11 of the World's Worst Serial Killers

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Green River Killer, Court
Green River Killer Gary Ridgway (2nd L), faces Judge Richard A. Jones after reading a statement to King County Washington Superior Court, in Seattle, Washington, 2003. Elaine Thompson-Pool/Getty Images

In movies such as "Watcher" and "Mindcage," and TV series such as Netflix's "Mindhunter," " fictional serial killers who butcher scores of victims have become objects of popular fascination.

But unfortunately, serial murder isn't just something concocted by the imaginations of screenwriters and producers for our entertainment. It happens in real life.

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In the U.S., victims have suffered horrible fates at the hands of serial killers such as Ted Bundy, the handsome, charismatic murder who killed more than 30 women, and Randy Kraft, a Californian who may have taken the lives of 65 other young men. Around the world, other killers have amassed even higher body counts, with some of them killing hundreds of people.

Why are some humans driven to kill repeatedly? In various accounts, many serial killers are depicted as people who experienced childhood traumas and sexual abuse — though that doesn't explain why others with similar experiences don't turn into violent monsters. In 2014, Psychology Today reported that the experts in FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, which studies criminal minds, believe that serial killers program themselves in childhood by engaging in an escalating series of fantasies [source: Bonn].

1970-2000 was described by one crime historian as the "Golden Age of Serial Killers," at least in America. There were 770 serial killers in the U.S. in the 1980s and just over 100 in between 2010 and 2016. Now, serial killing has fallen, thanks to improved forensics, longer prison sentences and a lack of easy targets — for instance, people don't hitchhike much anymore. And CCTV cameras and smartphones are everywhere, offering more evidence to link people to crimes.

Here are 11 of the world's most notorious serial killers, ranked in order of the most prolific serial killers. As the countdown rolls on, the body count gets higher.

11: Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy
Ted Bundy waves to TV cameras as his indictment for the murders of Florida State University students Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman is read at the Leon County Jail in Florida. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Between 1973 and 1978, Bundy — the subject of the Ann Rule true crime book "The Stranger Beside Me" — killed at least 30 women [source: Yang, et al.]

Bundy's modus operandi was to lure female victims into his Volkswagen, sometimes by pretending that he'd been injured in an accident and needed their help. Once inside, he would pull out a crowbar and knock them unconscious, then rape them before beating and strangling them to death. He liked to kill his victims under the light of a bright moon or in the illumination of his car's headlights.

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After a failed abduction attempt in 1974, he was arrested in Utah and convicted of aggravated kidnapping and attempted murder. But while being transferred to Colorado to face murder charges there, he escaped from a courthouse library and went to Florida. While there, he broke into a college sorority house, attacked four women students and beat two of them to death before breaking into a nearby home and beating another woman who fortunately survived. Bundy committed one more murder — kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl, before he was caught. He was executed in 1989 [source: Truesdell]

10: Tiago Henrique Gomes da Rocha

Tiago Gomes da Rocha
Tiago Gomes da Rocha (C), suspected of killing 39 people, is escorted by police officers at the Department of Security, a day after his arrest in Goiania in the state of Goias, Brazil, on Oct. 16, 2014. EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

Rocha, a Brazilian who worked as a security guard, confessed to police that he killed at least 39 people between 2011 and 2014. [sources: Lissardy, McCoy].

Rocha had a rough childhood in which he was sexually abused by a neighbor when he was 11 and bullied by other students at school. But neither really explains why the killer began his spree in his early 20s.

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Rocha chose to hunt down mostly longhaired girls and women between the ages of 13 and 29. His method was to ride up to them on a motorcycle and shoot them. He finally was caught when police set roadblocks on the streets and intercepted him.

"I never heard a person with such coldness," said Alexandre Barros Bruno, commissioner of the police unit involved in the investigation, to the BBC [source: Lissardy].

Rocha was convicted numerous times of murder and other offenses between 2016 and 2018, and received the equivalent of multiple life sentences, according to Brazilian news reports [sources: Goias, Diario de Goias, Veja].

9: Ahmad Suradji

Indonesian funeral
A worker holds the tombstone of Zaenal Abidin during a funeral service for the drug convict who was executed in an Indonesian prison. Ahmad Suradji, the Black Magic Killer murdered 42 women in Indonesia, claiming his late father told him to do it. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Ahmad Suradji, an Indonesian known as the "Black Magic Killer," reportedly started his murder wave in 1986, when he said that his late father appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to kill 70 women.

For the next 13 years, he did his best to achieve that goal. Suradji practiced witchcraft, and some of his victims came to him, in hopes that his magic would help them to solve their problems.

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Instead, he lured them into a field and convinced them to let him bury them up to the waist, which they believed was part of his magic cure. Instead, he strangled the helpless women. After they were dead, he drank their saliva, believing that it would enhance his powers. Finally, he buried them completely, with their heads pointing toward his home.

In 1998, after police discovered some of the bodies, Suradji was arrested and eventually convicted of 42 murders. In 2008, he was executed by firing squad. One of his three wives, who happened to be sisters, was also convicted of being an accomplice, and sentenced to life [sources: Bell, AP].

8: Andrei Chikatilo

Andrei Chikatilo
Notorious Ukrainian cannibalistic serial killer Andrei Chikatilo is shown behind bars in Rostov on the Don, Russia. Georges DeKeerle/Sygma via Getty Images

A native of what is now Ukraine, Andrei "The Maniac" Chikatilo endured a difficult childhood during the 1930s and 1940s. He and his family survived the famine years caused by Soviet leader Josef Stalin's ill-conceived agricultural policies, as well as the brutal invasion by the Germans during World War II. Chikatilo also reportedly suffered from congenital problems that caused him genital and urinary-tract problems throughout his life.

But none of that fully explains the mental illness that drove him to murder six women, whom he befriended at train stations and bus stops and then lured into wooded areas, where he would rape and mutilate them with a knife. Sometimes he cut their eyes out or ate pieces of their bodies. All this while working first as a school teacher and then as a traveling factory clerk.

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Police arrested Chikatilo in 1984, but were unable to make the charges stick. (He had a rare condition where the blood type in his blood was different from the type in other bodily fluids, like semen. DNA techniques at the time could not have determined this.) He finally was caught again in 1990, and confessed to 56 murders, though police could only verify 53 of them. Chikatilo said he did these heinous acts for sexual gratification. At this trial, he behaved bizarrely, at times singing and talking gibberish, and even exposed himself to people in the courtroom. In 1992, he was convicted and in 1994 executed with a gunshot to the back of the head [sources: Biography.com, Bovsun, Krivich and Olgin].

7: Randy Kraft

Randy Kraft
Randy Kraft, who may have killed as many as 65 people, listens to testimony in a preliminary hearing. Bettman/Getty Images

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraft, a bland-looking computer consultant with an IQ of 129, picked up hitchhikers and plied them with drugged beer, so that he could torture, sexually abuse and kill them, before dumping their bodies on freeway ramps.

He was caught when he was stopped by California Highway Patrol officers on a freeway in 1983. Inside Kraft's Toyota, the officers discovered a dying young Marine, a hitchhiker whom Kraft had picked up and drugged.

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Also in his car, investigators found what apparently was a coded list of victims. At his Long Beach home, they further discovered snapshots that he had taken of them, and a collection of their possessions — trophies of his murders.

At Kraft's trial, his lawyers unsuccessfully argued that his violent acts were caused by brain damage. In 1989, he was convicted by a jury of 16 murders, and after prosecutors introduced evidence that his total victims numbered 65 or more, he was sentenced to death. Decades later, Kraft is still on death row, as his case makes its way through the appeals process [sources: Hicks, Kiger, Rokos].

6: Yang Xinhai

Chinese police criminal
Chinese police escort a convicted murderer to a public sentencing on Nov. 17, 2004 in Chongqing, China. More than 10,000 watched. China Photos/Getty Images

Yang, a migrant worker may have been the most prolific killer in the history of China, with a body count of 67 murders, in addition to 23 rapes.

As BBC News reported in 2004, Yang's three-year killing spree ranged across the provinces of Henan, Anhui, Shandong and Hebei. He used a hammer to kill, and sometimes murdered entire families.

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In an interview shown on Chinese television after his trial, Yang said that he was a misfit who simply enjoyed committing murders.

"When I killed people I had a desire (to kill more). This inspired me to kill more. I don't care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern," Yang said. "I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern."

Chinese police finally got lucky, catching Yang when they detained him during a routine inspection of entertainment venues. After he confessed to the crimes, his trial only lasted an hour before he was found guilty in 2004.

A few weeks after the verdict, Chinese state media announced that Yang had been executed, though it didn't detail the method used [source: BBC News].

5: Gary Leon Ridgway

Gary Ridgway
Green River Killer Gary Leon Ridgway cries as he reads a statement in court, Dec. 18, 2003 in Seattle. Ridgway received 48 life sentences, without the possibility of parole, for killing 48 women. Elaine Thompson-Pool/Getty Images

In the 1980s and 1990s, investigators struggled to catch the infamous "Green River Killer," who preyed upon prostitutes and teenage runaways in King County in Washington state. The killer would strangle his victims while having sex with them, and then dump their bodies in remote areas near the Green River.

Police suspected a truck-body painter named Gary Ridgway for years, but they couldn't make a case against him until DNA advances enabled them to link him to some of the victims in 2001. To avoid the death penalty, Ridgway confessed to 48 of the murders in 2003, and received multiple life sentences. In 2011, a 49th body was found, and linked to Ridgway, who received yet another life sentence.

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Since then, Ridgway has confessed to many additional killings. ABC News reported in 2013 that he claimed a body count of 75 to 80. He said that he had become religious and wanted to bring closure to the victims' families. In October 2022, the New York Times reported that King County detectives are still working to identify Ridgway's victims [sources: Dolak, Worthington , Biography.com] .

4: Javed Iqbal

Javed Iqbal
Javed Iqbal (C) arrives in court under police custody in Lahore, Pakistan, 2000. Iqbal was convicted of murdering 100 children and sentenced to death by a Pakistani high court. He was found dead in his cell in 2001 under suspicious circumstances. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Iqbal, a middle-aged resident of a working-class neighborhood in Lahore, Pakistan, wrote a letter in 1999 to police, in which he claimed to have sexually abused and murdered 100 young runaways between the ages of 6 and 16 in a year's time. When police searched his house, they found the mutilated remains of at least two of his victims, along with bags of clothing and photographs of boys. Police and families of missing children were able to identify numerous victims from that evidence. After a month-long police manhunt, he was arrested at the offices of a Pakistani newspaper, where he had gone to write out a confession because he feared that police would kill him. [sources: BBC News, BBC News, McCarthy ].

Iqbal said that he had committed the killings in revenge for brutal mistreatment that he claimed to have received from the police during a previous arrest. But he also had a nihilistic streak. "I hate this world, I am not ashamed of my action and I am ready to die, " he reportedly told the staff at the newspaper office. "I have no regrets. I killed 100 children" [source: McCarthy].

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In addition to his confession, authorities also found a 32-page diary in which Iqbal had recorded his crimes. Oddly, Iqbal later tried to recant his confession, and claimed that he had invented the story to highlight the problem of runaways. The judge wasn't convinced, and in an unusual move, sentenced him to be strangled 100 times and to have his body cut into pieces and dissolved in acid, as he had done to his victims [source: McCarthy].

But before the execution could be carried out, Iqbal and an accomplice who also had been convicted in the case were found hanged to death in their prison cells in 2001. Jail officials concluded that the prisoners had committed suicide, but the bodies showed mysterious signs of other injuries [sources: Dawn, Jenkins].

3: Harold Shipman

Garden of Tranquility
A family plays behind the new Garden of Tranquility in Hyde Park, Greater Manchester, England, which commemorates those who died at the hands of mass murderer Dr. Harold Shipman. PHIL NOBLE/AFP/Getty Images

Harold Shipman was a trusted, respected physician in England who treated more than 3,000 patients in his career. But underneath that conventional image, the father of four was a drug addict with multiple convictions, who somehow managed to keep practicing medicine.

Shipman also harbored a secret urge to kill women, which he satisfied by making house calls to elderly female patients and giving them lethal injections of the opiate diamorphine. Most of his victims were found sitting in their living rooms, as if they had died quietly of natural causes. After authorities grew suspicious and exhumed bodies to test them, Shipman was arrested in 1998. Two years later, a British court convicted him of 15 murders, making him the most prolific serial killer in that nation's history. But a later investigation linked him to a total of 215 deaths [source: BBC News, Hoge].

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Why he killed so many people remains a mystery. Prosecutors portrayed him as an arrogant man who considered himself intellectually superior to others, and who reveled in the sense of power that he got from taking lives.

"He was very definitely not doing it for excitement, far from it," said forensic psychologist Dr. Richard Badcock in a BBC report. "He was doing it mainly to try and resolve something within himself ... to get rid of an anxiety but an anxiety which he might not even have let himself think about" [source: BBC News, Hoge].

In 2004, Shipman hanged himself in his jail cell [source: BBC News, Carter].

2: Luis Garavito

Luis Garavito
Luis Garavito reportedly killed 300 people "for pleasure" in the 1990s. Policía Nacional de Colombia/Wikipedia

Colombian serial killer Luis Garavito, dubbed "The Beast," reportedly liked to dress up in disguise — sometimes as a beggar or a disabled person, other times as a monk or an official from a charitable foundation — so that he could stalk impoverished children. After he talked his victims into going for a walk with him, he sexually abused them and slit their throats [sources: Guardian, Morris and Darling].

Police first issued an arrest warrant for Gavarito in 1996 for the murder of a child, but he managed to elude them for several years, until they arrested a man named Pedro Pechuga on suspicion of rape and matched him to photographs of Gavarito. After six months in prison, he confessed to killing 140 chlidren over a five-year period [sources: Morris and Darling]. After receiving a 40-year sentence for the murder of 111 children, he admitted to 50 other killings as well [sources: AP, UPI].

In 2011, a Colombian newspaper obtained the results of a prison psychological examination in which Garavito was asked why he had killed so many. His reply: "I felt pleasure, even though when I had killed, the guilt came over me." Some experts put the number of children he killed as high as 300 [source: Heyden].

Garavito reportedly was treated at a hospital for leukemia and then returned to prison in 2021 [source: El Espectador].

1: Pedro Alonso Lopez

Pedro Alonso Lopez
In 2002, Pedro Alonso Lopez received 14 years in prison in Ecuador for killing mostly young girls. He claimed to have killed over 300 people.
Policía Nacional del Ecuador/Wikipedia

The "Monster of the Andes" just might be the world's most prolific serial killer. Lopez was the son of a Colombian prostitute who tossed him out in the streets at age 8, where he reportedly suffered sexual assaults from a man who took him in. Lopez vowed to do to girls what had been done to him. In the 1970s, he turned into an international predator, roaming across Colombia, Ecuador and Peru in search of vulnerable pre-pubescent girls [sources: Wilson and Seaman, Biography].

In 1980, after a river overflowed its banks near the mountain town of Ambato in central Ecuador, four makeshift graves were uncovered, and the bodies of some of Lopez's victims floated free. Not long afterward, Lopez was cornered by a street vendor and her neighbors as he tried to abduct yet another potential victim, the vendor's 11-year-old daughter [sources: Biography.com, Wilson and Seaman].

In prison, Lopez confessed to an undercover investigator posing as an inmate and provided details about where victims were buried. That enabled police to unearth 57 bodies. The actual death toll may have been much higher. According to Colin Wilson's and Donald Seaman's book "The Serial Killers: A Study in the Psychology of Violence," while in custody Lopez admitted to having killed about 360 girls.

In 1981, Lopez pled guilty to 57 murders, but because of Ecuador's laws, he only received a 16-year sentence, which provoked public outrage. Eventually, he was released after just 14 years and deported to Colombia, where authorities tried to prosecute him for a murder from two decades before. Instead, though, he was declared insane and spent several years in a Colombian mental institution before being released in 1998. Soon after, he vanished, and his current whereabouts are unknown. [sources: Biography.com, Locker].

Sidenote: Grisly Notoriety

Some killers have become notorious not necessarily because of the number of people that they murdered, but because of the horrific details of their crimes or macabre personal quirks — or in a few instances, because they deliberately sought attention. Some of these include:

  • Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed 17 boys and men between 1978 and 1991, became infamous for committing necrophilia and cannibalism as well. Dahmer was beaten to death in prison in 1994. [sources: Jenkins, Wood].
  • John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 young males, became known as the "Killer Clown" because of his hobby of performing in clown costume and makeup at children's parties, charity fundraisers and other events. Gacy was executed in 1994 [sources: Biography, ABC News].
  • Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK Killer — initials that stood for Bind, Torture and Kill —committed 10 murders in the Wichita, Kansas area over several decades, but he became even more infamous because of his apparent eagerness for publicity. The killer sent messages to local news media, and even suggested nicknames for himself. Police eventually caught him by analyzing metadata on a computer disk he sent them. Rader, who was also a family man, Cub Scout leader and church elder, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms in 2005 (sources: Biography, Nolasco, Sylvester, AP).
  • The Zodiac Killer, one of the most infamous serial killers of all time, killed five people and wounded two others in the San Francisco Bay area between December 1968 and October 1969, but was never caught. Zodiac became notorious because he stalked and surprised his victims, shooting or stabbing them and then running away, which left little evidence for police to work with. He also sent taunting letters to local newspapers. After more than 50 years, his identity remains an unsolved mystery [source: Dowd].

Originally Published: Nov 4, 2016

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 11 of the World's Most Prolific Serial Killers

I'm a little uneasy with the subject, I confess, because I've actually met one of the killers on this list, as well as relatives of his victims. As a young newspaper reporter in California in the late 1980s, I covered the trial of serial killer Randy Kraft, and once paid a brief visit to him in jail in an unsuccessful effort to get an interview. On the other side of the glass barrier, I got to see how his placid, almost meek demeanor could morph suddenly into a frightening rage, as he slammed down the phone and stomped off. But what affected me more was meeting and spending time with the mother of one of his victims, and I saw for myself the unending torment that the killer's sadistic cruelty had inflicted upon her. Even so, she was so gentle and kind that she was reluctant to see her son's murderer receive the death penalty. Those experiences taught me lessons about both the darkest, most disturbing part of human nature, and its highest, most noble side as well.

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