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Audio: Serial killer bargained with prosecutors in exchange for death sentence

Jill Burke and Ben Anderson
In his final interview, Israel Keyes made a chilling reference to the possibility of a death by his own hand, rather than waiting on the government to do it for him. “The bottom line is … we already all know how this ends,” says Keyes, laughing. Aaron Jansen illustration

Hours of recorded interviews between Israel Keyes and investigators reveal a detached serial killer who, after he was finally caught, had one main goal: to die. Keyes, apparently frustrated that the legal system couldn't accommodate his speedy execution wish, ended up taking his own life in December, about nine months after his arrest in connection with the kidnapping and murder of 18-year-old Anchorage barista Samantha Koenig.

The interviews were released to the public for the first time Monday, the result of an Alaska Dispatch court motion to unseal federal case files related to Keyes. Alaska Dispatch and the U.S. Attorney's Alaska office negotiated the release of most, but not all, of the records, agreeing to allow some details and files to remain private to accommodate either the sensitivity of the victims' families or the limited, ongoing needs of investigators.

The audio files contain discussions with Keyes that took place from April to July last year. In them, he seems unfazed by his capture. Articulate, level-headed and polite, he trades nibbles of information for time to puff on cigars, and seems confident it is he -- not investigators -- who has the upper hand. He wants to fire his attorney and is firm in his desire to keep the details of his crimes out of the media spotlight.

More: Listen to law enforcement interview Keyes

He believes there is no way he can avoid the death penalty in an American courtroom, nor does he want to. He pushes prosecutors to guarantee him death within a year. Do this for him, he tells them, and he will lead them through the details of his nationwide killing spree, excursions he would later refer to casually as “trips.”

'I want an execution date'

The series of 13 interviews begins April 2, 2012. The same day dive teams searched frozen Matanuska Lake for Koenig's body, an Anchorage Police officer and FBI agent visited Keyes at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. He'd been booked on fraud charges for using Koenig's bank card, but had yet to be indicted for her murder.

Homicide detective Monique Doll debriefs Keyes on the developments, explaining there's only so much information they can control. Only once Koenig is found will a press release come out, and it won't name Keyes. But, Doll cautions, it will only be a matter of time before the media puts two and two together, connecting Keyes, who was nabbed in Texas in March 2012 and transferred back to Anchorage, to the abduction and killing. Doll wants to know what it will take for Keyes to open up and share with investigators “more chapters to this book.”

“I'm happy to help, but it's on my terms,” Keyes tells Doll. “I'm not in this for the glory. I'm not trying to be on TV.”

By Wednesday of the same week, Koenig's body has been found, and U.S. prosecutors have gotten the OK to speak with Keyes about anything other than the Koenig case. Keyes has a court-appointed attorney who won't let his client talk about it.

As for what it will take for the self-admitted serial killer to offer a window into his dark side, Keyes minces no words. “I want an execution date. I want this whole thing wrapped up and over with as soon as possible,” he tells federal prosecutors during an interview.

Keyes adds: “I want my kid to have a chance to grow up ... you know ... she's in a safe place now, she's not going to see any of this. I want her to have a chance to grow up and not have all this hanging over her head.”

He expresses distaste at the idea of being stuck in jail for years, even decades, as the sins of the father come back to haunt his daughter, old crimes opened and maybe even solved as the FBI pieces together the clues they have to go on. The more time he's in jail, the harder it will be for his daughter to make a clean break. “I don't want stuff to keep popping up on the news about me,” he says.

'There is a firestorm coming'

In another interview, Keyes shows concerns for others close to him: “Everybody I’ve known, to a certain extent, you could say they’re my victims too, because they’re going to have to pay for this for years to come."

Prosecutors Kevin Feldis and Frank Russo tell Keyes they'll do what they can, but they need more details about him and his victims: Names, places, bodies, weapons and timelines. Without them, there's only so much they can do to bend to Keyes' wishes, they say.

“There is a firestorm coming,” Russo tells Keyes as he and Feldis explain the FBI has a standard playbook, and unless prosecutors have good reason to call agents off of the blueprint mission protocol -- sending leads out to offices far and wide -- the playbook will kick in.

“I don't care about your sentence. I care about closure to the families,” Russo says.

After about 20 minutes, Keyes starts bargaining: “I'll give you two bodies and a name. And if you want the rest of the story, I can give you one of the murder weapons and the rest of the story about what happened.”

Keyes proceeds to lead the prosecutors, FBI and Anchorage Police to Burlington, Vt. Using Google Maps, he shows investigators his travels there in June 2011. Following the Winooski River eastward to farm country, he homes in on an abandoned farmhouse where he says he killed a couple and disposed of their bodies. Navigating back to Burlington, using Google Maps' street view, he takes them on a tour past a Lowe’s, a drug store and the hotel where he'd stayed. And it was in this neighborhood, he said, that he went hunting for his kill.

Though he says he'd chosen Bill and Lorraine Currier at random, the region was methodically prepared. He'd been there before, had left guns buried nearby, including a .40-caliber gun he unearthed and used in the kidnapping and killing of the Curriers.

His victims, and his killing grounds, appeared to be crimes of opportunity. The Curriers were chosen because they had no dog and their home was easy for Keyes to enter and guess the layout. He chose the farmhouse for the murder because it was remote, although he'd also contemplated using an abandoned church he'd passed while driving there.

At some point, Doll pulls up a picture of the Curriers, whose first names Keyes hadn't been able to recall. “Are those the two people you killed?” Feldis asks.

“Yup,” Keyes replies.

An ongoing negotiation

After his confession to the murder of the Curriers, Keyes wasn’t nearly as forthcoming with information. In May, he confessed to having killed someone in New York, though he didn’t give a name or identify the location of the body. He also confessed to a bank robbery in New York.

Despite investigators’ and prosecutors’ best efforts, they never discovered the location or the identity of that victim, with Keyes taking the information to his grave. Keyes came tantalizingly close during a interview in early June, as Feldis prodded him for information. Keyes spends several moments in silence during the interview, weighing his options.

“Nope,” Keyes finally says. “No, I’m not going to give you a name today.”

Many of the remaining conversations take on the air of a negotiation, with Keyes debating with prosecutors over what would help him and what might hurt him in the public eye. The final interviews released Monday took place on July 26, 2012, less than a week after details linking Keyes to the murder of the Curriers in Vermont were leaked to the media.

The conversations were still cordial, but Keyes was obviously not pleased by the release of his name in a case far from Alaska. He said his biggest concern remained the details surrounding the Koenig case.

“If certain details of the Koenig case come out ... that’s kind of (the) worst-case scenario, and everything else I did before that is automatically gonna be assumed just as bad,” Keyes told prosecutors.

He admits that he’s “ticked off” about the Vermont case, but also downplays that case as less important, though the reasons aren’t explicit.

“Like I say, it doesn’t matter,” Keyes said. “As far as Vermont goes, everybody already assumes I did it. Even my own family pretty much assumes I did it.”

Keyes’ public defender, Rich Curtner, tells prosecutors that Keyes’ family saw the news even before Curtner himself did.

Despite the setback, Russo continues to try to persuade Keyes to open up about other cases. Keyes, now even more worried about the gruesome details of his crimes being made public, is still tight-lipped.

So Russo suggests a compromise, asking Keyes if he would be willing to just gives names or locations of victims, leaving out the details of the murders.

“It’s sort of a quantity versus quality,” Russo says.

Keyes didn’t fold that day, or ever, before being found in his Anchorage jail cell on a December morning months later, having cut his own wrist and strangled himself with a bed sheet wrapped around his neck and attached to one of his ankles.

In his final interview, Keyes made a chilling reference to the possibility of a death by his own hand, rather than waiting on the government to do it for him.

“The bottom line is ... we already all know how this ends,” says Keyes, laughing. “So all I care about is what happens between now and whenever it ends.

"And if things don’t go the way I want,” he says, laughing again, “I don’t need you guys.”

Alaska Dispatch reporters Suzanna Caldwell and Laurel Andrews contributed to this report. Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com and Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com