CLEVELAND, Ohio — For 35 years, Samuel Little crisscrossed the country, stealing during the day and strangling women at night, to become one of the nation’s most prolific serial killers.
Often, he looped back to his childhood hometown of Lorain. But Little said he didn’t kill any women there.
“None near home,” he told local investigators last fall.
Instead, he hunted for victims on the streets of Cleveland.
Today Cuyahoga County prosecutors announced indictments that accuse Little, 78, of killing two women in the city. He is charged with four counts of aggravated murder and six counts of kidnapping.
Both victims were strangled and dumped, Mary Jo Peyton in 1984 and Rose Evans in 1991, in poor East Side neighborhoods that Little described to investigators as “raggedy.’’
Little has confessed to killing another Cleveland woman in 1977 or 1978. Authorities are still working on that case.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael C. O’Malley said Little’s “heinous disregard for human life is incomprehensible.”
Little, also known as Samuel McDowell, has confessed to killing 93 women across the country.
He is serving four life sentences: three for slayings in California and one in Texas, where he took a shine to Ranger James Holland and started to open up about the women he murdered in 19 states.
In Ohio, Little confessed to killing three women in Cleveland; one in Akron; two in Cincinnati, one whose body was dumped outside of Columbus; and one woman he met in Columbus and disposed of in Kentucky. Police in Akron and Cincinnati confirmed they are looking into cases in their cities.
Prosecutors across the country must weigh whether to charge Little, whose only condition for talking is that they won’t wage the death penalty.
Little’s confessions offer a chance for a public accounting of his crimes, said Rick Bell, an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor who leads the office’s Cold Case unit and is handling the case.
“We know there are two, if not three, women who disappeared off our streets,” Bell said. “We want to seek justice.”
Cuyahoga County authorities are prepared to bring Little back to Cleveland, if needed, though given Little’s age and failing health it’s unclear whether that will happen.
Matching confessions to crimes
Though he’ll be 79 next week, Little’s recollections of his victims’ bodies and faces are uncanny. He has drawn dozens of portraits from memory that have helped the FBI and local police identify the women he killed.
Angela Williamson, a U.S. Justice Department policy adviser, said without Little’s help, many of the cases would not have been solved.
That’s because his victims lived on the margins, most of them used drugs or worked as prostitutes.
Women, he said, “nobody would miss.’’
Some of their deaths were never ruled homicides.
“Many of the victims didn’t have family advocating for them,” Williamson said. “They didn’t have the media putting the information out there.”
Plus, Little often slipped away before their bodies were discovered.
When Little decided to open up to Holland last year, Palazzolo and Williamson were listening in, taking notes on his hundreds of hours of confessions.
In a way, they became the voice of the women.
“To get answers for them,” Williamson said.
The women reached out to more than 200 investigators with sketches of the crimes — descriptions of the victims, their clothing, where they were dumped, sometimes even pictures drawn by Little.
Detectives now are using those details to work the cases backward, using the confessions to track down the right murders.
Putting the pieces together
Bell was one of the people Williamson contacted. The two knew each other because Williamson also oversees the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative program that’s helped fund a Cuyahoga County task force investigating and prosecuting thousands of older rapes based on new evidence.
Her initial email in October outlined three Cleveland murders. It didn’t mention Little.
A month later, Bell and Jack Bornfeld, a retired Cleveland homicide detective who now investigates cold cases for the prosecutor’s office, flew to Texas to interview Little.
Little never knew their names. But he vividly recounted killing both Peyton and Evans.
Little also recounted growing up in Lorain, where he was raised by his grandmother and attended Hawthorne Junior High School before he was shipped off to a reformatory for boys in the 1950s after an arrest at the age of 17 for breaking into a furniture store.
Little later learned to box behind bars, from an Olympic gold-medal winner, he said, during stints in prison for petty crimes.
Bell and Bornfeld showed him an Ohio mug shot from 1966. “I don’t even remember this,” Little chuckled. “Why the hell would I get a haircut like that.”
He asked to keep the photo.
Little said he began his killing spree in 1970, at the age of 30, by choking a woman in Miami.
“I had a strong desire to kill her,’’ he said.
It was the strangling, that gave him gratification, Little said. He often picked victims based on the length and smoothness of their necks, which first started to excite him when he was 12 or 13.
Little insists he didn’t rape the women he killed, that he didn’t have to.
His last victim, he said, was from Starkville, Mississippi, in 2005. He was 65.
For years, Little traveled the country with Orelia “Jean” Dorsey, a woman decades older than him who taught him to shoplift and bought him cars.
He told the men how he met Dorsey in a Cleveland jail in 1971. As the two talked through a crack in the floor, Dorsey tipped him off that the woman he was arrested with planned to turn on him.
Instead, Dorsey testified on his behalf and helped get him acquitted of a robbery charge.
Little was arrested often, close to 30 times. He spent short stints in jail for petty crimes but mostly slipped by authorities when accused of serious harm.
In 1982, he was arrested in Pascagoula, Mississippi, for killing a 22-year-old woman who police said was a prostitute. A grand jury declined to indict Little in the case.
After that, he was charged with killing a 26-year-old Gainesville, Fla. woman. A jury acquitted him.
Little was able to kill so many women, in so many places, he told Bell and Bornfeld, because he found them while trolling neighborhoods in poverty-stricken cities like Cleveland, ravished by factory closings and a crack epidemic.
“I’m not going to go into the white neighborhoods and pick up the teenage girls,’’ Little told Bell and Bornfeld. “I’m not going to go to the shopping centers and get the housewives, who would start screaming. Them are the kind that get you busted.’’
Authorities are confident Little’s confessions are truthful. He’s admitted to murders that other people are in prison for but gets angry if detectives try to “put murders” on him that he didn’t commit.
“There hasn’t been a single false confession,’’ said Bobby Bland, the district attorney of Ector County in Odessa, Texas, who obtained a life sentence for Little in December for a 1994 slaying. “You have that in serial cases, that they will admit things that aren’t true. But he has details only the murderer would know.’’
It is unclear why Little stopped killing women, other than the once-proud middleweight boxer had grown frail and suffered heart problems.
By the time authorities started to suspect him in a larger string of murders, Little was living in a Kentucky homeless shelter. He was picked up there in September 2012 and extradited to California on an old drug charge.
Once there, police matched his DNA to three murders from the 1980s, the FBI said. He was charged, convicted and sentenced to three life terms, without parole, in 2014.
After that, the FBI contacted authorities in Odessa, Texas. Little began cooperating after meeting investigator Holland, a Texas Ranger who speaks easily with a deep drawl and pokes fun at Little. The two men have spent hundreds of hours together.
Sitting down with Little
It was Holland who introduced Bell and Bornfeld to Little that morning in November. It was an “Ohio” day, as Little also was slated to talk to detectives from a Columbus suburb.
“You can talk your stupid Cleveland Browns [expletive] to someone else,’’ Holland joked to Little, who sat in a gray-striped jumpsuit, his wheelchair parked in the corner.
“He don’t know the Browns used to be one of the greatest teams,” Little responded.
Little reminisced with Bell and Bornfeld about the team’s history from the greats, like Leroy Kelly, to “that damn Earnest Byner fumble.’’
“Let’s not talk about that,” said Bell.
Then he handed a letter to Little from his boss, Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, assuring him Cuyahoga County wouldn’t try to put him to death.
Little scrutinized the letter and folded it into his pocket.
“How can I help you,” he asked.
Little told investigators how she got there. He found her huddled in an alleyway, smoking crack cocaine with four or five men. Little joined the group and said Evans asked him to drive to get more. Later, he forced her into the back of his 1977 Ford bubble-top van.
“You’re gonna kill me; you’re gonna strangle me,’’ Evans yelled, according to Little. In a matter of minutes, he did.
Little dragged her limp body in an overgrown lot that he said was “manicured with weeds.’’
“It was no Hollywood,’’ he said. “I just throwed the tires and hauled ass.’’
Bornfeld, the investigator, showed Little an old photo of Evans. Her hair was braided and she wore a pink-sleeved shirt with the words, “Nobody’s Perfect’’ emblazoned on the front.
“That’s her?’’ Little asked.
“You tell us,’’ Bornfeld said.
“Oh God, yeah.’’
Evans left her small hometown of Binghamton, New York, when she was 17 with a group of friends visiting Cleveland, her younger sister Pam Smith told The Plain Dealer.
The friends returned but her sister didn’t.
Evans, then Rose Smith, got caught up with drugs and married a no-good husband who had her working the streets, Smith said.
Despite the distance, the sisters –who looked so much alike they even had the same mole over their right eyebrow – talked regularly. Smith said her sister was kind-hearted and would share what she had with anyone who needed it.
“There’s not a day in the 28 years since this happened that I haven’t thought about it,” said Smith, who cried when Bornfeld called with news her sister was the victim of a serial killer.
Smith scattered her sister’s ashes at a small lake years ago. It didn’t seem right to keep her boxed up.
“Now she can lay at rest in peace,” Smith said.
Like the other young women Little targeted, Evans had problems. But that didn’t mean her life wouldn’t have turned around, said Smith, who also struggled with addiction but has now been sober for a decade.
“They were human beings,” she said. “I’m grateful that he’s [Little] finally where he needs to be.”
Victim unidentified for years
The death of Peyton had been harder for Bornfeld to pin down. The 21-year-old’s death wasn’t classified as a homicide. Her body was too decomposed when she was discovered July 3, 1984, to determine how she died. Authorities worked with an anthropologist to create a model of what she looked like but she remained unidentified until 1992 when Cleveland put her thumbprint in an FBI data base and got a match.
Little filled in the details. He said he picked up Peyton at a bar near East 105th and Euclid Avenue. He described her as a short, plump woman in her 20s with brown hair.
They drove in his 1976 Thunderbird and parked behind some old factories.
Little said they had sex and the woman began to get suspicious when he touched her neck. He choked her, he said, and then dumped her body over a railing into a stairwell 10 to 20 feet deep. He described the bluish-pink bricks of the building for investigators.
Peyton’s body lingered there for weeks, possibly longer, until a small child notified factory employees of a kitten that had scampered into the area. While searching, they found the body.
When the interview was over, Little appeared almost upbeat, almost cheerful. He fist bumped Bornfeld and said he hoped the Browns would find a new head coach.
“I hope this helped you,’’ he said.
Williamson said she hasn’t pondered Little’s motivation for cooperating with Cleveland or any of the other dozens of investigators lining up to interview him.
“I’m never going to try and be in his head,” she said. “I am appreciative that he is doing this.”
Emet Celeste-Cohen contributed research to this story.