Movies, television series, and true-crime podcasts reflect a fascination with serial killers - ones who are known as well as those who may never be known. The identities of some of the most notorious serial killers like Jack the Ripper remain shrouded in mystery, but many have been caught.
Whether it was the investigative work of police, an error made by the criminal themselves, or the need to boast about their crimes, the undoing of serial killers is just one part of their grisly mark on history. Here's how some of the most notorious culprits of the 20th century actually got caught.
Leonard Lake and Charles Ng abducted, brutalized, and killed between 10 and 25 people in California during the 1980s. Their spree came to an end when Ng got caught trying to take a vise from a lumber store in San Francisco in June 1985.
After authorities were called, Ng fled, but Lake was confronted by police. Lake presented the officer with a driver's license that belonged to one of their victims, Charles Gunnar. A police officer who ran the license plate of Lake's car discovered it belonged to Paul Cosner, a man who'd gone missing in November 1984.
Lake was taken into custody, ultimately gave Ng up to the police, and took his own life by swallowing cyanide pills. Ng went to Calgary, Alberta, where shoplifting again resulted in police intervention. Ng was apprehended by Canadian authorities and extradited to California in 1991.
It's not entirely clear when Ted Bundy felled his first victim, but he later confessed to 36 murders. He may have taken his first life in early 1974, but after being detained in Utah in 1975, Bundy became the suspect in numerous homicides. He spent some time in prison but escaped and fled to Florida in 1977. While in Florida, Bundy killed at least three more young women, including Kimberly Leach, a 12-year-old from Lake City, FL.
As Bundy traversed Florida, he stole a Volkswagen Beetle in Tallahassee and headed south. When he arrived in Pensacola, police officer David Lee noticed Bundy was driving erratically, pulled him over, and discovered the car was stolen. Bundy tried to run, but Lee chased, tackled, and subdued him. Inside the car, the police found identification for several of Bundy's victims and several stolen credit cards.
Bundy was taken into custody, and reportedly muttered, "I wish you had killed me." At the time, Lee didn't know who he had apprehended, but that came out via interrogation soon after. Bundy was put on trial for two murders and three attempted murders in July 1978 and was found guilty; he was tried for Leach's kidnapping and murder two years later. He was sentenced to death both times and was executed in 1989.
Harold "Fred" Shipman (also called "Dr. Death") was a physician in England who took the lives of hundreds of patients over the course of his career. It wasn't the passing of his patient Kathleen Grundy that initially alerted authorities that something was amiss, however; it was the falsified will he'd created prior to slaying her that led to his detention.
Grundy was 81 when she passed in 1998, reportedly having just been visited by her physician, Dr. Shipman. No autopsy was performed, but when Grundy's will was presented to the family, they were surprised to see she had left Shipman the majority of her estate. Grundy's daughter Angela Woodruff was convinced the document was fake and took it to police.
Grundy's body was later exhumed, and an exam determined she had perished from an overdose of morphine. Because Shipman's visit coincided with Grundy's final hours, the police seized his records and searched his home. His typewriter was determined to have produced the forged will.
Shipman was charged with Grundy's slaying in 1998, and investigations soon linked the physician to 15 more slayings. He was charged with 15 additional counts of murder in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. At the time of Shipman's demise in 2004, he was believed to have possibly killed more than 250 patients.
From 1974 to 1991, Dennis Rader killed 10 people in Kansas, all the while writing letters detailing his activities. Many of the letters were sent to media outlets and ended up in the hands of local authorities. In one missive, Rader suggested a name for himself - the BTK Killer. BTK was an acronym for "bind, torture, kill."
Rader's identity remained unknown despite his continuous communication. He carried out a double life during the murders, and when he stopped in 1991, he served as a prominent member of his church and as a Boy Scout leader through the early 2000s.
Perhaps prompted by a newspaper article about one of his murders that appeared in January 2004, Rader sent a letter along with the identification of his victim Vicki Wegerle to the local newspaper, The Wichita Eagle. Wegerle had not been directly connected to BTK prior to Rader's renewed communication. Once the letter and ID arrived, however, authorities were able to pull DNA from Wegerle's fingernails and narrow down potential suspects.
During the spring and summer months of 2004, Rader left numerous writings for police to find - many of which included graphic descriptions of his deeds. In one, he asked whether the police could trace him if he left floppy disks behind for them instead of paper. The Wichita police ran a newspaper advertisement saying it would be safe to leave a disk; Rader did, and they were able to pull some identifying metadata from it.
DNA evidence later confirmed Rader was the BTK Killer. He was detained, and later pled guilty to 10 counts of murder. Rader is serving multiple consecutive life sentences.
During the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy assaulted and killed at least 33 boys and young men. Gacy, who frequently dressed up as a clown for appearances at hospitals and charitable events, was accused of sexual assault in 1968 and spent time in jail as a result. After his release, continued accusations aroused suspicions by authorities, and Gacy was a person of interest in numerous disappearances in suburban Chicago.
In 1978, 15-year-old Robert Piest was reported missing by his mother. After Piest's shift at the local drugstore, he had reportedly gone to talk to Gacy, a contractor, about a construction job, but was never seen again.
As the last person to see Piest, Gacy was questioned, and a foul odor at his home led to surveillance and a full search of the property. While under surveillance, Gacy gave a gas station attendant pot. As a felony, delivering weed was enough to detain Gacy.
During the search of his home, authorities found a receipt from the drugstore where Piest worked and items connected to other missing persons. Gacy then confessed to roughly 30 murders, with police later finding cadavers on and near his property.
Gacy was put on trial for 33 murders, sentenced to death, and executed on May 10, 1994.
Ed Gein, the inspiration for Norman Bates in Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, violated the living and the dead. In 1957, he was connected to the disappearance of hardware clerk Bernice Worden. Gein was the last patron of the store on November 16, the day Worden vanished. His purchase? Antifreeze.
As a result, police searched his home. When authorities arrived at Gein's house, they found Worden's decapitated, disemboweled body. They also discovered the remains of at least 10 other women alongside various body parts, suits made out of skin, and a host of human skulls.
Gein was apprehended and confessed to killing Worden. He also admitted to slaying Mary Hogan three years earlier. Hogan's remains were also found on Gein's property. He was determined to be mentally incompetent and didn't immediately stand trial.
Gein was sent to a psychiatric institution until 1968, and the following year appeared before the court. He was again determined to be unfit and returned to psychiatric care. He passed in 1984.