American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century
Maureen Callahan, Viking Press, 304 pages, 2019. $27
No crime in recent memory has shaken Alaskans as deeply as the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Koenig. Almost immediately after she was abducted from the Anchorage coffee shack she worked at on the night of Feb. 11, 2012, news spread throughout the state. It dominated headlines for weeks.
A month later, an Anchorage contractor named Israel Keyes was arrested in Texas after repeatedly using Koenig’s debit card while traveling across the state. Extradited back to Alaska, he told interrogators her dismembered body could be found at the bottom of Matanuska Lake.
Even as divers recovered her remains, Keyes shared the details of a double murder he had committed in Vermont, alluded to other killings, and explained the methods he used to carry out the crimes. He was, possibly, the most masterful serial killer in American history. Insisting he could provide precise information on each killing, he spent months toying with investigators, dribbling out cryptic details but never providing names or body locations. Then, on Dec. 2, 2012, he committed suicide in his prison cell, taking his secrets with him.
In “American Predator,” veteran journalist Maureen Callahan provides a chilling account of Keyes’ killing spree, one that traversed multiple states, possibly extending into Canada and, during his military service, the Middle East. It isn’t easy reading, and it definitely isn’t for the squeamish. But by drawing from documents, court records, and interviews with those involved in the case, Callahan has produced a superb work of true crime writing that will haunt its readers long after the final page has been turned.
In her brief preface, Callahan reminds readers that serial killing is the rarest of all forms of murder. It’s the only assuring note in an otherwise very frightening tale. Then she tells the story that brought Keyes to notice, the disappearance of Koenig on that winter night as she prepared to close the coffee stand where she was working alone. Readers are next introduced to the team of FBI agents and Anchorage Police Department officers assigned to the case.
Security footage showed a man walking up to the window, robbing the stand, then jumping in and abducting her. This created a palpable and quite justifiable sense of fear in Anchorage, and for weeks the high-profile crime obsessed Alaskans. Meanwhile investigators failed to find any evidence apart from the video, which did not provide a discernible look at the assailant.
Weeks later, a call was placed from Koenig’s cellphone, which led authorities to a ransom note demanding that money be placed in her account in exchange for her return. This was Keyes’ fatal error, and in retrospect, a surprise given how methodical he was subsequently found to have been. Visiting family in Texas, he began withdrawing money from ATMs with the card, creating the trail that led to his apprehension.
Back in Alaska, Keyes admitted to killing Koenig and told investigators where her remains could be found. For Alaskans this solved one mystery, but for investigators it opened a much deeper probe. Keyes told interrogators he wanted to be executed as soon as possible, and in exchange would provide them with details of past killings. The second half of this book uses the interviews that followed as the basis for puzzling out Keyes’ life, which remains shadowy to this day.
Born into a family involved with a white supremacist, fundamentalist Christian cult, Keyes lacked so much as a birth certificate, was home-schooled and, despite serving in the Army and running a business, left only a scant paper trail.
Yet he traveled widely, killing people along the way. How many is unclear. Investigators suspect at least 11, but it seems likely there were many others, including two girls murdered in the remote part of Washington state he lived in as a teenager, as well as a man in Texas who vanished after Koenig’s murder but before Keyes was arrested.
What stands out is Keyes’ methodology, which was far more complex than even some of the most renowned serial killers. He would fly to another state; rent a car; travel sometimes more than a thousand miles; abduct a victim or victims chosen at random; transport, rape and kill them (he would sexually assault both male and female victims); then move their remains to yet another location, often placing them where they couldn’t be found. He also robbed banks. And he committed acts of arson, frequently to burn bodies.
What he perfected was the ability to not leave any DNA evidence at crime scenes, and to completely cover his tracks. What he also did was hunt people. He grew up in the woods and knew how to be silent and stalk prey — like most serial killers, he tortured animals before moving to humans. There was no victim profile for those he killed other than all of them being in opportune positions for him to strike. During interrogations, Callahan writes, FBI agent Steve Payne, who led the investigation, “thought about a documentary he’d seen the other night about ambush predators: animals that kill with lightning speed and vanish just as fast.
“That’s what this guy is, Payne realized. An ambush predator.”
One of the truisms of serial killers is that they grow bored by getting away with their crimes, and gradually raise the risk factor to themselves. This is what Keyes did when he used Koenig’s debit card — for all his craftiness, he apparently didn’t understand that this would create a digital record. Had he not done this, he would have quietly been able to continue targeting victims, and the fate of the young barista would have never been known. The bodies of the couple he admitted killing in Vermont have still not been found. Eight more people are assumed victims of his, but no one knows for sure. There were undoubtedly many more.
Serial killers might be rare, but Keyes showed how efficient a skilled one can be. “American Predator” is a deeply frightening book.