In March 2012, Texas Highway Patrol needed a reason to stop a man on their highways. He’d been using the ATM card of missing 18-year-old Samantha Koenig, who’d been abducted at gunpoint from the coffee stand where she worked in Anchorage, Alaska.
When he went slightly over the speed limit, the resulting traffic stop marked the beginning of the end for Israel Keyes, a self-employed contractor who was one of the scariest serial killers no one yet knew of, although he’d been methodically hunting and killing people for more than a decade. His acts of violence crossed the country, spanning Alaska to Vermont.
Koenig’s kidnapping provides the chilling starting point for New York Post reporter Maureen Callahan to build this comprehensive, detailed account of what’s known of Keyes’ background, crimes, and the investigation after his apprehension. She avoids the recent true crime trend of inserting herself in the narrative, and even more admirably, she doesn’t make this sensational. It would’ve been an easy trap to fall into because Keyes’s crimes are the stuff of nightmares. (Quite literally; I had them while reading it.)
Keyes had no typical victim profile, no standard method or signature, and wasn’t tied to any of his victims or their locations, until he uncharacteristically slipped up and took Samantha in his own city. He traveled extensively, burying “kill kits” around the country where he could retrieve them later. The murders he’d committed were cold cases until investigators pieced together enough for him to confirm. Keyes refused to tell anything that they couldn’t find on their own.
While Keyes was proud… he had made it clear from the outset: He was only going to give them information that they would inevitably discover themselves. If they somehow found a body without him, that would be their win, and he would confess. Otherwise his victims were his alone.
Investigators also found calendar entries referencing operations performed in Mexico, including gastric surgery. Realizing that Keyes could go 12 hours without eating led to the unfortunate question, “Had Keyes begun biohacking his own body in his quest to become the perfect serial killer?” He had the utmost confidence from never having been questioned or associated with any of the murders (some of which he’d been periodically checking on, based on internet history.) That this all happened and no dots had been connected seems unfathomable. On a queasy note, he admitted to reading FBI agents’ books on serial murder and profiling to plan better.
It’s worth asking: In a post-9/11 world, how did a self-employed construction worker with below-average income purchase so many one-way plane tickets and never get flagged by Homeland Security? Was Keyes a beneficiary of racial profiling? He sometimes traveled with guns, breaking them apart and stashing them in carry-ons, yet was never once questioned by the TSA.
Chapters covering Keyes’s background and military service are revealing, including that his family were ultra-conservative Mormons. When a detective asked Keyes’ mother to plead with her son to give up any information he had about then still-missing Koenig, who they hoped was alive, she refused, adding, “If God wants that girl to be found, she’ll be found.” Callahan’s dive into the background that shaped this person is telling. And her storytelling is chillingly detailed to the point that you’re almost squirming. I especially found the details around the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Koenig to be haunting.
Interspersed with accounts of what happened is a focus on the investigations, spanning states and jurisdictions, to capture him then find other crimes to question him about. For the most part the team working on Keyes’ case was commendable, especially considering the tricky particulars (he’d been unusually successful in staying off law enforcement’s radar, despite also robbing banks) and his unusual methodology.
Payne always likened the first meeting with a suspect to telling an author his own story.
And, of course, only the author knows how the story ends.
On the other hand, a pushy US Attorney got final say on Keyes’ interrogation, which may have yielded much more information if not for his ineptitude. Major political missteps allowed this inexperienced prosecutor to conduct the interrogation, which almost derailed the endeavor entirely and almost certainly hindered efforts to learn more.
Everybody wanted to be in that room for the first interrogation — of course they did — but you would think that the integrity of the case and the hunt for an eighteen-year-old girl would come first.
And it blew my mind that investigators seriously considered that Samantha faked her own kidnapping, despite her abduction on surveillance video. We like to think we’re at the apogee of investigative technology and methods, with the most surveillance and equipment and best know-how, but investigations still get burdened by some good old-fashioned victim blaming. When they could have just finished watching the video, which showed Keyes returning later to the coffee stand, alone, to clean up any evidence he might’ve left.
His exact victim count is unknown but believed to be around 11. He committed suicide in jail in December 2012 and took valuable information to the grave. Callahan includes chapters covering crimes that fit some of the limited clues Keyes provided about unidentified victims. Like that he alleged there are bodies in Washington’s Lake Crescent, probably well-preserved thanks to “pristine” freshwater conditions, but the FBI doesn’t want to spend the money to look.
Excellently written and structured, this comprehensive narrative is intelligent and absolutely page-turning if outright terrifying. We’d like to think that in this age of forensic and technological advancement, serial killers are a dying breed, but Keyes proved that better mousetraps can create smarter mice. 4.5/5
The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century
by Maureen Callahan
published July 2, 2019 by Viking
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.