The accidental discovery of a serial killer

James Mitchell DeBardeleben was a man of contradictions. A man who loathed women with a vicious, acidic anger, and yet was married five times.  Although he owned the Washington based photo studio “The Naked Eye”, Mitchell used counterfeit $20 notes in various malls across 44 states. By 1982 when he was finally arrested, he was able to counterfeit and pass over $130,000.

His downfall came unexpectedly, yet was still somehow inescapable. When the US Secret Service finally caught up with the elusive con man, they didn’t know at first that they had also captured a kidnapper, rapist, and serial killer.

Who was James Mitchell DeBardeleben, and what are the circumstances that led to the creation of this monstrous man?

An army brat with a disjointed home life

Looking at his childhood with the benefit of hindsight, the factors that would lead to his later behavior are almost immediately apparent.

The second of three children, his father was in the U.S. Army and moved around almost constantly for most of DeBardeleben’s early life. From Washington, D.C. to Germany and the Netherlands and many other places in between, the DeBardelebens settled down in Albany, New York once his father finally retired and worked in the civil service in 1950.

On a fundamental level, the near-constant instability from moving around the world would have had a tremendous impact on DeBardeleben as a child. Without the advantage of roots, he had no chance to form meaningful relations with his peer group. His father sometimes stayed in one post for a mere 8 months. Despite the undeniable role that his family’s nomadic lifestyle had, considered alone, it is simply not compelling as a precipitating factor for his later crimes. Let’s face it, there are countless army brats out there, the vast majority of whom don’t become serial killers.

His parents also undoubtedly played a key role in the disturbing acts he would later commit. His father was described as absent and absorbed in his work with the army, leaving DeBardeleben without a strong father figure in his life. Without a role model he could emulate, and otherwise learn from both implicitly and explicitly, his values and acceptable range of behaviors were likely skewed to whomever else stepped in to fill that void, not that there is any indication that anyone ever did. Although, it seems it was his older sister that took on the role of guardian to her two younger brothers.

His father also had numerous extramarital affairs that he made little effort to conceal. When he was present, he was a cruel, authoritarian man who disliked praise. Beyond his petty, vindictive nature, his father was outright physically abusive at times, often punishing his son by holding his head underwater in a bathtub, punishments that began when the children were younger than five years old.

His mother only added to the unsettled home life. She too neglected her children while her husband was away, instead spending time at bars drinking profusely and picking up men.  Described by some accounts as “sexually promiscuous”, she was an emotionally unstable alcoholic that was prone to fits of violent rage towards her children. It is thought that this was the period of his life where his hatred of his mother took root and transformed into a generalized hatred of women as a whole.

As he grew older, DeBardeleben’s abuse turned him into an abuser. It occurred slowly at first, almost imperceptibly. He was described as a quiet loner who preferred his own company, sitting in his room where he would spend his time drawing. His solitude slowly turned into anger and aggression in his teenage years, finally exploding when he first assaulted his mother when he was just 16 years old. Various reports indicated that he would continue assaulting her until he left his family home.  

Shortly afterwards he would be arrested for the very first time for possessing a concealed firearm. This would mark the start of an exhaustive rap sheet that would later balloon to include charges for everything from sodomy to attempted murder.

An equally turbulent adulthood

Thanks to the perverse precursor that was his criminally abusive childhood, his adult life didn’t fair any better. He was expelled from high school twice, taking enough time in between the two failed attempts to enlist in, and become court-martialed from, the U.S. Air Force.

Based solely on his parent’s parasitic marriage, it is unsurprising that all of his marriages were nothing short of a complete disaster. Ill-fated marriage after ill-fated marriage, each more deranged and disturbed than the one that came before it, one of which lasted only three weeks. He perfected his methods of abuse, and by his fourth and fifth wives he had became an expert in degradation.

He was 12 years older than his fourth wife Caryn, and took great pleasure in humiliating and dominating her. It was all too clear that he despised her, and yet he loved the feeling of being in total control. She would later participate in some of his counterfeiting crimes.

Police recovered an audio tape of him and his wife reading through what is described as a “torture script”. His wives, or at least his later ones, enabled him to act out his violent tendencies in fantasies, until eventually fantasy was no longer enough.

An excerpt of one of his recordings can be read below:

“1 – Tell me all about the pain: necessary? Why? Describe it: details, more details… how does it feel – I don’t know, it’s not happening to me!! Convince me that you like it! 2 – Tell me how you feel humiliated, degraded… 3 – … Tell me how you like for me to bite your tits, slap your face, bite you in the ass, make loud surprise noises. 4 – Bite or cigar or whip at moment of ejaculation. 5 – Hair: pull as mane: say “arf,” “bow wow,” “neigh.” 6 – Say original statements.”

You can listen to one of his actual recordings here:

In between the violent and abusive marriages, his brother Ralph killed himself by passing a hose from his car exhaust into his car in a church parking lot, asphyxiating to death. Although no suicide letter was left behind, DeBardeleben reasoned that it was due to their toxic upbringing, as well as a few other short-term stressful circumstances.

Somewhere along the way of this wild ride of death and marriage, during which DeBardeleben committed car theft and other petty crimes, he also set his sights on more ambitious and gruesome endeavors.

A sophisticated criminal

One of the more unique aspects of his case is that unlike most serial killers, DeBardeleben also committed numerous other crimes, all while using different disguises for each type of crime. Take for instance, the crime that led to his capture, passing counterfeit money. Known by the U.S. Secret Service as the “mall passer” (because he preferred to pass his fake $20 bills on small purchases in various malls), DeBardeleben would leave his false teeth in the car to alter his appearance.  

When kidnapping women, he impersonated a police officer, with flashing red lights added to his vehicle, along with a fake badge and ID that he would use to convince the victims to accompany him. This was the ruse he relied on to lull the women into a false sense of security, before binding, raping, and sometimes killing them. He was a vicious man, raping one of his victims 10 times during a 20-hour period in 1978.

When the Secret Service finally caught him in a mall in Knoxville, Tennessee, he clammed up, refusing to answer their questions or admit to any wrongdoing. This too is strange behavior for serial killers, as they are generally boastful and love to take pride in their “work”.

What they found in the trunk of his car, however, was enough to make them realize that this was no ordinary counterfeiter. They found guns, thousands of dollars in counterfeit bills, an astounding amount of pornography, an exhaustive range of legal and illegal drugs of nearly every kind, 18 license plates (most stolen) from a variety of states, nine forged driver’s licenses (all bearing his photo), and a fake police badge.

But it was when investigators found his storage locker in Washington, D.C. that his deeds began to come to light. What they found was nothing short of gruesome: audio tapes and photographs of incredibly young girls, all of whom either looked scared to death, drugged, or beaten;  a “kill kit” which included handcuffs, shoelaces, chains, KY jelly, – and a woman’s bloody underwear. The pictures were noted to depict sodomy with unwilling female persons – he essentially photographed himself raping his victims, many of whom he would later kill.

After this grisly discover, the Secret Service quickly got in touch with the FBI, who was admittedly hesitant to help at first. After all, this was an especially unusual case in that they had captured a killer, but had no idea who the victims were.

No ordinary counterfeiter

Investigators were able to piece together his murderous rampage by cross-referencing the areas he was known to have been active in with unsolved murders. This led them to believe that he killed an astounding number of women over the 18 years before he was apprehended, although the true number of victims ultimately remains unknown as he has repeatedly denied all charges against him. For some perspective, Ted Bundy was active for about five years and likely killed between 30 to 100 women, so DeBardeleben’s grand total over 18 years could be jaw-dropping.

Regardless of his denial of the truth, it is likely that his brutal crimes began in the late 70s in Delaware, where he kidnapped several women, forced them to perform fellatio on him and either released them in the middle of nowhere, or choked them until they passed out, leaving them for dead.

What is truly disturbing is how much pride he took in documenting his crimes. He was incredibly meticulous and took many notes on times, locations, and methods of abducting women that worked well. He was totally averse to spontaneity and planned every attack to the very last detail, leaving nothing to chance, in control every step of the way. 

While committing one of his earlier rapes, he recorded the entire disgusting ordeal on audiotapes and took a large number of photographs throughout. He was organized and intelligent enough to make sure his face was never in any of the photos, which gave prosecutors quite the challenge to prove that it was indeed him (which they did thanks to identifying marks on his body). Interestingly, he released his first few victims, usually in a wooded, isolated area, rather than killing them, as though his lust for murder grew slowly. 

By the early 80s raping and releasing his victims was no longer enough, and in April 1982, DeBardeleben kidnapped Jean McPhaul, a real estate agent, whose body was found in an attic of a new home, hanging from the rafters by a rope on her throat. Her body was found fully clothed, and her heart had two puncture wounds.

Jean McPhaul

The FBI’s theory as to why some women were murdered and others released, was that only those who saw his face were killed, although, thanks to the recorded audiotapes, the ones he released were still able to confirm his identity by recognizing his voice.

Sentenced to centuries of time behind bars

Thanks to the ample forensic evidence, that DeBardeleben unintentionally compiled by himself, as well as testimony from victims and even his own wives, he was sentenced to 375 years in prison – but was never charged with murder. He remained the main suspect in two murders and a key suspect in countless other killings across several states.

Author Stephen Michaud, who has written extensively on this case as well as on many others in several excellent books, claims that DeBardeleben is every bit Bundy’s equal in terms of sheer viciousness, but with an even higher kill count thanks to his greater competence as a criminal (especially as a burglar and kidnapper), as well as his razor sharp intelligence.  Michaud is also convinced that much of his crimes remain undiscovered, and will likely stay that way forever.

The general consensus among investigators at both the FBI and Secret Service was that DeBardeleben had committed basically every felony in existence, and that he was a criminal whose scope and range were simply unmatched in modern history – car thief, counterfeiter, robber, rapist, kidnapper, killer, the list was endless. According to some investigators, DeBardeleben was at one point the “most dangerous felon ever at large in America.” 

Since DeBardeleben had an abundance of time, it seems he took to writing other serial killers including the likes of Bundy. He would also waste his time with appeals that he must have known would be rejected, and complaints that led him to relocate from one prison to the next. He died of pneumonia in Butner, North Carolina in 2011 at the age of 70.

He never confessed to any of his crimes.

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