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"Maureen Callahan's deft reporting and stylish writing have created one of the all-time-great serial-killer books: sensitive, chilling, and completely impossible to put down." --Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead
Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. The names of notorious serial killers are usually well-known; they echo in the news and in public consciousness. But most people have never heard of Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. The FBI considered his behavior unprecedented. Described by a prosecutor as "a force of pure evil," Keyes was a predator who struck all over the United States. He buried "kill kits"--cash, weapons, and body-disposal tools--in remote locations across the country. Over the course of fourteen years, Keyes would fly to a city, rent a car, and drive thousands of miles in order to use his kits. He would break into a stranger's house, abduct his victims in broad daylight, and kill and dispose of them in mere hours. And then he would return home to Alaska, resuming life as a quiet, reliable construction worker devoted to his only daughter.
When journalist Maureen Callahan first heard about Israel Keyes in 2012, she was captivated by how a killer of this magnitude could go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. And so began a project that consumed her for the next several years--uncovering the true story behind how the FBI ultimately caught Israel Keyes, and trying to understand what it means for a killer like Keyes to exist. A killer who left a path of monstrous, randomly committed crimes in his wake--many of which remain unsolved to this day.
American Predator is the ambitious culmination of years of interviews with key figures in law enforcement and in Keyes's life, and research uncovered from classified FBI files. Callahan takes us on a journey into the chilling, nightmarish mind of a relentless killer, and to the limitations of traditional law enforcement.
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On the side of a four-lane road, obscured by snowdrifts five feet high, sat a small coffee kiosk, its bright teal paint vibrant against the asphalt and gray big-box stores. Drivers passing by could see the familiar top peeking above the piles of snow, this cheerful but lonely little shack.
The night before, eighteen-year-old Samantha Koenig had been working this kiosk alone. Now she had vanished. She had been on the job for less than a month.
She was reported missing the morning of Thursday, February 2, 2012, by the first barista to show up at the coffee kiosk that day. That barista felt something was not right-Samantha was usually very responsible about closing the kiosk properly, but this morning things were out of place and the previous day's take was gone.
What little the Anchorage Police Department had learned about Samantha in one day left them with almost no leads. She was a popular high school senior who sometimes cut class and maybe had a history with drugs. She got along with everyone, not just the cool kids. She had two main people in her life: her boyfriend, Duane, who she'd been dating for almost a year, and her single father, James.
So: What to make of this scene? Yes, Samantha could have been kidnapped, but to investigators, it seemed more likely that she had gone off on her own. The police found no signs of a struggle. Inside the kiosk was a panic button, and Samantha hadn't hit it. She'd been using her cell phone before and after she had gone missing-fighting with Duane, texting him to leave her alone, fighting over her certainty he was cheating on her.
Then again, she had also called her dad, asking him to stop by the kiosk with some dinner.
Why do that if she was planning to run away?
To the sergeant of the Anchorage Police Department, this seemed like a good test run for field training a novice. He decided to give the case to Detective Monique Doll, a third-generation cop, thirty-five years old, working her first day in homicide. Doll had spent ten years in narcotics, four of those undercover with the DEA. She had a lot to recommend her.
Doll stood out, too, as one of the most glamorous officers in Anchorage. She looked like her name, blonde and beautiful, though she answered to the androgynous nickname Miki. She was married to another star at APD, the handsome Justin Doll, and they were something of a local power couple.
So the sergeant told Doll: You're lead on this. Suspicious circumstance, he called it.
Across town, FBI Special Agent Steve Payne was tying up a drug case when a friend at the police department called. This is common practice in Anchorage, a big city that runs like a small town. Cops, FBI agents, defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges-everyone knows everyone. It is the paradox of being Alaskan: This state is home to rugged individualists who nonetheless know there will come a time, amid the cold, unpitying winters, when they will need help.
Payne was told that an eighteen-year-old girl had disappeared early the night before and had sent some angry texts to her boyfriend. One emerging theory had Samantha stealing the day's take to fund a day or two off on her own. Happened in Anchorage all the time.
Yet Payne wasn't so sure. Planning to disappear requires long-range strategy and sophistication. Samantha seemed like a young girl with very little money. Payne was a regular at these roadside coffee kiosks and could only guess how little the baristas were paid, these young girls who often worked alone, were made to wear bikinis in the summer. It was not an easy life.
Besides, where would a teenage girl go by herself on a dark and freezing Wednesday night? The weather had been brutal, just over 30 degrees, snow covering the ground. Samantha didn't have her pickup truck that night; her boyfriend Duane did. Anchorage isn't a walkable city. Samantha just wandering off, alone and on foot, made no sense. If she had gone to a friend's house, as she'd told Duane in texts last night, chances were the police would already have found her.
He offered to help.
"We've got enough people," came the reply. "We think we know what this is."
Payne hung up. This didn't sit right. As he well knew, the first rule of any investigation was to keep an open mind. You didn't try to fit a personal theory to a possible crime.
He had heard that the police never even taped off the kiosk earlier that morning, when Samantha was reported missing, and her fellow barista then spent the morning serving customers. If the kiosk was in fact a crime scene, it had already been contaminated.
Unbelievable, Payne thought. This was basic stuff, knowing that the first hours of an investigation are everything, presenting as they do the freshest leads, the most telling witness interviews. Crucially, investigators themselves are at their most curious and engaged, confronting a brand-new mystery with brand-new players. This sets the tone for everything to come. With missing people-especially a child, and Payne considered Samantha a child-these earliest moments, handled correctly, will give investigators the best chance of finding them alive and well.
He didn't want to overstep, but he couldn't help himself. He called APD, leaving messages, waiting all afternoon for a reply.
Finally, at eight o'clock that night, Payne's phone rang. It was Detective Doll.
"Some things have changed," she said.
Payne made the twelve-minute drive from the FBI's Anchorage field office over to APD. He was six years older than Doll and had been with the Bureau for sixteen years, born and raised in Anchorage, a rarity. Most folks who live here, like Doll, are expats from the Lower 48. Payne understood the psyche of the city. He understood the bias police can have when it comes to Anchorage's poor and troubled, the lost causes. He didn't want to see Samantha dismissed.
Payne's outward appearance gave little hint of his mettle. No one would ever guess he was a special agent who had worked drugs and violent crime his whole career. Small features, slight frame: He looked like an accountant. Yet Payne was a born investigator, a self-described obsessive-compulsive whose devotion to casework cost him his first marriage. He was a perfectionist who always fell back on the homicide investigators' credo: Do it right the first time. You only get once chance.
He got teased at the Bureau for a few of his favorite sayings-"cause for pause" whenever he found a clue or some kind of useful information, "Murphy's Law" when a case was on the verge of resolving only to fall apart. Payne thought of Murphy as his personal boogeyman.
Doll gave Payne a quick overview of what she'd learned so far. They had just gotten a look at the surveillance video from the kiosk, which the kiosk's owner, nearly twenty-five hundred miles away, had obtained eight hours earlier. This was shaping up to be what Payne had feared-the low prioritizing of an at-risk teenager. Samantha's father had spent the past night calling Samantha's cell phone to no avail, and spent that next day standing outside the kiosk during his daughter's next scheduled shift, from 1:00 to 8:00 p.m., hoping she'd come back.
"Show me the video," Payne said.
Just before eight oÕclock, Samantha appears on-screen in her lime green top, her long brown hair worn down. She is relaxed, chatting with a customer through the kioskÕs window as she makes coffee.
She looks like a sweet girl, Payne thinks. Happy.
Whoever is outside remains out of camera range. Samantha works very casually and then, two minutes and six seconds into the tape, she suddenly turns off the lights.
There's no audio.
Samantha's hands go up. Now, all that's visible outside the kiosk is a shadowy figure and what might be the muzzle of a gun pointed at Samantha through the window. The aim is high and the window is low to the ground, so whoever this is must be tall. Samantha moves gingerly to the counter, her back to the figure outside. She gets on her knees. She stays that way for over a minute, fidgeting, and then, three and a half minutes in, she gets up, walks over to the register, and scoops out money from the drawer. The video is so grainy it's hard to tell if she hands it over or puts it down. She returns, calmly it seems, to a kneeling position. Then something else has clearly been said because Samantha wobbles to the window, stops, then turns her back to it.
Here, at the 5:19 mark, a large male figure leans halfway inside. It's hard to see for sure, but it looks like he is tying her arms behind her back.
Two more minutes elapse, which sounds like nothing until you realize that a man with a gun is outside a very popular kiosk that sits between the parking lot of a huge gym and a well-trafficked road. In this context, two minutes is extremely long.
Whoever this is, Payne thinks, either knows what he's doing or knows Samantha. This kiosk is tiny, maybe nine feet by five feet, barely propped up off the ground. The wide-open serving window makes these young girls extremely vulnerable. How odd that no one ever noticed that before.
Seconds later, Payne watches as the man pounces like a cheetah, pushing his way through the window in one swift movement, stomach arcing inward, arms extending, landing gracefully on Samantha's right. It happens so fast.
Now it is clear: The man is very tall. He is also very composed. He looks out the window, seems to shut it, and talks to Samantha. Things seem fairly normal between them.
He picks something up and opens it, showing it to Samantha. It looks like her purse, and it looks like it's empty.
Now, at 8:55, he is kneeling. His broad back is to the camera, his right arm tight around Samantha. There is white lettering visible on the back of his black hoodie, but it is impossible to read. He is so close to Samantha that they look like one melded figure.
He helps her to her feet.
Samantha and the man hesitate, look back, then find themselves facing another surveillance camera. He moves Samantha straight ahead through the kiosk's small door, and the outdoor footage shows her and the man slowly walking away, his arm around her shoulder, through the fresh white snow.
Payne didn't know what to make of the video. Once again, he offered the FBI's assistance, but Doll declined. This might have been her first day, but she was lead and this was APD's case.
Also assigned by APD was Jeff Bell, whose youthful appearance belied a storied seventeen-year-long career in law enforcement: US Marshals federal task force, SWAT, senior patrol officer, and three years with the FBI's Safe Streets Task Force, which gave him top-secret clearance with the Bureau. Bell would be considered the most naturally gifted of the team-a clinical, logical thinker with the charisma to engage the gang members, drug runners, meth addicts, pimps, rapists, and murderers who so gamely contribute to Anchorage's standing as the most crime-ridden city in Alaska.
At APD and the Bureau, Bell was known as the Metrosexual. That was not necessarily a compliment. He was a handsome guy with dark features who kept his hair cut high and tight, military style, and his weight in check. He was always well dressed.
Bell was admired by his colleagues; he had the forthrightness and friendliness so common to his native Midwest. He wound up in Alaska after following his college sweetheart, a native, and here they were married. Long ago Bell came to identify, as nearly everyone here does, as an Alaskan rather than an American; the rest of the country, everywhere else, was Outside. Bell knew Anchorage as Payne did. Nearly every street corner held some kind of memory for him: a robbery, an arrest, a body.
Yet even Bell was stymied by the video. Yes, Samantha put her hands up, and yes, the figure looked like a man, but what was really happening? It was too dark to really see. Why was the conversation taking so long? Bell timed the activity in the video. This man had been outside the kiosk for at least seven minutes and clearly inside for a little over ten. Seventeen minutes total.
What in the world, Bell thought, were they talking about?
These seventeen minutes led to the department's first working theory: Samantha was likely not a victim. They weren't going to tell the press that, but their response made that clear, because APD didn't plan to go public with Samantha's disappearance.
That took another two days, the department's hand forced by Samantha's frantic father.
James Koenig was standing outside the Common Grounds kiosk on Friday afternoon, his daughter now missing almost forty-eight hours. This was the kind of shock known only to a parent, the sheer inability to believe that your child is somehow, suddenly, nowhere to be found.
How is such a thing possible?
James, a burly, blue-eyed man, was known to most as Sonny. He was a trucker who knew his way around Anchorage's seamier side, the bars, strip clubs, and biker gangs. He was rumored to be in the drug trade. James "Sonny" Koenig was, to some, a bad man.
But there was nothing he wouldn't do for Samantha. When she was first born, he could hardly sleep because he was so consumed by the constant worry that she would suddenly stop breathing. He'd heard people talk about how boundless a parent's love is, but now he knew. Sam was his only child, his favorite person, his world. She would never have gone missing if he'd brought her dinner that night, like she asked. Why didn't he do that? Why?
James focused on the one thing he could do: galvanize Anchorage to search for his daughter. He handed out flyers with Samantha's photo, kidnapped in a big red font above, her name below. Volunteers kept coming, hugging James and taking piles of flyers as snow fell softly.
Reporters were here too. James was willing to talk all day. Samantha was taken, he said, no question.
"I called her cell phone until the battery finally died, and texted it and everything," he said. "It would ring until it just went to voice mail. And then, noon yesterday, it just went to voice mail, straight out."
James was convinced this was proof Samantha had been taken; he and Samantha texted and talked multiple times a day. But police weren't so sure. People go missing in Alaska all the time. Sometimes they wander off. Sometimes they get lost on a dark trailhead or freeze in a snowbank. Sometimes they're found in time, sometimes not. Here it's just a fact of life. For some, it's a gift.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Riveting from beginning to end or maybe from the end to the beginning.... read it in just a few hours.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan is the very highly recommended account of the serial killer Israel Keyes. This is one truly frightening examination of a serial killer. "... Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. The FBI considered his behavior unprecedented. Described by a prosecutor as "a force of pure evil," Keyes was a predator who struck all over the United States. He buried "kill kits" - cash, weapons, and body-disposal tools - in remote locations across the country. Over the course of fourteen years, Keyes would fly to a city, rent a car, and drive thousands of miles in order to use his kits. He would break into a stranger's house, abduct his victims in broad daylight, and kill and dispose of them in mere hours. And then he would return home to Alaska, resuming life as a quiet, reliable construction worker devoted to his only daughter." That description alone should give everyone pause, but reading about what he did and what he is suspected of doing is even more frightening. In 2012 eighteen-year-old Samantha Koenig was abducted from the Anchorage, Alaska, coffee kiosk where she worked. The multi-jurisdictional investigation resulted in Keyes being arrested in Texas. If he hadn't made a few mistakes, Keyes would still likely be randomly finding new victims today. Journalist Maureen Callahan follows closely the investigation by law enforcement officials, and includes information from classified FBI files, the questioning of him, interviews with officials, his psychological profile, and research into Keyes' life. Although he never confessed to all his victims, he is believed to have killed at least eleven people. This is a scary but compelling comprehensive account of a modern day serial killer. American Predator is a fascinating but horrific exploration of the life of a modern day serial killer which should be on the reading list of everyone who reads true crime books. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.
This book could really give you nightmares thinking about this man randomly traveling the US, with his buried ‘kill kits’ all over ready for him when the mood struck. Maureen Callahan does a great job introducing us to a frightening killer whose true scope will never be known. There was apparently some attempts to cover up his story by the government for a while when they caught up to him. This was during a period that they were trying to negotiate for information from him. He did give up bodies, but due to time passing, they were not recoverable. This case is really one for the books, and he was just an anomaly, and that there aren’t others like him wandering around out there. But I think that would be naive wishful thinking now. A must-read for for true crime lovers.
I was blown away by this story. Maureen Callahan does an exquisite job of building up to the horrors done by serial killer, Israel Keyes. The book starts by building on a single case of a young woman (Samantha) from Anchorage, Alaska taken at night from her job by what appears to be a tall man in a sweatshirt according to surveillance tapes. About 50% of the book details the search for Samantha and the toll it takes on the community in Anchorage. Local investigators quickly find out that they are beyond their scope or jurisdiction and they are on the hunt for a very peculiar and precise criminal. Maureen Callahan weaves a True Crime story that is rich with human emotion, the victims are at the heart of this story as well as the individuals that work to bring these killers to justice. I recommend not reading too much about Israel Keyes before getting into the book - there were many shocking and appalling moments in the book that made me glad I only knew the bare bones of his story and the stories of his victims. You also get to learn about Israel himself, his fascinating childhood and the meticulous lengths he took to remain for the most part, anonymous and elusive to police and even the FBI. Bone-chilling, shocking, and fascinating all at the same time.
Excellent writing...horrific crimes...couldn't put it down!! Chilled me to the bone...
so many dead, so few found
Well written and so chilling