I made friends with USA's worst serial killer – he confessed 25 murders to me
WHEN journalist Jillian Lauren wrote to murderer Samuel Little in prison, she had no idea of the bond they’d build — or that their relationship would help prove he was the USA’s deadliest killer.
Looking around the prison visiting room, Jillian Lauren jumped as someone grabbed her arm. Turning, she found herself face-to-face with the man who’d soon be revealed by her as America’s most prolific serial killer.
Samuel Little fixed her with a stare before waving a finger in her face. “He rasped: ‘You’re my angel from God. He sent you to me,’” recalls Jillian with a shiver. “Yet there was nothing behind his eyes.”
What Jillian, 48, didn’t realise on that day in August 2018, was that this meeting would result in an extraordinary friendship that would help lead to Little being proven to have committed at least 50 murders over a 35-year killing spree.
At the time, Little, then 78, was serving three life sentences for murder at California State Prison, where Jillian had written to him. But as their friendship grew, he started to confess to more and more killings.
Today, the FBI estimates that between 1970 and 2005, Little strangled 93 women, making him the worst serial killer in US history.
Jillian, a journalist and author, first heard about Little in 2017 when she was interviewing LAPD homicide detective Mitzi Roberts for a crime novel she was planning. She asked Mitzi which case she was most proud of.
“She told me: ‘I did catch a serial killer once,’” says Jillian, who lives with her husband, guitarist Scott Shriner, 56, who plays in the band Weezer, and their two young sons in Los Angeles.
Mitzi explained that she had been involved in the manhunt to catch Little after a cold case review of DNA evidence linked him to the murders of three LA women.
Born in 1940 to a mother he claimed was a prostitute, Little struggled with discipline throughout school and in junior high began having sexual fantasies about strangling women.
By the time he turned 35, he had been arrested 26 times in 11 states for crimes including fraud, theft, assault and attempted rape.
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In 2012, he was arrested in Kentucky on a drugs charge and extradited to California, where officers carried out DNA testing that linked him to the murders of Carol Ilene Elford, 41, Guadalupe Duarte Apodaca, 46, and Audrey Nelson Everett, 35. Between 1987 and 1989, the victims had been strangled, their cases never solved.
Little was eventually convicted of their murders in 2014, aged 74, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Mitzi was convinced the three known victims were just the tip of the iceberg and tried to mobilise the FBI to investigate further. But with Little already behind bars, interest fizzled out.
Realising she was on to a good story, Jillian began researching the case herself. “I thought I could make a difference. Maybe I could get this guy talking,” she says. So in June 2018, Jillian wrote to Little in prison, requesting a visit, and she was shocked when he replied.
“I told him I was writing about violent crime and was interested in his story, and that I thought he was very important – I played to his ego,” she says. “The letters back did not disappoint.
"Each one had a little drawing that he did of himself, a monstrous caricature that was either crying or happy. If he was crying, it meant he was angry with you. We exchanged letters for several months before I got clearance to visit.”
At that first meeting in August 2018, Jillian expected to talk to Little over a phone through a glass screen, like in the movies.
“I almost had a heart attack when he was wheeled up behind me,” she recalls. “When he grabbed me, I could feel his strength. It made my skin crawl. Those hands had strangled so many victims.”
At the time, wheelchair-bound Little was suffering from heart disease and diabetes. It was apparent to Jillian that he could die soon, taking his secrets to the grave.
The letters back did not disappoint. Each one had a little drawing that he did of himself, a monstrous caricature that was either crying or happy. If he was crying, it meant he was angry with you.
“I told him: ‘If you tell me your story as truthfully as you can, I will not desert you. You won’t have to die alone. I’ll be your friend until the end of your life,’” she explains.
Their first meeting lasted five hours, but Little protested his innocence throughout. Afterwards Jillian decided to give him one more chance and returned the next day.
“We reached a point where he was talking about a woman he’d known and I could tell he was talking about a victim. He stopped, stared into the distance, and then said: ‘OK, missy, you got me. What do you want to know about the first one?’” recalls Jillian.
“After that, the floodgates opened. On that one day, he told me details about 13 women he’d killed. The next weekend, he told me about 25 more. I had to call law enforcement to share what he was telling me.”
Jillian was horrified, but tried not to show her revulsion in order to keep Little talking.
As the meetings became a regular occurrence, her husband and sons became increasingly concerned about the emotional toll it was having.
“I was at his beck and call. And he knew it,” Jillian explains. “In between visits we would exchange letters and he also started to call me at home. If I didn’t pick up, I’d be punished by being cut off for weeks.”
By now adamant she’d get justice for as many victims as possible, Jillian persevered. Over two years of countless visits, phone calls and letters, Little opened up, giving her hours of gruesome testimony.
He didn’t know the names of most of his victims, but remembered places, cars he’d driven and the circumstances — details that helped police piece together his movements over the years and solve many of his crimes.
Shockingly, despite being arrested and jailed several times over five decades, Little had been able to continue killing because he chose victims who were on the margins of society, preying on prostitutes and addicts, who were discriminated against by the American justice system.
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In November 1982, he had been arrested in Pascagoula, Mississippi on suspicion of killing Melinda LaPree, 22. Two other prostitutes who had been attacked around the same time picked him out of a line-up. However, a grand jury declined to indict him because of concerns about the credibility of the survivors.
In 1983, he was charged with the murder of 26-year-old Patricia Ann Mount in Gainesville, Florida. The night she died, witnesses saw her getting into the car of a man fitting Little’s description. Cops at the time discovered he was travelling with a 17-year-old boy named Danny Beckless and 69-year-old Jean Dorsey, described as his girlfriend despite being 27 years his senior.
During questioning, Jean provided an alibi, but Danny admitted that Little bragged about picking up prostitutes and getting rid of them. When the case went to trial, Danny and Jean skipped town and Little was acquitted. In January 1984, he moved to San Diego, California, where he lived with Jean.
In October that year, he was arrested for kidnapping, beating and strangling 22-year-old Laurie Barros, who he had snatched off the street then left for dead in a pile of rubbish. But she survived, as did Tonya Jackson, who was rescued when cops caught Little as he tried to strangle her in his car.
He was tried in April 1985, but, again the victims’ credibility was questioned because they had been involved in sex work.
The jury was hung, and prosecutors decided a second trial would be too risky. Instead, they offered Little a plea deal of two lesser charges of assault with intent to inflict great bodily injury, in exchange for a four-year jail sentence. Little accepted and served just two and a half years.
When he was released in February 1987, he moved to LA and committed at least 10 additional murders, including those of Carol Ilene Elford that July, Guadalupe Duarte Apodaca in September, and Audrey Nelson Everett in August 1989.
During Jillian’s visits, Little also told her about a victim he’d met in a bar in Omaha, Nebraska, and enticed to his car. He described how he strangled her and left her body in a barrel.
Jillian reported the details and police were able to identify the woman as Agatha White Buffalo, who died in 1973, aged 34.
I was at his beck and call. And he knew it. In between visits we would exchange letters and he also started to call me at home. If I didn’t pick up, I’d be punished by being cut off for weeks.
He also described a victim he knew only as Alice, who he’d murdered in LA one summer in the early ’90s. He told Jillian: “I kissed her mouth and then I squeezed her neck. She started shaking her head and was looking desperate. I realised I couldn’t stop.”
At one point, with Little on the phone directing her, Jillian was able to retrace his steps and locate the place he’d dumped a body in Long Beach, California.
When police were informed, they matched the location with the unsolved murder of Alice Denise Duvall, a prostitute in her early 40s, who was killed on June 10, 1991.
“The confessions never stopped, but despite the horrors of what Little was revealing, we developed a kind of friendship,” says Jillian. “I felt disgust at what he’d done and hated him for it, but during the times we were talking about ordinary things, he could be good-humoured.
"Sometimes he’d get wistful and say: ‘If only I’d met a woman like you.’ And I’d say: ‘If you’d met a woman like me, you would have killed me.’ And he would say: ‘Yeah, probably.’
“He told me that he killed his victims for sexual gratification. The control he had over them as he choked them turned him on.”
Jillian’s relationship with Little also took a toll on her marriage. “Scott hated it,” she admits. “He was supportive, but concerned. It was worst in lockdown when we were all stuck in the house together and I would run to the garage when Sam called, so my kids didn’t have to hear him talking about his crimes.”
At the same time Jillian was talking to Little, Texas Ranger James Holland also started to visit him. Holland co-ordinated a national police effort to link Little’s confessions to cold cases.
The FBI then got involved, and Little was convicted of a further five murders. In total, Little confessed to 93 murders, at least 50 of which were verified by law enforcement officers.
Sometimes he’d get wistful and say: ‘If only I’d met a woman like you.’ And I’d say: ‘If you’d met a woman like me, you would have killed me.’ And he would say: ‘Yeah, probably.’
Jillian has now turned the incredible story into a book, and until Little’s death on December 30, 2020, she honoured her promise to him. “Many people said I shouldn’t go back to see him, but I made a vow. I treated him with dignity because I have dignity, not because he did,” she explains.
After her two years as Little’s confidante Jillian referred herself to a police therapist, had what she called “a ton of therapy” and was diagnosed with PTSD. But, she says, it was all worth it to ensure she helped as many victims as possible get justice.
“I can’t deny that the trauma of reliving Sam’s unimaginable crimes had a profound effect on me. But knowing I helped victims find peace and their families get closure, that will always be worth the horror of befriending a monster.”
- Behold The Monster by Jillian Lauren (£16.99, Ebury Press) is out November 24, 2022.
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