The Most Terrifying Serial Killer We Didn’t Know Existed

Book Review: American Predator, by Maureen Callahan (Amazon / Book Depository)

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

American Predator:
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.

Amazon / Book Depository

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35 thoughts on “The Most Terrifying Serial Killer We Didn’t Know Existed

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    1. I hadn’t heard about that, omg! I wonder if a lot of it has to do with not being able to link crimes, like happened with his. It seems crazy to me that there’s still so much trouble communicating across states or even cities/counties.

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  1. Baaahhhh this sounds terrifying. I have a minor fascination with violent serial crime, though I generally deal with it by reading Wikipedia entries – this sounds like a fantastic, if distressing, deep-dive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean, I started with Wikipedia and eventually graduated to books. This one was really good but maybe not the best if you don’t read a lot in the genre already. It was so unsettling, and the depth of detail made it even more disturbing.

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  2. What a chilling book and review. Adding it to my TBR pile immediately. And that’s a really interesting point about authors inserting themselves into modern true crime narratives. I’ve been reading a lot of paperbacks in the genre from the ’80s and ’90s lately, and I can’t think of a single book where that happens unless they had a specific connection to the case … I wonder why that became popular.

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    1. Isn’t it such a strange trend? I get it when it’s something like Ann Rule actually knowing Ted Bundy, but the people who are stretching to insert themselves into the narrative is driving me crazy. I kind of wonder if it’s a way to make the endeavor more literary as true crime makes a shift in that direction and away from the more lurid, sensational style sometimes popular in the past. It’s like they feel they have to explain their interest in or connection to it somehow. I read an advance of one that’s coming out next year and at least half the book is the author’s memoir of her time in the region where the crime happened. She includes a few paragraphs, finally, saying basically “I told this story about myself so you’ll understand why telling the crime story was important to me.” She had just been to the location where bodies were found. It’s a mess. It was so refreshing in this one that stories were told from every angle except the author’s own.

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      1. That’s an excellent point about Ann Rule, and I think she sort of set the standard for when it’s compelling to insert yourself into a true crime narrative. If it’s a story that only you can uniquely tell, then do it. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s literary or not if you’ve jumbled the narrative by invading a story you’re not part of. I’m definitely looking forward to reading your full review on that one because it sounds … rough.

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  3. Great review! This one’s on my TBR. It is really creepy that killers might use books about other killers to hone their methods. 😳

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  4. Great review! This one’s on my TBR.
    It’s definitely creepy to know that killers might be studying published work about previous killers to hone their methods! 😳

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  5. Another one for my list. Sounds horribly fascinating – gastric surgery so he could go without food longer. Freaky! I did find when I read that book ??Monsters by the FBI profiler that my sleep was definitely disturbed. Am currently reading a true crime book The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère where the killer had a double life.

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    1. I know, that surgery detail was particularly freaky. The story of the girl kidnapped from the coffee stand just hit some nightmarish nerve with me, it was so scary. I read The Adversary last year, it was pretty good! Although that story was really freaky too. The guy covered in this book has a double life too, his live-in girlfriend apparently didn’t suspect anything. I still can’t believe that’s even possible.

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      1. Oh gosh, you really have read so many books. I must read your review of The Adversary once I have finished it. I love the double life shock moment – the “they phoned [insert name of employer] and they had never heard of him” thing. Wonder if there is a name for that moment? Job-ghosting? Employment-fake?

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      2. I can’t even imagine telling such a huge lie like that that’s so easily fact checked!!! How confident was he, really! That story was really weird in that his lies didn’t unravel sooner, considering that. And he was supposed to be a doctor but was always completely broke and taking money from people, just so strange! Job-ghosting really made me lol 😂

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    1. Thank you! Happy I could recommend it 🙂 It’s for sure a must-read if she likes serial killer books. Really scary (pretty much too scary for me and I read way too much of this stuff) but a good book in general, not just a good serial killer book, you know? I was really impressed with the author.

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  6. This sounds so scary!! I went into it your review thinking ‘ok but they caught him so it won’t be scary.’ But I see that actually there is still so much that isn’t known that this will absolutely give me nightmares. Not one to read home alone or in the dark! His mom saying if God wants them to find the girl is one of the most heinous things I’ve ever read someone say.

    Guess this is going on the TBR too!

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    1. Not even exaggerating, I really did end up with nightmares from it and you know how much of this kind of stuff I read! It’s not that it doesn’t phase me but it doesn’t usually affect me like THAT. But ugh, the Samantha Koenig story is just the worst and then the thought that there’s all this stuff we still don’t know. Definitely don’t read it in the dark, or at night…I made that mistake at first and then realized nope, this is strictly a daytime book. His mom is also a piece of work, and the extreme religious upbringing bit made me queasy. It’s a lot of awful stuff all around but somehow it ends up being a really good book anyway, despite it all. The author is kind of brilliant in managing that!

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  7. Jeeeesus just reading this review creeped me out, no wonder this book gave you nightmares. I haven’t read alot of true crime myself, but I do like reading and understanding more about it (as weird and wrong as that sounds). If I read it too much, I’ll probably become too paranoid though, so best I don’t get too much of it LOL

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    1. I don’t think it sounds weird or wrong, I think that’s why it’s a popular genre in the first place. This one was unique, for me at least, in that it did unsettle me pretty badly but I don’t find that true crime makes me more paranoid, maybe just more aware. I realize there was stuff I used to do without thinking that was actually pretty risky and I’m much more aware of things like that now. But everyone is different — if you think it’d make you more paranoid, then definitely best to avoid it!

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  8. I’m really glad that the author remained as objective as possible as a journalist. Part of the reason I don’t like to read stories about serial killers is because they are sensationalized to make for better reading. Sounds like this person got it right in an ethical way. The more I read nonfiction (and for some reason I’m doing so more than usual this year), the more I’m paying attention to ethics and style than I did in previous years.

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    1. I think there’s been a move away from the old-style lurid true crime narratives towards a more literary one that takes ethical issues into consideration and considers more about victims, legal issues, etc. I think the author did great work in this one.

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