Between 1984 and 1988, the young men of Kansas City, Missouri, and the surrounding area lived in the grip of fear. The fear was the result of a string of ghastly murders, almost all of which involved torture of the most barbarous kind. Until 1988, nobody knew that the root cause of this horror was a pudgy, unassuming man who ran an odd little store in the Westport neighborhood.
Robert Berdella, aka the Kansas City Butcher, would later be unmasked as one of Missouri’s worst serial killers. Making Berdella’s bloodlust worse was his deviant love of photographing his crimes. This list will take a trip into the heart of darkness and down into the basement at 4315 Charlotte Street.
Robert Andrew Berdella came into the world on January 31, 1949, in the mostly proletarian city of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. From the day of his birth until age 18, Robert lived in Cuyahoga Falls. His family was of Italian extraction and deeply Catholic. Allegedly, Robert was raped as a young man by an older employee at the restaurant he worked at. This was just one of several problems that a young Berdella had to deal with.
As an adolescent, Berdella suffered from poor health, particularly high blood pressure. This condition meant that he skipped school athletics. Robert was also a loner who tended to forgo social events. Robert’s nearsightedness meant that he was an easy target for school bullies. On top of everything else, Robert realized that he was a homosexual early in life. Robert’s sexuality had to be concealed from his religious parents and neighbors.
When Robert was just 16, his father died of a heart attack. This event reportedly threw Robert’s life into a tailspin. Besides forcing Robert to deal with his own mortality (his father was just 39 at the time of his death), his mother’s second marriage angered young Robert considerably. In 1967, this angry young man left Ohio for the Kansas City Art Institute.
By most accounts, the teenage Berdella had a massive ego. Although still bookish and aloof, Berdella became actively involved the drug crowd while in college. In 1968, he was arrested for selling methamphetamines to an undercover police officer. Following this, Berdella dropped out of college and began living life as a factotum. He spent the 1970s and early 1980s as a short-order cook, occasional drug dealer, and part-time youth counselor.
Berdella himself would claim that his murderous fantasies were largely inspired by a work of fiction. Sometime in the mid-1960s, Berdella saw the film The Collector, which was based on the crime novel of the same name by British author John Fowles. The Collector tells the story of a shy young man named Frederick Clegg who decides to abduct and torture a pretty girl named Miranda Grey. The Collector supposedly also inspired other serial killers like Leonard Lake and the “Beauty Queen Killer,” Christopher Wilder.
Before graduating to murder, Berdella acted out his sick fantasies by capturing and torturing animals. Berdella murdered dogs and cats all throughout his teenage years, and sometime in 1968 or 1969, he was asked to leave the Kansas City Art Institute after he killed a dog as part of an “art” project.
After living an iterant lifestyle, Berdella decided to open up his own store, Bob’s Bazaar Bizarre. The store specialized in rare and odd art from around the world. It quickly became a local hot spot for those interested in the occult. When not selling antiques, Berdella socialized with male prostitutes, runaways, drug addicts, and thieves. Berdella often used these young men as domestic help, hiring them to clean his house and tend to his store. Berdella also used his relative wealth to force these men to have sex with him.
Nineteen-year-old Jerry Howell was a male prostitute. He was also the son of Paul Howell, a fellow merchant who knew Berdella from their shared time at the Westport Flea Market. Berdella and the younger Powell became good friends. On the night of July 4, 1984, Berdella picked up Powell and promised to give him a ride to a local dance. Jerry Powell would never be seen alive again.
It is possible that Berdella targeted Jerry Powell not only because the two had a sexual relationship but also because the youth owed the older man money. Whether or not the true cause of the murder was lust or financial (the former is more plausible than the latter), Berdella invited Powell into his home on Charlotte Street and began handing him drinks. These drinks were spiked with tranquilizers. For at least 28 hours, Berdella kept Powell drugged and tied to a bed. Berdella repeatedly raped and assaulted the young man. These sexual assaults included the use of objects like a metal pole, a carrot, and a cucumber.
Howell died after suffocating on his gag, the cocktail of drugs that Berdella gave him, and his own vomit. Berdella then began the horrific task of disposing of the body. He hung Powell’s corpse by its feet, slit his jugular vein in order to drain the body of blood, and then used kitchen knives and a chainsaw to hack Powell up into smaller pieces. These body parts were then placed into trash bags and left outside for a garbage crew to pick up.
On April 10, 1985, a 23-year-old drifter named Robert Sheldon showed up on Berdella’s doorstep. The two men knew each other, for Sheldon had often bummed in Berdella’s house when he passed through Kansas City. On the day in question, Sheldon once again showed up and asked to stay. Berdella agreed.
Since Berdella was not sexually attracted to Sheldon, he tortured him but did not rape him. The torture sessions lasted for a total of four days. Sheldon was subjected to grotesque experiments, such as having his hands bound with piano wire in an attempt to destroy his nerves. Berdella also put caulk in Sheldon’s ears and injected cleaning fluid into Sheldon’s left eye.
By the fourth day, Berdella had become worried that his neighbors had seen Sheldon or were growing interested in his whereabouts. Berdella decided to end it all by using a trash bag to suffocate Sheldon. Like Powell, Sheldon’s corpse was mutilated and dismembered. Unlike Powell, however, Berdella decapitated Sheldon and put his head in the house’s freezer.
Of all of Berdella’s murders, the 1985 slaying of Mark Wallace is the least well-documented. Berdella openly admitted to killing the young man at his 1988 trial, and from this confession, it is obvious that Berdella spent less time on Wallace’s torture and murder than he did on the others.
According to the book Rites of Burial by Tom Jackman and Troy Cole, Wallace had previously done some yard work for Berdella. That’s why Wallace sought shelter in Berdella’s garage during a June thunderstorm. Berdella found the youth and invited him inside the house. The 20-year-old Wallace agreed.
Once inside, Wallace, who suffered from depression, was supposedly injected with the drug chlorpromazine. Berdella exploited Wallace’s drugged state by tying him to a bed. The torture of Wallace included a crude form of electroshock therapy whereby Berdella placed alligator clips on Wallace’s nipples and administered occasional shocks. At 7:00 PM on June 23, 1985, Wallace expired from a combination of the drugs, his gag, and Berdella’s vicious use of a hypodermic needle, which had been inserted into Wallace’s back in an effort to ruin the muscles there.
On September 26, 1985, an acquaintance named Walter James Ferris called Berdella and asked if he could stay for a while. Not long after Ferris arrived at the house on Charlotte Street, Berdella captured him, tied him up, and began torturing him. One of the cruel methods that Berdella used on Ferris was to attach alligator clips to Ferris’s testicles and shoot him full of 7,700 volts of electricity.
The abuse was so bad that near the end of Ferris’s life, he could only remain conscious for between ten and 15 seconds at a time. Once Ferris’s condition deteriorated further, Berdella decided to suffocate him. Ferris’s corpse was dismembered like the others and casually discarded in plastic trash bags.
Todd Stoops’s hell began on June 17, 1986. On that day, Stoops, a male prostitute who had known Berdella for years, decided to accompany Berdella back to his Charlotte Street house after the pair met at a local park. Stoops just thought that he was going to join Berdella for lunch.
Berdella drugged Stoops and held him captive for weeks. Throughout his captivity, Stoops was raped daily and subjected to different “experiments,” all of which were intended to turn him into a sex slave. Besides electroshocks, Berdella injected drain cleaner into Stoops’s throat in a failed attempt to make him mute. Berdella also injected Drano into Stoops’s eyes to make him blind. The final debauched act saw Berdella insert his fist into Stoops’s anal cavity. After this, Stoops died of blood loss and septic shock.
Before disposing of Stoops’s corpse in the usual manner, Berdella kept the body down in his basement for at least a week. Berdella later confessed to finding Stoops attractive, and this might explain why Stoops was tortured so much and why his corpse was kept around.
Larry Wayne Pearson, 20, had first met Berdella at the serial killer’s store. Pearson, originally from Wichita, Kansas, supposedly had talked to Berdella about magic and witchcraft. Pearson had roomed with Berdella for a while, doing housework and odd tasks for Berdella in lieu of rent money. On June 5, 1987, Berdella paid Pearson’s bail and invited him to live again at the Charlotte Street house.
On June 23, Berdella began drugging, raping, and torturing Pearson. This torture session would last for six weeks. After a while, Pearson began fighting back. Pearson’s most effective attack actually sent Berdella to the hospital. Specifically, Pearson managed to bite Berdella’s penis, and this wound put the serial killer in the hospital for two days.
Berdella managed to suffocate Pearson before going to the hospital, however. Berdella used a plastic bag to render Pearson lifeless and then dismembered and decapitated Pearson’s body. The detached head was buried in Berdella’s backyard. This bit of excavation exposed Robert Sheldon’s fleshless skull, and Berdella brought this skull inside and put it on display.
A bizarre phone call reached the Kansas City police on Easter weekend 1988. Someone who lived on Charlotte Street said that there was a naked man wearing a dog collar in the neighborhood. When the police found the man, they were shocked to see that he had been abused horribly. He could barely talk, his eyes were red and bruised, and his body was a mess of scars and cuts. Some of these wounds undoubtedly came from the man’s leap out of a second-story window. The location of said window was the house at 4315 Charlotte Street.
The man proved to be 22-year-old Christopher Bryson, a male prostitute. Bryson told investigators that a man driving a brown Toyota had picked him up near midnight on March 29, 1988. Bryson was taken to the man’s house. He was promptly struck with a metal bar and bound with rope. The homeowner, Berdella, also used a needle to inject some kind of drug into Bryson’s back.
Berdella gagged Bryson, shocked his testicles with electricity, and swabbed his eyes with ammonia. Berdella told Bryson that he was going to become a sex slave. Bryson decided to cooperate with his torturer in the hopes of avoiding further injury. Bryson managed to convince Berdella to tie his hands in front of him, rather to the bed. Berdella agreed to the proposal. Unbeknownst to the killer, Bryson was left in a room with a box of matches. Bryson used these matches to burn through his ropes. Bryson’s final act was the aforementioned jump from the bedroom window.
Police inundated Berdella’s house and arrested him for the assault and torture of Bryson. Days later, once he was presented with all of the evidence against him, Berdella pleaded guilty to murder.
After Berdella gave the court a full confession, Jackson County prosecutor Albert Riederer agreed to Berdella’s request for a life sentence rather than a death sentence. The trial lasted three days. Berdella was then sent away to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
Berdella proved to be a difficult prisoner. He wrote dozens of letters accusing the prison officials of abuse. In particular, Berdella claimed that the prison authorities either delayed or outright denied giving him his needed heart medication. In 1992, at the age of 43, Berdella died of a heart attack. Incredibly, in one of his last interviews, Berdella had complained about the “dehumanizing” media coverage of his crimes. Keep in mind that Berdella did not complain about how the newspapers and television stations had dehumanized his victims but rather how they had dehumanized him.
Above all else, Berdella is remembered today as a killer who documented his crimes. Berdella maintained a “torture diary” that detailed every murder. Details included notations on the various objects and drugs used on his victims, the sexual positions that they were placed into, and their times of death. The diary described these murders as “experiments,” and Berdella’s shorthand for the end of these experiments (i.e. the death of his victims) was “86.”
Besides keeping a diary, Berdella used his Polaroid camera to take dozens of pictures of his victims. These pictures remain some of the most disturbing and graphic pieces of evidence ever taken from a crime scene.