It’s difficult to definitively list the most notorious American criminals from the past 50 years, but these men and women absolutely belong in the conversation. Each and every one of these killers was responsible for the murders of multiple innocent people, and their names alone still bring up images of death and mayhem.
This list is not complete by any means, but there is no denying that these five criminals shocked and terrified millions of Americans – and people around the world – with their wicked deeds.
1. John Wayne Gacy
In the annals of American serial killers, John Wayne Gacy remains one of the most terrifying. Gacy worked as a contractor in the Chicago area, and he was active in local politics. He also entertained area children by dressing as a character he called “Pogo the Clown.”
Little did friends, family, and neighbors know that, underneath his normal facade, Gacy was a serial killer who preyed on boys and young men. After murdering his victims, Gacy buried many of them in the crawlspace under his home.
He was finally arrested in December 1978 and was eventually convicted of an astounding 33 murders. Gacy was executed by lethal injection in Illinois in 1994 when he was 52 years old.
2. Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos‘ life story is one of remarkable tragedy almost from the very beginning. She was born to teenage parents in 1956. Soon after, her mother abandoned her, and her father, whom she never met, hanged himself in a prison cell when Wuornos was 12. She ended up being raised by her grandparents, but that was no better; she suffered from sexual abuse from a young age, becoming pregnant at the age of 14.
Wuornos began working as a prostitute when she was only 15, and this twisted her towards a lifetime of depravity. In 1989, after spending some time drifting and some time in jail, Wuornos committed her first murder. Before her capture in a Florida bar in 1991, Aileen Wuornos murdered an additional six men, later claiming that she killed them in self-defense.
Wuornos was convicted and was executed by lethal injection in Florida in 2002, marking the end of a tragic life filled with hatred and violence.
3. Jeffrey Dahmer
The name Dahmer is synonymous with evil, and there are many reasons why; in fact, there are exactly 16 reasons. That is the number of men that Jeffrey Dahmer killed during a murder spree that lasted from 1987 until his capture in 1991. Dahmer also killed a man in 1978 when he was only 18 years old.
Dahmer lived in an apartment building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and that apartment – #213 – became a torture chamber for the men who crossed its threshold. Dahmer picked up many of his victims at gay bars and lured them back to his apartment, where he then murdered them, dismembered their bodies, and – in some cases – ate their body parts.
Dahmer’s neighbors complained of foul smells and loud noises coming from apartment 213. They even heard chainsaws running on occasion. On July 22, 1991, Dahmer’s horrific life as a free man came to an end when he was arrested after a victim managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment before being killed. Arresting officers found a literal house of horrors, filled with severed heads, human hearts, and other body parts and bones.
Dahmer confessed and was sentenced to life in prison. In November 1994, Dahmer, then 34 years old, was beaten to death in a Wisconsin prison by another inmate.
4. Dennis Rader
Dennis Rader, also known as “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) is one of the more perplexing serial killers in American history because he followed no specific patterns and some of his murders occurred years apart.
From 1974 until his eventual capture in 2005, Rader kept the citizens of Wichita, Kansas, and surrounding areas in complete terror with his murders and the taunting letters he sent to police and news outlets.
Rader murdered 10 people, including two children, between 1974 and 1991, and he remained a free man for another 14 years before he was captured. A minor slip-up proved to be his undoing: police were able to trace a floppy disk he sent them back to his church, which led to his arrest in February 2005. Rader confessed to his crimes and was sentenced to life behind bars.
Today, Dennis Rader is 74 years old, and he will spend the rest of his days behind bars in a maximum-security prison in Kansas.
5. Charles Manson
The fact remains that Charles Manson never actually killed anyone (that we know of), but he was responsible for directing the murders of 7 people and one unborn child over the course of two terrifying nights in August 1969. The murders of Hollywood star Sharon Tate, her friends, and a separate middle-aged married couple shook Los Angeles to its core and captured the attention of the nation.
When the truth came out a few months later that a group of young hippies led by a charismatic ex-convict named Charles Manson was responsible for the murders, Americans were riveted.
A lengthy and dramatic trial ensued and Manson and several of his followers were put behind bars for life. After spending decades in prison in California, Charles Manson died in November 2017 at the age of 83.
Who else do you think belongs on the list of the most notorious American criminals of the past 50 years?
Share your thoughts in the comments.