12 Killers Who Custom-Built Devices for Their Crimes

Just because serial killers are typically deeply disturbed, violent psychopaths doesn't preclude them from also being very inventive and skillful.  At the farthest extreme of this "creative" killing are murderers who designed their own weapons and instruments of torture, frequently incorporating these devices into custom-built torture chambers, vehicles, and deceptively ordinary-looking environments.  Here are some of the worst serial killers and the homemade devices and techniques they used on their victims.  

  • H. H. Holmes Built the Ultimate Murder Castle

    Dr. Henry Howard Holmes was born on May 16, 1861, in New Hampshire, under the name Herman Webster Mudgett. Mudgett married young, had a child, and studied to become a doctor. He also began to run petty insurance scams, his marriage disintegrated, and he abandoned his wife and child, although he never officially divorced. He bounced around the East Coast, leaving several towns over suspicious circumstances.

    Mudgett ultimately headed for Chicago in 1886 and, concerned that his previous shady activity might catch up with him, changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes.  He got a job at the drugstore of the soon-to-be-widowed Elizabeth Holton. Holmes impressed Holton with his hard work, and when he offered to buy the drugstore from her, she accepted. Holmes was to pay for the pharmacy in installments, but then Elizabeth Holton quickly disappeared. Holmes claimed that she had moved to California. He bought the empty lot across the street and quickly built what he called the "World's Fair Hotel" in anticipation of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. It was so big, locals dubbed it "The Castle."

    The bottom floor of the Castle had space for Holmes's drug store and other retail shops. The upper two floors appeared to be a hotel, but were actually something much more sinister. There he had built doors that could only open from the outside, rooms fitted with gas jets, a vault that could be hermetically sealed, and chutes that lead to a basement laboratory. Holmes began methodically murdering single women who showed up for the World's Fair, a mistress who got pregnant and then demanded marriage, and random individuals in order to collect on their life insurance policies.   His mistress's small child was also murdered.

    Holmes kept tubs of corrosive acid in his basement to remove the skin of his victims. He then sold the resulting skeletons to medical schools and medical supply companies. Holmes most audacious gambit was luring two wealthy sisters from Texas, swindling them out of property, and murdering both of them - one by locking her in his vault and asphyxiating her with gas, the other most likely by chloroform.

    After the fair ended, Chicago experienced a financial slump and Holmes was being being aggressively pursued by numerous creditors. He quickly fled Chicago with a confederate, Benjamin Pitezel, and began a lengthy trek through Texas, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Toronto. Along the way he would murder Pitezel in an insurance scam, murder three of Pitezel's children, and finally be arrested in November of 1894, in Boston. By then, police in Chicago were thoroughly examining the gruesome remains left behind in the Castle, which included human bones in cellar lime pits, bloody clothing, and scratch marks in the vault, most likely from Holmes's desperate victims.

    Although he was connected to the deaths of as many as 200 people, Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel on May 7, 1896.

  • David Parker Ray Built a "Toy Box" That Included a Gynecological Table

    David Parker Ray was a serial killer who preyed on prostitutes and teenaged girls that he would lure into a vehicle, subdue, and then drive to a remote property in southern New Mexico. What was unusual about Ray was his specially-constructed torture chamber that he called the "Toy Box," a converted mobile home that had been outfitted with $100,000 worth of sex toys, torture implements, restraints, and even a gynecological examination table. Ray also installed a mirror over the table so his victims could see exactly what was happening to them while he engaged in sadistic behavior that frequently lasted for days.

    On March 22, 1999, while Ray was away at work, Cynthia Vigil, an Albuquerque prostitute, managed to escape from her restraints, subdue Ray's female accomplice, and flee the "Toy Box." Clad only in a dog collar and chains, the beaten, bloody woman ran to a nearby home and the police were called. Ray was subsequently arrested along with several other accomplices. He was indicted for his crimes against Vigil and another woman, and after a plea bargain, was sentenced to 224 years in prison. Although suspected in the deaths of as many as 40 individuals over four decades, Ray died in prison, of a heart attack, before he could prosecuted for murder.

  • Leonard Lake and Charles Ng Built an Underground Bunker to Survive Nuclear War

    Leonard Lake and Charles Ng were two ex-Marines, consumed by survivalist paranoia and violent fantasies involving rape, mental and physical torture, and murder. Lake was also obsessed with the John Fowles novel The Collector and, after renting a cabin in rural Wilseyville, California, he began constructing a concrete and wooden bunker, fitted with underground cells, peepholes, and two-way mirrors. In diaries subsequently discovered by police, Lake wrote that he was convinced that nuclear war was imminent, and that he would survive in his bunker and repopulate the world with his collection of female sex slaves. He referred to this process as "Operation Miranda," after the female victim in The Collector.

    When Ng got out of federal prison, he got back in touch with Lake, who encouraged him to come to Wilseyville. Together they began a crime spree of robbery, rape, and murder, remarkable for its brazen savagery and violence. They killed indiscriminately; men, woman, infants, even whole families would be lured or abducted to Wilseyville and murdered. The men and children were killed quickly by gunshot, the women over a longer period of time. Videotape of Lake and Ng tormenting some of their female victims also surfaced after police began investigating the duo and the bunker over a completely unrelated matter.

    On June 2, 1985, in San Francisco, in a hardware store, Ng was caught shoplifting an inexpensive item. He fled the scene but Lake was detained, his car searched by police who found an illegally modified pistol with a silencer and several sets of identification within the automobile, which was also listed as stolen.

    Lake must have sensed the jig was up. He wrote a note that identified Ng, apologized to a relative, and then downed a secreted cyanide pill with a glass of water. He died four days later. Ng fled to Canada, was imprisoned, and then ultimately deported to the US in 1991, where it took an additional eight years to finally convict of him of 12 of the suspected 25 murders that he and Lake carried out.

    Ng would routinely file motions concerning his eyeglasses, the food he was being served, even his demand that he be able to practice origami in his cell.  He was sentenced to death and currently resides on San Quentin's Death Row.

  • The Beltway Killers Modified a Chevy Caprice Into a Killing Machine

    From February to October 2002, two males, John Muhammad, 42, and Lee Malvo, 17,were responsible for numerous sniper attacks across America, especially in the Washington, DC area. These attacks set off widespread panic in Virginia, Maryland, and the nation's capital in the fall of 2002. Unfortunately, initial eyewitnesses alleged that a white van or white box truck was involved in the shootings. Ten people would be killed and three seriously wounded by what was obviously a high-powered rifle. However, law enforcement was confused as to how no one could observe such a weapon at or near the crime scene.

    Ultimately, investigators were able to determine that John Muhammad was a suspect and that he was possibly driving a dark blue Chevy Caprice. When this make of automobile was spotted in a Maryland rest stop on October 24, 2002, police blocked off the location and eventually arrested Malvo and Muhammad, who were sleeping in the car. The Caprice had been specially modified with the contents removed so an individual could lie in the trunk and fire through a hole cut in the rear of the automobile. A Bushmaster semi-automatic was specially fitted with a precision sight that made the weapon effective at up to 550 yards, or five and a half football fields. While Malvo claimed to be the shooter in every case, he ultimately admitted that he did this because he knew it would be harder to execute a minor.

    Muhammad was convicted of murder in Virginia and executed on November 10, 2005; Malvo is serving several life sentences in a Virginia penitentiary.

  • John Wayne Gacy Used a Torture Rack and a Homemade Garrotte

    John Wayne Gacy was a prolific serial murderer who killed at least 33 boys and young adults in the Chicago area before his arrest in December 1978. Gacy would cruise the streets for young gay prostitutes and then abduct his victims by claiming he was a deputy sheriff. He would also lure teenagers into his home with the promise of employment, alcohol, or marijuana.

    Gacy had various ways of getting his victims into handcuffs and restraints. His favorite was the "handcuff trick," in which he would fake escaping from a pair of handcuffs (he used the key after turning his back on the victim) and then asking the victim to try the same.  Of course, when the victim began to struggle to get out of the cuffs, Gacy would hold up the key and say, "The trick is you need the key."

    At that point the victim would be brutalized, raped, and tormented in various ways before Gacy strangled them with a rope tied to a stick which he used as a garrotte. Strangely enough, on rare occasions, Gacy put a victim through this process only to spare their lives. On May 22, 1978, Gacy lured 26-year-old Jeffrey Rignall into his car with the promise of a joint. Once inside, Gacy shoved a chloroform-soaked rag into his face until he passed out. When he fully regained consciousness, he was inside Gacy's home, restrained in a device Gacy called his "rack" - a wooden board suspended by chains, with holes for a victim's head and arms. Gacy was standing naked in front of him, showing him various sex toys and implements and explaining exactly what he had in mind.

    Rignall was raped and sexually tortured for hours but ultimately regained consciousness near a statue in Lincoln Park. He spent six days in a hospital but police found his story unbelievable and did nothing, one of several instances where young gay males who accused Gacy were ignored by the authorities. Finally, in December of 1978, when Gacy was tied to the disappearance of 15-year-old Robert Piest and a search of his home revealed various incriminating items, he eventually confessed. The resulting exhumation of the dozens of bodies in the crawl space of his home shocked the nation.

    Gacy was executed on May 10, 1994, at Stateville Correctional Center, Illinois.     

  • Ted Bundy Outfitted His VW Bug with a Rape Kit

    Ted Bundy is one of the most infamous serial killers in US history. He confessed to at least 30 murders across seven states. It is quite possible that he killed many more women; the exact number will never be determined.

    Bundy had a very straightforward technique for abducting the women he victimized. Usually on crutches, with one arm in a sling and the other holding a stack of books, Bundy would approach a female, frequently near a college library, and ask if they could help him carry his books to his car. The car would be parked in a carefully selected spot in a parking lot - a VW, the Everyman car of the Seventies that must have appeared reassuringly ordinary. Additionally, more than a few victims must have been attracted to the smooth, well-dressed, good-looking man and dropped their guard.

    As they approached the vehicle, Bundy would suddenly remove a tire iron from his sling and beat the victim into unconsciousness. Within seconds, the girl would be handcuffed and placed in the VW, the front seat removed so that no one could see a body lying flat on the floor, and Bundy would be gone. The car also contained an extensive "rape kit" consisting of restraints, ski masks, stockings, screwdrivers, flashlights, rope, and gloves. It would be months or even years before some of these victim's remains were found in remote areas of Oregon and Washington State. Some were never found.

    Bundy altered his technique when he moved to Utah. He would approach women at shopping malls, identify himself as a police officer, and explain that their car had been broken into. He would then request that they accompany him to the police station. He would murder several Utah teenagers with this ruse until one of his intended victims escaped and the ensuing investigation led to his arrest.

    Convicted for assault, Bundy was then extradited to Colorado to stand trial for murder. He escaped from a county jail, hopped a flight to Chicago, and eventually made his way to Tallahassee, Florida. Here he would assault five college co-eds, killing two of them horrifically. After another murder of a 12-year-old, Bundy would be arrested on February 15, 1978 in Pensacola, Florida, at the wheel of a Volkswagen Beetle. He would be executed by the state of Florida on January 24, 1989.