help build a better monster? I've put in a request for his military file and only got back eight pages. What I learned later from getting the FBI witness interviews with the guys Keyes had served with was that he was kind of a super soldier, and he was also the most fucked up guy they'd ever encountered. He scared the shit out of them.”
Keyes committed suicide in prison before we could get many answers — much like Jeffrey Epstein just a few days ago. Do you see any parallels?
“There are so many parallels. They were both put on suicide watch and then taken off rather quickly. They were both, at the time of their incarceration, probably the highest value prisoners the government had, so you would think they’d want to make sure there was no opportunity for them to harm themselves or be harmed. So both deaths themselves are such mysteries.”
You open the book with the story of Samantha Koenig, his last known victim, and throughout you are very respectful of these lives that were lost. Can we speak a bit about the victims?
“Samantha Koenig’s case is so tragic. She was an 18-year-old girl working as a barista in one of these coffee kiosks they have in Anchorage that are little shacks on the side of the road and that were largely staffed by young pretty girls, often working alone. In the summer, they would be made to wear bikinis. And until Samantha vanished, nobody ever thought this was putting young girls at risk. She had been working there for just a few weeks. And then on a Wednesday night, February 1, 2012, she goes missing with her family reporting her as missing the next morning.
“But there was zero urgency on the part of the police department. They didn’t even rope off the crime scene. Quite frankly they didn’t really care.
“They think that this was a teenage girl who comes from a rough background and a broken home and has had a history with drugs. And they think that she made off with the day's take from the register, which is not a lot of money, maybe a couple hundred bucks, and she’s out partying, and she'll come back when she feels like it.
“Later, the FBI said that Keyes had Samantha from the time he took her around 8 p.m., that he had walked her all over Anchorage for four or five hours, and they were seen 13 times. Keyes just didn't care because he was so used to the way the police department worked in Anchorage that he knew there would be no urgency, and he was right.
“When they finally get surveillance video from inside that kiosk, they see a large man leaping into that kiosk like a cheetah. And they still think he’s an accomplice, that they're in on it together. They somehow believe that this 18-year-old girl with very limited resources has concocted this elaborate criminal conspiracy to make off with $200 for drug money. Finally, about two weeks later, they get surveillance video that shows her trying to break away from him with her hands bound in front of her, and that’s when they realize, Oh God — this is a kidnapping, at which point she’s already dead.
“Then weeks later, Keyes puts makeup on Samantha’s body and poses her for a photo with her eyes opened and a ransom note. It’s chilling. The FBI had to call in an expert to look at the photo to determine whether she was alive or dead because they could not tell. I still think that even at that point, they didn't realize what kind of monster they were dealing with.
“I thought about the victims every day while I was writing this book. I knew that the story of Israel Keyes was important because he was just unprecedented, and as a culture and society we are building better monsters; that’s something we really need to have a reckoning with.
“But all of the details of the crimes that I included in the book are there to hopefully help identify and locate other victims of Israel Keyes. I think there is a chance for other cold cases to be solved, to be closed. I think that there's a lot that law enforcement can learn from this case. I think there's a lot that the criminal profilers in this case are still learning.
“Keyes would say to these agents, I learned from you guys. He read Mind Hunter when he was 14. He watched CSI and knew what not to do and what not to leave behind. This is something that we talk about with the culture of true crime and the feedback loop we all exist in. It's a fascinating thing to explore.
“Just trying to understand how each of these serial killers came to be that way is a greatest existential question that has loomed over the art and science of criminal profiling from the beginning. And we're still really not that much closer. Every agent who works on this case says there is so much to learn because it’s so unique.”