|Cause of death Heart attack|
Role serial killer
Date apprehended April 2, 1988
Name Robert Berdella
|Full Name Robert Andrew Berdella|
Born January 31, 1949 (1949-01-31) Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, U.S.
Other names The Kansas City Butcher, The Bondage Killer
Conviction(s) MurderSelling amphetamines
Span of killings July 6, 1984–August 5, 1987
Died October 8, 1992, Missouri, United States
Similar People Michael Madison, Herb Baumeister, David Berkowitz, Joe Ball
Criminal penalty life imprisonment
Education Kansas City Art Institute
Robert Andrew Berdella (January 31, 1949 – October 8, 1992) was an American serial killer known as The Kansas City Butcher and The Collector, who kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered at least six men between 1984 and 1987 in Kansas City, Missouri after having forced his victims to endure periods of up to six weeks of captivity.
- Berdella interview
- robert berdella
- Early life
- College years
- 4315 Charlotte Street
- Bobs Bizarre Bazaar
- First known victim
- Subsequent murders
- Increase in brutality
- Final victim
- Search warrant
- Task force and further investigation
- Dental identifications
- First indictments
- Plea bargain
Describing his murders as being "some of my darkest fantasies becoming my reality", Berdella pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the first degree murder of one of his victims, Larry Pearson, in August 1988, and would later plead guilty to one further charge of first degree murder, and four charges of second degree murder in December 1988. He died of a heart attack while incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary in October 1992.
Berdella became known as "The Kansas City Butcher" due to his practice of extensively dissecting his victims' bodies, which he would then dispose of in garbage bags, and "The Collector" due to both the movie which he stated was the basis of the fantasies behind the modus operandi of his crimes, and much of the evidence subsequently uncovered by investigators.
Robert Andrew Berdella Jr. was born on January 31, 1949, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, the first of two sons born to Robert Berdella, Sr. (a die setter for the Ford Motor Company) and Alice Berdella (a homemaker). Berdella's father was a Catholic of Italian descent, and raised his family in a deeply religious household, in which the family regularly attended Mass, and both sons regularly attended religious education courses.
As a child, Berdella was intelligent, but a classic loner who rarely played outside his own home, and seldom had friends visit his home to socialize with him. He was also severely nearsighted (resulting in his being required to wear thick glasses from the age of five) and afflicted with a slight speech impediment. Furthermore, as a child, he would be diagnosed as suffering from a high blood pressure, for which he was prescribed several medications. In part because of this diagnosis, Berdella was largely unathletic, whereas his younger brother, Daniel (b. 1956), displayed an aptitude for various sports from an early age. As Berdella's father valued sports and physical education, he viewed his older son's lack of interest in sports as a sign of failure on Berdella's part, and would often compare him unfavorably with his younger brother. Occasionally, Berdella's father would also become physically and emotionally abusive against his children, and is known to have beaten them with a leather strap.
Berdella performed academically well in his studies, though teachers often found him difficult to teach, in part due both his aloofness, and his being the recipient of bullying by other students. Resultantly, as a child, he also seldom socialized in social activities at school with his peers.
When Berdella reached puberty, he discovered that he was homosexual; initially, he kept this fact a closely guarded secret, and he would not become open about his sexuality for several years. Nonetheless, in his early teens, he did form one brief relationship with a girl, which was short lived.
By his mid-teens, Berdella had begun to display a degree of self confidence, which would often manifest itself via his attitude to other individuals in which he would exert a somewhat rude and condescending attitude—particularly toward women. Nonetheless, he developed an aptitude for cookery, showmanship, and art. On Christmas Day 1965, Berdella's family drove to Canton to visit relatives. That evening, Berdella's father suffered a severe heart attack, from which he died two days later. Although Berdella had chosen to return alone to Cuyahoga Falls by December 27, he was shocked to hear of his father's death, and initially sought a form of solace from his religion. He would later read extensively about many faiths and ideas, but never embraced any of them; gradually developing a cynical attitude toward any form of religion.
In 1965, Berdella saw the film adaptation of the John Fowles book The Collector. The plot of this movie revolves around a lonely male who stalks, then abducts a young woman he finds attractive, and holds her captive in his windowless, stone basement, viewing her as little more than an attractive specimen. After several weeks, the female captive dies of a contracted illness despite her captor's efforts to keep her alive. Berdella later stated this movie had formed a lasting impression on him.
Shortly after the death of Berdella's father, his mother remarried. This act was met with resentment by her older son, who viewed the move as a form of betrayal against his father. As a result, Berdella became increasingly withdrawn, and further immersed himself in the solitary activities he had participated in since childhood such as painting, collecting coins and stamps, and writing to foreign pen pals. Berdella would later claim that his hobby of writing to pen pals in countries such as Vietnam and Burma and the fact these pen pals would send him stamps for his collection, and photographs of mythical and historical icons, ancient cultures, and architecture would lead to his developing an avid interest in primitive art, photographs, and antiques. From approximately 1965, he would begin avidly collecting these artifacts; this practice would later inspire him to open his own business in 1982.
In the summer of 1967, Berdella graduated from Cuyahoga Falls High School. Throughout his studies in high school, he had earned such excellent grades and displayed such potential that in 1966, one teacher had placed him in an independent study program. Shortly after graduation, Berdella relocated to Kansas City. Here, he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute, with aspirations of becoming a college professor. In his first year at the Kansas City Art Institute, Berdella was considered an attentive and talented student, although by his second year in art school, Berdella became vocally anti-authoritarian. He also became acquainted with a clique of students who supplied him with drugs which he then sold to other students at a profit. As such, he acquired a reputation among his fellow students as a minor drug dealer. In addition, he began regularly abusing alcohol. He also engaged in acts of animal torture on at least three occasions while a student at the Kansas City Art Institute; during two of these instances, he tortured a duck and a chicken in the presence of his peers, and in the third instance, he experimented with sedatives and tranquilizers on a dog.
At the age of 19, Berdella was arrested for attempting to sell methamphetamines to an undercover officer; he was released after posting a $3,000 bond, and would later plead guilty to the offense and was handed a five-year suspended sentence. One month after this first arrest, Berdella and two other students were arrested for possession of marijuana and LSD in Johnson County. On this occasion, Berdella could not post bond, and he spent five days in jail, although the charges against him and one of the other students would be dropped due to a lack of evidence.
4315 Charlotte Street
In 1969, Berdella voluntarily withdrew from the Kansas City Art Institute after receiving harsh criticism from college administrators for killing, then cooking a duck for the sake of art. He chose to remain in Kansas City and in September of that year, he moved into an address located within the Hyde Park district of Kansas City: 4315 Charlotte Street. Having by this stage long been open about being gay, Berdella began spending much of his free time with male prostitutes, drug addicts, petty criminals, and runaways. These individuals he would typically befriend, then try to help free themselves from their drug addictions and general lethargic or criminal lifestyles, and he was adamant that, throughout much of the 1970s, he had no physical contact whatsoever with any of these individuals. To several of his neighbors, Berdella stated he gradually almost felt like a foster parent to many of these youths. Nonetheless, by the early 1980s, many of his older acquaintances had ceased any form of social contact with him, thus meaning Berdella increasingly relied on these young men as a source of companionship and friendship. He would retrospectively claim to have become increasingly frustrated at many of these individuals' collective ignorance to his efforts to assist them to steer their lifestyles away from harm and deterioration, and their basic flouting of him.
Despite these later claims to investigators, Berdella would often engage in sexual relations with several of these individuals, and would establish a degree of control over them—in part to engage in these sexual relations—via methods including loaning them money, and allowing them to live rent free at his house for periods of time.
To his neighbors, Berdella was considered a flamboyant, yet helpful and civic-minded individual, despite the generally unkempt state of his property, and his somewhat haughty attitude. Beginning in the late 1970s, Berdella would assist in the organizational activities of the South Hyde Park Crime Prevention and Neighborhood Association; becoming their chairman in the early 1980s and encouraging neighborhood‑watch patrols. (He remained active in this association until the mid-1980s, when he relinquished his position within the organization.) Berdella would also represent his neighborhood at fundraising events for a local public television station, although he would also disengage himself from these events by the mid-1980s.
Bob's Bizarre Bazaar
Shortly before Berdella had moved into his Charlotte Street address, he began working as a short-order cook in various restaurants around Kansas City—in part to help pay the lawyer fees and fines accrued from the drug arrests he had endured at age 19. As a means of obtaining additional income, he also sold arcane items of art and antiques he had accrued and collected across then-recent years from contacts he had established in Africa, Asia, South America, and various Pacific Rim countries.
He would initially operate this side-business from his home. Both his career and side-business gradually flourished, and by the mid-1970s, Berdella began working as a senior cook at several renowned Kansas City restaurants; also joining a local chefs' association, and helping establish a training program for aspiring chefs at a local community college. Simultaneously, as his own business began to burgeon, he began to devote more of his attention to his own business as opposed to his work as a chef. By 1981, he had established several contractual agreements with both national and international contacts for his own business (which he named Bob's Bizarre Bazaar), and viewed this business as his full-time job. Resultingly, he ceased working as a chef.
In 1982, Berdella began renting his own booth at the Westport Flea Market. This store was named Bob's Bizarre Bazaar, and primarily sold and traded primitive art, jewelry, and antiques. Although occasionally making a generous monthly profit, the income he typically generated via this business was often not sufficient to maintain his daily expenses and to make ends meet. Resultingly, Berdella would occasionally have to either sell goods to fellow merchants at a profit loss, or steal or scavenge for items to sell at his booth. Additionally, he would often take lodgers at his home as a means of gaining additional income.
At his work premises, Berdella became acquainted with a fellow merchant named Paul Howell, who operated a booth adjacent to his own. Soon, Berdella became acquainted with Paul Howell's younger son, Jerry. Initially, Jerry Howell and his friends scathed and taunted Berdella over his overt homosexuality, although according to Berdella, Jerry Howell later confided in him that he and his friends occasionally earned money as male prostitutes.
By the early 1980s, Paul Howell had relocated his business from the Westport flea market to a store within a building located close to the intersection of 39th and Main Street. His family had also moved into an apartment above the shop, and despite his younger son occasionally engaging in heated arguments with Berdella, they would invariably reignite a casual friendship—often via Berdella offering his legal or financial assistance should Jerry endure minor scrapes with the law. By the summer of 1984, Jerry Howell had turned 19.
First known victim
Berdella is believed to have killed his first victim on July 5, 1984. His first known victim was 19-year-old Jerry Howell, with whom he had become closely acquainted in the year prior to his murder and whom he abducted on the promise of driving the youth to attend a dancing contest in Merriam. According to Berdella, he plied Howell with alcohol, Valium and acepromazine both in his car and at his house until the youth became unconscious. He then injected Howell with a heavy tranquilizer before binding the youth to his bed.
Howell was restrained to Berdella's bed for a period of approximately 28 hours. Throughout this period of captivity, Berdella repeatedly drugged, tortured, raped and violated the youth with foreign objects, repeatedly ignoring Howell's intermittent questioning as to why he was being treated in this manner, and pleas to be freed before, according to Berdella, the youth "either asphyxiated on [his own] vomit, or the combination of the gag and the medicines were too strong for him to be able to catch breath". Berdella would later state that he did briefly attempt to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation upon Howell after he had died before dragging his body to the basement. He then suspended Howell's body above a large cooking pot and made several incisions to the youth's inner elbows and jugular vein, before leaving the body suspended in this position overnight to allow the blood to drain from his corpse. The following day, he dismembered Howell's body using a chainsaw and boning knives, before wrapping the sections in newspaper and trash bags. These bags were later placed inside larger trash bags which Berdella placed outside for a garbage crew to collect and take to a landfill.
Later questioned by officers investigating Howell's disappearance, Berdella claimed to have driven the youth to Merriam as promised, and that the two had parted company close to Howell's intended destination. Berdella further claimed he had not seen the youth since.
As would be the case with all Berdella's murders, he kept a detailed log in which he documented each act of sexual and physical torture inflicted upon his victim. Berdella would recall that—like the subsequent victims he would hold captive—Howell had repeatedly pleaded for his ongoing abuse and torture to cease throughout the period of his capture, although he (Berdella) would either ignore these pleas, taunt his victim, or threaten him. He would remain adamant to investigators that this would be not for his enjoyment, but what he termed his "physical and mental satisfaction".
On April 10, 1985, a former lodger of Berdella's, 23-year-old Robert Sheldon, arrived on his doorstep, asking if he could again stay at his house for short period of time. According to Berdella, although Sheldon was responsible in paying rent, he considered him "an inconvenience" and, although he was not physically attracted to this victim, chose to drug and hold him captive on April 12 when he returned home from work to find Sheldon intoxicated in his home. Berdella was adamant he held no firm malice toward Sheldon, but saw him as an individual upon whom he could "express some of the anger and frustration that I had toward other people on". Sheldon was drugged with sedatives and held captive in the second floor bedroom for three days, enduring forms of torture such as the swabbing of drain cleaner in his left eye, the insertion of needles beneath his fingertips, the binding of his wrists with piano wire with the intention of permanently damaging the nerves in his hands, and filling his ears with caulking to reduce his hearing capacity.
Three days after Berdella had begun holding Sheldon captive, on April 15, a workman came to perform some scheduled work on the roof of his home, leading Berdella to choose to fatally suffocate Sheldon by placing a sack over his head, which he then tightened with a piece of rope. He later dissected Sheldon's body in the third floor bathroom.
The following June, Berdella found Mark Wallace (whom he vaguely knew via Wallace having previously helped him with yard work) hiding in his tool shed to seek shelter from a severe thunderstorm. As had been the case with Robert Sheldon, Berdella invited him inside his house, and, noting Wallace's acute state of tenseness and depression, volunteered to inject him with chlorpromazine with the explanation this would "calm down and relax" him. Wallace willingly accepted the offer and, 30 minutes later, Berdella decided to render him captive. Wallace was carried to the second floor bedroom where he endured almost a day of captivity and torture including the application of alligator clips to his nipples to facilitate electrical shocks to his body at any point at which he (Wallace) began regressing into a state of unconsciousness. According to Berdella, one hour after his "experimenting" with hypodermic needles by inserting them into various muscles upon his victim's back, Mark Wallace died through a combination of "the drugs, the gag, and the lack of oxygen". He noted this victim's time of death as being 7:00 p.m. on June 23.
Increase in brutality
On September 26, 1985, Berdella answered a phone call from an acquaintance named Walter James Ferris, who requested he be allowed to stay at his (Berdella's) for a short period of time. Berdella accepted this request, with the specific intention of kidnapping Ferris, whom he met by prearrangement at a bar that evening. Despite the brutality he had exhibited upon his first three victims, according to Berdella, Ferris was the first individual upon whom he intentionally inflicted torture, and he would later state to investigators that there were periods of time in his final three victims' captivity in which he did not record any notations of the abuse he inflicted as he felt his captive would not "be able to make it much longer."
Ferris was drugged with tranquilizers and tied to Berdella's bed where he was tortured on an almost constant basis for approximately 27 hours. This torture included the repeated administering of 7,700-volt electrical shocks administered to the shoulder and testicles for up to five minutes in each instance, and acupuncture via hypodermic needles to the neck and genitals. Ferris gradually became delirious, although Berdella continued his physical and sexual assaults upon his victim until he noted in the log he kept upon Ferris: 'Unable to sit up more than 10-15 seconds.' This was followed by an entry reading, 'Very delayed breathing.' Shortly thereafter, Berdella wrote that his victim had died with a simple notation translating as 'Stop the project'.
In June 1986, Berdella encountered a 21-year-old male prostitute and former acquaintance of his named Todd Stoops at Liberty Memorial Park. Stoops and his wife had briefly resided with Berdella in 1984; he accepted an invitation to accompany Berdella to his house with an initial incentive of the two simply sharing lunch. Berdella would later stress to investigators he had been extremely physically attracted to Stoops, and this victim was held captive for two weeks before he died, with Berdella gradually making concerted efforts to terrify his captive and render him a cooperative and incapacitated sex slave with efforts including forcing Stoops to endure electrical shocks through his closed eyes in an effort to blind him, and injecting drain cleaner into his larynx in an (unsuccessful) effort to render him mute. On one occasion on the second week of his capture, Stoops asked Berdella if he could have a soft drink and a sandwich, which Berdella refused, at which point Stoops burst into tears. Berdella stated that, towards the end of Stoops' two-week period of capture, he did attempt to feed Stoops ice cream and soup, but his captive "wasn't able to keep anything down." Moreover, Stoops "was so weak he was unable to breathe while in a sitting position." His assumption was that this victim died of a combination of a fever and blood loss contracted due to the repeated sexual assaults and abuse he had been forced to endure, which had included enduring the rupturing of his anal cavity with his (Berdella's) fist.
In the spring of 1987, Berdella became friendly with a 20-year-old named Larry Wayne Pearson. This casual friendship began when Pearson entered his shop and explained to Berdella that, as a child, he had held an interest in both witchcraft and wizadry. Shortly thereafter, Pearson temporarily lodged with Berdella, and willingly performed chores around his home as a means of paying rent. According to Berdella, he did not initially intend to capture this individual, but formed the plan to do so on June 23 when, having bailed Pearson out of jail, the younger man began jokingly referring to his practice of robbing gay men in Wichita. That evening, Berdella ensured Pearson became intoxicated before injecting him with chlorpromazine and moving him down to his basement, where he bound Pearson's hands above his head, then linked the rope he had used for this purpose to a brick column, before injecting Pearson's larynx with drain cleaner. He then brought an electrical transformer to the basement.
According to Berdella, Pearson was by far the most cooperative of his six murder victims. On the fifth day of his captivity, having by this stage endured torture such as the repeated administration of electrical shocks with the transformer, and the breaking of several hand bones with an iron rod to render him submissive, Berdella deduced Pearson had earned his trust as to his continued cooperation in his sexual and physical abuse; as a form of reward, Pearson was moved to the second floor, with Berdella first informing Pearson that if he continued to cooperate, he (Berdella) would not continue to inflict as much pain upon him as he had done so while he had been held captive in the basement. Throughout the latter part of his six weeks of captivity, Pearson trained himself to sleep without moving, in order that he did not antagonize Berdella and thus invite further torture or being returned to the basement.
After six weeks of captivity, in an act of despair, Pearson deeply bit into Berdella's penis before screaming he could not continue to tolerate being treated in this manner. In response, Berdella killed Pearson by first bludgeoning him into unconsciousness with a tree limb, then suffocating him with a bag and ligature, before driving to hospital to receive treatment for his wound. Pearson's body was later dismembered in the basement, and his head initially stored in a plastic bag inside Berdella's freezer, before being buried in the backyard.
At 1:00 a.m. on March 29, 1988, Berdella abducted his last victim, a 22-year-old male prostitute named Christopher Bryson, whom he lured to his house upon the promise of payment for sex. At Berdella's home, Bryson was knocked unconscious with an iron bar, then bound to Berdella's bed, where he was subjected to similar methods of abuse and torture endured by previous victims, although in Bryson's case, Berdella repeatedly swabbed his eyes with ammonia, before exclaiming to him: "The only things you need to think about are you, me, and this house."
After several days, Berdella explained to Bryson he had begun to "trust" his captive, and that although he was willing to discuss aspects of the abuse and torture he was receiving, there would be no negotiations pertaining to his sexual abuse. Berdella finished this discussion with a stern warning: "I've gotten this far with other people before, and they're dead now, because of mistakes they made."
By the third day of his capture, Bryson had earned sufficient trust from Berdella to persuade him to establish a regime of tying his hands in front of him after his sexual abuse rather than above his head and to the bed upon the excuse that his (Berdella's) doing so was restricting the circulation to his arms; he had also persuaded Berdella to leave a television on within the room, with the remote control placed between his legs whenever Berdella was out of the room. However, he would later state to investigators that he had thought almost constantly about escaping. The following day, he managed to break free of his restraints by burning through them using a book of matches Berdella had inadvertently left in the room and within his reach when he had left the house to go to his place of work.
Bryson then managed to escape from the house by jumping from a second floor window, wearing nothing besides a dog collar around his neck, breaking a bone in his foot in the process; he then ran toward a meter reader walking across the other side of the street, shouting for this individual to call the police. This individual led Bryson to the house he had been approaching, whereupon the occupants promptly called the police, who arrived minutes later.
Questioned at the scene by four officers, Bryson initially claimed he had been hitchhiking when abducted by Berdella, who had kidnapped, raped, and tortured him for four days before he had managed to escape by jumping from a window on the second floor of the property. Furthermore, this individual had kept him bound to a bed on the second floor of the house throughout much of the time he had been held against his will, repeatedly sodomizing him, drugging him, and injecting his throat with drain cleaner to diminish his ability to speak loudly. As Bryson spoke, the officers also noted that in addition to the dog collar and broken foot, Bryson had red, swollen eyes, and visible scars and welts across his entire body. Two officers were told to maintain a discreet surveillance of the property, as Bryson was driven to the Menorah Medical Center, accompanied by a third officer, for treatment as the fourth officer radioed the Kansas City Police Department to request a formal search warrant of the property be drafted.
Later questioned in greater detail at the Kansas City Police Department, Bryson again stated he had been held against his will by the occupant of 4315 Charlotte Street, who had subjected him to four days of repeated sexual abuse, humiliation, and torture. Bryson further divulged that this individual had also shown him Polaroid images of men who appeared to be deceased, with the explanation these had been previous individuals he had unsuccessfully attempted to "collect" as his sexual slaves. Furthermore, this individual had informed Bryson he had no intention of ever allowing him to leave his property, and that he had claimed to have killed the previous individuals he had captured and treated in this manner, and that if he (Bryson) became a nuisance or threat to him, he would either be subjected to greater levels of torture than what he had already endured, or simply killed.
On the afternoon of Bryson's escape, Berdella was arrested on charges pertaining to the sexual Assault of Christopher Bryson. He declined to allow officers inside his home, and the search warrant earlier requested was drafted to search his property. Corroborating Bryson's claims to have been restrained and tortured in a second floor bedroom, investigators discovered the bedroom on the second floor was found to have burnt ropes attached to the posts at the foot of the bed. Also in the room was an electrical transformer, plugged into a wall, and with wires leading to the bed. A metal tray containing syringes, small bottles apparently containing prescription drugs, swabs, and eye drops was also close to the bed. Also found in the room were a long iron pipe, various lengths of rope, and leather belts. Investigators also noted that although Bryson's restraints had been tied to posts at each corner of the bed, other posts on the bed had been extensively worn, suggesting that restraints had earlier been tied to these posts, and that the individual or individuals had struggled to free themselves.
Searching elsewhere in the house and grounds of 4315 Charlotte Street, investigators uncovered a human skull inside a closet on the second floor of his property, and a partially decomposed human head in the backyard. The search also uncovered several human vertebrae scarred by both hacksaw and knife marks stowed in a hallway, and several human teeth stowed in two envelopes. Both a hacksaw and a miter saw were discovered in the basement of the property, and a chainsaw was also found to be soiled with bloodstains, flesh, and pubic hairs. Luminol tests revealed that the floor of Berdella's basement, and two plastic trash barrels, were extensively bloodstained.
A total of 334 Polaroid pictures and 34 snapshot prints of various male individuals were also found stowed in various locations within Berdella's house; these images depicted Christopher Bryson and several other individuals both in life and in death, and many of the images had been taken as the subjects had been tortured. The search also uncovered numerous restraining and sexual devices; pornographic literature; hypodermic needles; and a book devoted to the creation and remedies of narcotics. Atop a chest of drawers in one bedroom, officers discovered a stenographer's pad containing the detailed torture logs he had taken of each victim, several newspaper clippings from The Kansas City Star regarding a missing young man named Jerry Howell, and both a wallet and a driving license belonging to a missing person named Walter James Ferris was discovered in a closet on the second floor of the property.
Task force and further investigation
Before the search of Berdella's property had concluded, the Kansas City Police Department assembled a special task force of 11 detectives and one sergeant to focus exclusively on Berdella's case. This task force extensively researched Berdella's history, discovering that he was a well-known individual among Kansas City's male hustlers, having earned a reputation for preying on transient young men. Several of these male prostitutes were also reluctant to accept him as a client both because of his penchant for drugging, injecting, and torturing his sexual partners and acquaintances, and also because he had long been considered a suspect in the disappearance of the two men whose personal possessions had been found in his house (Jerry Howell and Walter James Ferris). Missing person reports had been filed in relation to both these men, and Berdella had been extensively questioned in relation to both of these disappearances. In both instances, he had denied having anything to do with the individual's disappearance. Despite being considered a prime suspect in both cases, and being placed under surveillance, police had been unable to find any solid evidence linking him to either man's disappearance, and in both instances, after giving his initial statement to police, Berdella had indignantly refused to talk further without a lawyer present. He would later have his lawyer threaten to file harassment accusations against police unless their questioning and surveillance of him ceased.
The wife of Walter James Ferris formally identified several Polaroid pictures found at Berdella's property as depicting her husband both alive and dead, and Paul Howell formally identified one picture of a young man hanging upside down in Berdella's basement as depicting his son. Several other Polaroid images depicted as-yet unidentified young men, and several detectives were assigned the task of identifying each individual depicted to determine if he was alive or dead, and if alive, the circumstances surrounding his depiction. As several of these images depicted a section of the body of the individual who had taken the photograph, on April 13, Berdella was ordered to pose nude for a series of photographs in order that portions of his body could be photographed in the precise angle depicted within these images for comparison with the original Polaroid images.
As numerous male names had been found scrawled upon various stenographer's pads at Berdella's address, the detectives began attempting to trace each individual. One of these individuals traced, a young man named Freddie Kellogg, was able to state to detectives he and several other young men had intermittently lodged with Berdella since the early 1980s, and that he (Berdella) had been in the habit of plying his lodgers with drugs—typically intravenously—before engaging in sex with them regardless of whether they consented or not. Kellogg also stated Berdella had expressly stated that a condition of his lodging with him was for Kellogg to persuade young men whom he (Berdella) found attractive to attend parties at Charlotte Street in order that Berdella could drug them. Should Berdella ever discover any of these individuals was a police informant, he would use this knowledge as a tool in which he could blackmail the individual to his own advantage. In spite of this condition of his living with Berdella , Kellogg further stated that numerous male prostitutes and addicts had been reluctant to engage in any form of contact with Berdella because of rumors regarding his links to the 1984 disappearance of Jerry Howell.
In addition to these disclosures, Kellogg was able to name three of the individuals depicted in the Polaroids as being Todd Stoops, Robert Sheldon, and Larry Wayne Pearson. These investigators would shortly discover Berdella had paid a $30 fee to secure a bond for Pearson in June 1987, and that no further records existed to indicate Pearson was still alive. Nonetheless, investigators did discover that, in August 1987, Berdella had filed an assault report from a hospital room in which he alleged a man named "Larry Person" had deeply bitten his penis during oral sex, causing a serious laceration. An interview with Robert Sheldon's employers at a Kansas City manufacturing plant had confirmed the young man had been a reliable employee of theirs, but that he had suddenly ceased attending work in April 1985.
Shortly after the search of 4315 Charlotte Street had concluded, Berdella was informed of the discoveries at his property. The same afternoon he was ordered to pose for the series of nude photographs for comparison with the Polaroid images he had taken, investigators attempted to conduct their first formal investigation with him, although Berdella simply invoked his right to silence in this setting. (Investigators later sought to obtain handwriting samples from Berdella in an effort to prove he had written the notes found within the various stenographer's pads discovered at his house; he refused to cooperate and was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court.)
Berdella was initially formally charged with one count of felonious restraint, one count of assault, and seven counts of forcible Sodomy, as investigators continued their investigations into the discoveries at his property, and formally compiled further charges against him. He was assigned a temporary public defender as his legal representative, and held in protective custody in a Jackson County jail in lieu of $500,000 bail.
In late April, the skull found inside Berdella's closet was identified via dental X-rays obtained via subpoena from the University of Kansas Medical Center as that of Robert Sheldon. The same day a dental identification was made upon Sheldon's skull, two men separately phoned the Kansas City Police Department to state one of seven unidentified young men depicted in a photographic array released to the media on April 27 was a former high school acquaintance of theirs named Mark Wallace. When a detective traced Wallace's sister, she stated her brother had been missing since mid-1985. Shortly thereafter, investigators discovered that photograph "D" released to the media in this same array was one Larry Wayne Pearson. As Pearson had once been a ward of the court in Wichita, his dental records were discovered and compared with the skull found in Berdella's backyard.
Berdella would be formally charged with the murder by dismemberment of Larry Wayne Pearson in July after the head discovered in his backyard was formally identified as that of Pearson on May 12, and prosecutors had gathered sufficient circumstantial evidence to accompany the physical evidence retrieved.
On July 22, a grand jury formally indicted Berdella for the murder of Larry Wayne Pearson. The following month, he was arraigned and pleaded guilty in the 4th Circuit of the Jackson County Court before Judge Alvin C. Randall to the first degree murder of Larry Pearson. The plea was entered following a late-morning recess in the arraignment hearing into this particular murder, and came as a surprise to both the judge, and prosecuting attorneys. The prosecution team assigned to the case accepted the plea, with assistant prosecutor Pat Hall later explaining this decision as being "in the best interest of our client, [and] the people of the state of Missouri."
Following the submission and acceptance of this plea, the judge insisted that Berdella confess under oath as to Pearson's death. In response to questioning by his attorneys, Berdella stated: "I put a plastic bag over his head, and tied it with rope and allowed him to suffocate." When asked if he performed this act deliberately, and with malice aforethought, Berdella simply stated, "Yes." He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Upon being sentenced, Berdella was transferred to the Missouri State Penitentiary, to commence his life sentence. He would later be temporarily placed in protective custody at the Potosi Correctional Center, due to concerns for his safety.
A second guilty plea submitted before the Jackson County Court on August 24 earned Berdella a further life term without parole for one charge of forcible sodomy against Christopher Bryson (six counts of sodomy and one charge of assault being dropped as part of a plea bargain); he would also receive a further term of seven years pertaining to one count of felonious restraint against Bryson on this date.
Despite initially pleading not guilty to the remaining five murder charges on September 13, 1988, with the agreement of his two defense attorneys, Berdella ultimately conducted a plea bargain with the prosecutors to avoid the death penalty in these remaining charges. In this plea bargain, Berdella agreed to confess in graphic detail as to precisely whom he had killed, precisely what indignities he had subjected each victim to, how he had killed each victim, and what he had done with their bodies. These confessions were given to prosecutors between December 13 and December 15, 1988. In return for his cooperation, the prosecution agreed not to seek the death penalty at a formal hearing scheduled for 9 a.m on December 19.
On December 19, 1988, Berdella formally waived his rights to be tried for any of the outstanding murder charges, upon the understanding he was to be convicted of one further count of first degree murder (that of Robert Sheldon), and four counts of second degree murder. He formally pleaded guilty to each of these charges before Judge Robert Meyers in the Jackson County Circuit Court. Members of the public were prohibited from attending this hearing, with only family members of his victims and news reporters permitted access to the proceedings. In response to these guilty pleas, Judge Meyers imposed five further concurrent life sentences, with an additional condition barring any future prospect of parole in the sole case of first degree murder to which he pleaded guilty.
In the testimony Berdella provided to prosecutors between December 13 and 15 when he had changed his mind as to his plea and sought approval upon their agreement not to seek the death penalty against him if he fully confessed, Berdella claimed the movie he had first seen in 1965, The Collector, had left a major impression on him and that, following the senses of shock and disgust he claimed to have initially experienced after killing his first victim, had resurfaced in his memory and subsequently became a motivating psychological force in the actions he exhibited against his victims in his subsequent murders. His victims, he stated to investigators, had lost any degree of humanity in his eyes once he had chosen to render them captive.
In reference to the coded notations within the actual torture logs, Berdella confessed that many of the abbreviated entries were simply shorthand terms for methods of abuse he had inflicted upon his victims, whereas others would describe either their reactions to these ongoing acts of abuse and torture, or his initial observations upon viewing them when he entered the room where he had kept them restrained. The entry reading "CP", for example, had referred to the injections of chlorpromazine he had injected into his victims to assist in his restraining them, whereas entries reading "DC" would refer to the swabbing of their eyes with drain cleaner or the injection of the substance into their vocal cords. Entries reading "EK" or "EKG" had referred to the method of torture administered to his captives with electrical shots, whereas several other entries would also read the location Berdella had administered the abuse or torture to his victims. For example, at one point in relation to victim Walter James Ferris, Berdella had written an entry reading: "2 1/2 ket nk + shoulder" to indicate he had injected 2.2 cubic centimeters of ketamine into his victim's neck and shoulder. Other entries such as "gag loose, no resist in retie" or "very delayed breathing, snoring" were more self-explanatory. (Investigators had consulted a specialist in toxicology in their investigation into Berdella following his arrest. This individual had stated that, judging by the notes he had written upon victim Robert Sheldon, the accumulation of chlorpromazine injected into this victim had been toxic.)
Furthermore, Berdella confessed to having alternately buried the two victims' heads in his backyard, adding that he had retrieved and cleaned the first skull—that of Robert Sheldon—at the time he had buried victim Larry Pearson's head in the same hole. Sheldon's skull was that which he had placed inside a closet on the second floor of his property, in an area of the household Berdella referred to as "my gallery area", with the teeth removed and stowed inside envelopes in the same room, and that he had intended to retrieve Pearson's skull once sufficient time had elapsed for it to skeletonize, although he was adamant there had been no rational or sinister reason for his doing so. In addition, he vehemently denied media rumors that he had been engaged in any form of satanism, or that he had sold sections of his victims' bodies at his flea market booth.
Berdella was able to name all of his victims to investigators, and although one victim (Mark Wallace) had been an individual whom he had seized by opportunity when he had discovered him seeking shelter from a severe thunderstorm in his tool shed; his other five victims had been captured after he had initially, and unsuccessfully, tried to steer them away from their general lifestyles, and had thus simply become frustrated at the failure of his efforts. Upon each victim's capture, Berdella described in graphic detail the sexual, physical and emotional abuse he had subjected the victim to, and which he had recorded within his torture logs. He tersely explained his successive actions to investigators on December 14 with the statement that he was "capturing them first, and what developed developed." Nonetheless, he did claim that he had tried to prevent any of his victims from developing any form of malnutrition or infection by occasionally administering antibiotics, or nutrients intravenously as his abuse and torture escalated.
The methods of torture exhibited against his victims had included the administration of high voltage electrical shocks, the starvation of his captive, the application of alkali-based detergents to their throats, vocal cords, or eyes, the bludgeoning of their hands with the intention of rendering these body parts unusable. One other method of torture had been the insertion of needles beneath their fingernails. Furthermore, Berdella confessed that the level of abuse he inflicted had increased with each successive victim, and he had viewed the Polaroid images he had taken of his victims as being a "trophy or record of the event."
Although police had extensively searched for the remains of Berdella's victims throughout their initial investigation into his crimes, the confession Berdella provided to investigators in the autumn of 1988 had confirmed the dismembered bodies of all six of his victims had been stowed in trash bags and subsequently taken to a landfill. Consequently, their bodies were never recovered.
In the years following his 1988 Conviction(s) and incarceration, Berdella both granted an interview to the Kansas-based television station KCPT, and corresponded with numerous individuals. To all concerned, he attempted to restore his image as a "sensitive citizen" who had simply "made mistakes" in committing his crimes. He further claimed he had been unfairly demonized by the media before, during, and after his arraignments and plea bargains, and that police ineptitude had resulted in his being allowed to remain at liberty following his first murder.
Berdella also lodged several complaints with prison officials regarding prison conditions. He had also written several letters to a local minister claiming that prison officials knew of his high blood pressure, yet were not providing him with his prescribed heart medication.
Berdella died of a heart attack while incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary on October 8, 1992. He was 43 years old.
At 2:00 p.m. on the date of his death, Berdella complained to prison staff of heart pains, and was immediately taken from his cell to the prison infirmary, where prison medical staff quickly determined his heart was unstable. Officials summoned an ambulance, and Berdella was taken to a hospital in Columbia, where he was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m. Shortly after Berdella's death, the judge at his trial, Alvin Randall, was informed of his passing. In response, Randall sarcastically remarked: "Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."
According to published reports, although Berdella suffered from a depressive personality disorder, he was also a diagnosed sexual sadist who gained extreme sexual excitation from the humiliation, pain and torture he had submitted his victims to. Moreover, despite his claims to media individuals whom he had contacted in the years of his incarceration, he had never expressed any degree of remorse for his actions, and would tersely refer to his victims as "play toys" in an interview he granted shortly before his death.
By the time of Berdella's April 1988 arrest, he had abducted, tortured and murdered at least six young men (although the Kansas City Police Department suspect Berdella of involvement in two other disappearances). In addition, despite the fact that more than 20 different men had been depicted in postures suggesting unconsciousness or death within the 334 Polaroid images and 34 snaphot prints seized from 4315 Charlotte Street following his arrest, Berdella was adamant the six individuals identified as victims and which he had confessed to killing were all those he had killed.