January 21, 2021
Prolific serial killer Samuel Little died in prison, leaving a legacy of terror in Miami
 
 
By David Ovalle
 

Samuel Little, the nation’s most prolific serial killer who left a string of deaths behind him in South Florida, died in prison this week, but Miami-Dade County investigators say they won’t stop trying to prove the extent of his crimes.

“Little may have died but we are trying to bring closure to as many families as possible,” Miami-Dade Detective David Denmark, of the cold-case homicide squad, said on Thursday. “We’re going to continue to work, especially if remains are found in the Everglades. There is still a lot of hope that cases can be closed.”

Little, who died Wednesday at age 80, targeted women on the fringes of society whose deaths received scant public attention. He operated in Florida during the 1970s and ‘80s. By the time he had died, he’d confessed to at least 12 murders in Florida — even drawing detailed sketches of the victims — though police have so far been able to tie him to just four in Miami-Dade County.

The scale of Little’s carnage is unmatched in American history — he confessed to 93 murders, and law enforcement has been able to confirm nearly 60 of the deaths.

Investigators are hopeful that at least one more case — a woman found murdered in West Miami-Dade in 1971 — will be solved.

Little’s murderous rampage through the state victimized at least one other person. Jerry Frank Townsend spent 22 years in prison on a wrongful conviction for the murder of 17-year-old Dorothy Gibson in downtown Miami in 1977, one of six South Florida murders he was wrongfully convicted of, courts later determined.

Police now believe Little strangled Gibson. He was not charged, though, because prosecutors knew he was already serving three life sentences.

Gibson’s brother, Sidney Ferguson, said on Thursday that the case’s tortured history has left the family bitter. He had wanted to visit Little in prison.

“I wanted to hear what her last words were when he was strangling her,” Ferguson said, adding: “Our family was cheated because we didn’t get the opportunity to see this Little pay the price. He lived his whole life. He died of natural causes.”

NO CAUSE OF DEATH YET

Little died Wednesday at age 80, the California prison system announced, at a hospital in Los Angeles County. Officials have not said why Little was hospitalized, and the medical examiner’s office will determine a cause of a death. He was serving three life terms in California, and had a history of ailments, including diabetes and heart troubles.

Over decades, according to the FBI, the drifter preyed on vulnerable and destitute women across the country, many of them Black, strangling them and dumping their bodies in at least 19 states, all while evading justice for his crimes.

Little was a drifter who grew up in Ohio, according to the FBI, and racked up small-time arrests across the country. He was also suspected of at least two murders in upstate Florida in the early 1980s.

In the 1982 murder of Rosie Hill in Ocala, prosecutors at the time said there was not enough evidence to charge him. A year later, in 1983, Little was arrested for the murder of Patricia Mounts in Alachua County but was acquitted at trial.

The scale of his crimes began to crystallize in 2012, when a Los Angeles cold case detective, through DNA matches, linked Little to three homicides of prostitutes in Southern California. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life for the murders, and transferred to Texas on suspicion of a murder there.

Once he was behind bars, Little began spilling his secrets to a Texas Rangers investigator, who worked with the FBI and other police departments to confirm his claims.

FINDING VICTIMS

Miami-Dade and Miami cold-case detectives, along with the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, began poring over records trying to identify his victims. The confirmed victims in Miami-Dade are:

▪ Karen O’Donoghue, of Massachusetts, who vanished in the early 1970s. Her body was never found.

Little told police specific details about her life that later checked out — including that she was a nurse and had left her home because of alcohol and drug problems. He also made a remarkable sketch of the victim, a woman with a pointed nose and a long neck, that looks very similar to O’Donoghue.

Little is believed to have dumped her body in the Everglades.

▪ Mary Brosley, whose body was discovered in a rural area of Northwest Miami-Dade in January 1971. She’d been strangled.

Brosley, who struggled with alcoholism, had also left Massachusetts for South Florida. When interviewed by Miami-Dade detectives, Little recalled that she had a distinctive limp, wore a chain around her neck and was able to provide intimate details about her life.

▪ Angela Chapman, a prostitute whose body was found in May 1976 in a rural area off Tamiami Trail. She too had been strangled.

When interviewed behind bars, Little immediately picked Chapman’s photo out of a lineup. He told detectives he strangled her near a canal, which matched evidence from the crime scene — her shorts had slipped off near a canal bank.

Chapman was believed to have come from Indiana, but Miami-Dade detectives have been unable to locate her family.

“Anybody that recognizes her name, or remembers her around the time she went missing, please give us a call,” Denmark said.

▪ Gibson, the 17-year-old, who was found strangled and dumped in bushes near a Downtown Miami bus depot on June 25, 1977.

As with the other murders, Little offered police details of the murder and crime scene.

To corroborate Little’s confession, Miami Police Sgt. Daniel Valladares was able to determine that the serial killer had been in Dade County the week of the murder. He found jail records that showed Little had been in jail and was released several days before Gibson’s murder.

The original suspect, Townsend, falsely confessed to Miami homicide detectives Bruce Roberson and James E. Boone two years after the murder. A later review of the taped confessions found key details of his accounts were wrong, including that he had beaten the teen. The Medical Examiner’s Office, in fact, had not found any bruising.

“I don’t think detectives in their era did a really good job,” Ferguson, her brother, said in an interview on Thursday. “If she was a white 17-year-old girl, they would have done a better investigation. She was a poor girl from the ghetto of Overtown.”

Little confessed to at least five other murders in Miami-Dade County, according to the FBI.

He described one victim as a teenage transgender Black woman named Marianne or Mary Ann. They met at bars in Miami, and he later killed her inside his car parked on a desolate driveway off U.S. 27 near the Everglades, he said.

“Little dragged Marianne’s body approximately 200 yards into the thick, muddy water,” according to a FBI synopsis of the confession. “He does not believe the body was ever found.”

Another possible Miami-Dade victim may also have been killed in 1971 in the Kendall area. According to the FBI, Little described her as a Hispanic woman, maybe of Cuban descent, who may have been named Sarah or Donna.

And there were other murders he said he committed in the area: a Black woman in her late 20s, killed in the early 1970s, who may have worked at the Homestead Air Force Base. A Black woman, possibly named Emily, who might have worked at the University of Miami and was killed in the mid-1970s. And another Black woman named Linda possibly killed in 1971.

Cold-case detectives, however, have not been able to corroborate many of the details given by Little in those cases.

Samuel Little