Cold Case: 20 Biggest Unsolved Murders

Apr 17th, 2010

There’s something about an unsolved murder that grabs our attention, whether it’s the air of mystery surrounding the proceeedings or the shock at learning the brutal details behind a high-profile slaying. Here are just a few of the most notorious unsolved cases of all time:

black_dahlia_cju1. The Black Dahlia (ca. January 15, 1947)
Elizabeth Short was 22 years old when she was brutally murdered in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. A woman with a troubled past and no fixed path through life, she was in L.A. visiting an old boyfriend and bouncing from one apartment to the next at the time of her death. She was found in a vacant lot, her body severed at the waist and her face slashed from the edge of her mouth toward the ears, creating a ghastly smile. Reporters nicknamed her the Black Dahlia after the 1946 noir film The Blue Dahlia. The murder sparked the largest LAPD investigation to that point, and the news media ran with the frenzy. Despite many theories put forth over the years, the case was never solved.

2. Boy in the Box (February 25, 1957)
One of the most gruesome unsolved murders involves an unknown child referred to as the Boy in the Box. Approximately 4-6 years old, the boy’s naked body was found in a cardboard box in Philadelphia 1957. Pictures of the boy were distributed with gas bills throughout the city in hopes of finding somone who knew what happened, but no lead ever materialized. One theory speculated that the boy belonged to the stepdaughter of the man who ran the foster home near the site the body was found; another theory, put forth by a woman with a history of mental illness, claimed that the boy was bought and used as a sexual slave before being murdered and discarded. No direct evidence was found for either theory.

3. Bob Crane (June 29, 1978)
Best known for his leading role on “Hogan’s Heroes,” Bob Crane was also involved with an underground sex scene in which he and friend John Henry Carpenter, an audio-visual pro, would film themselves having sex with women. Crane’s body was found in an Arizona apartment complex, bludgeoned to death by an unknown weapon that police reasoned was a film tripod. Smears of blood that matched Crane’s blood type were found in Carpenter’s car, but the lack of forensic technology at the time (like DNA testing) made it impossible to determine if the blood belonged to Crane. The case went cold from a lack of evidence, and though it was reopened in 1992 and Carpenter arrested, evidence from the murder hadn’t been properly preserved and was thus unusable. Carpenter was acquitted and maintained his innocence until he died in 1998. The case is officially unsolved.

4. Raymond Washington (August 9, 1979)
Raymond Washington was the founder of the Los Angeles gang that would come to call itself the Crips, but many say that his unique moral code approved only of fighting and theft as a means of survival, and that he frowned on the use of handguns and the growing level of homicides associated with gangs. He was shot and killed when he was just 25, and no one was ever arrested for the crime. People have speculated that his murder was carried out by a rival gang member or perhaps by someone with whom he was involved in a personal dispute.

5. Dian Fossey (December 26, 1985)
Immortalized in the Oscar-nominated film Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey as an American zoologist who devoted her professional career to studying gorillas in Africa and protecting them from poaching and exploitation. She was found dead in her cabin in 1985, killed by a machete that had been hanging decoratively on her wall. With her valuables still present, her death appeared to be politically or personally motivated. Although many suspects were questioned, the killer was never found.

6. JonBenet Ramsey (December 26, 1996)
JonBenet Ramsey was killed only a few months after she turned 6. Her mother discovered the girl was missing and found a ransom note, at which point police were contacted. A search of the house found the girl’s body in a wine cellar, strangled to death. The case ignited a media firestorm involving the parents, accused of neglect and implicated in the crime, and the investigators, who didn’t properly seal the crime scene. The Ramsey family was officially cleared from suspicion in 2008, and though police have been able to put together a DNA composite of the killer, the crime remains unsolved. (John Mark Karr confessed to the crime in 2006 but was cleared.)

7. Tupac Shakur (September 13, 1996)
Rap artist Tupac Shakur was a top-selling performer when he was shot in Las Vegas after the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand on September 7, 1996. After a minor brawl with a member of the Crips in the Grand’s lobby, Shakur was shot in a drive-by while riding with Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight. Although he seemed to make a comeback in the hospital, Shakur died of internal bleeding on September 13. Law enforcement officials made slow progress in the ensuing investigation, and though the shooting occurred on a public and crowded street, no one has ever been arrested for the crime.

8. Notorious B.I.G. (March 9, 1997)
Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls, was a gifted MC known also for his involvement in the hip-hop feud between the East and West Coasts. He was even rumored to be involved in the death of Tupac Shakur, though that was never proven. Following a party held after the Soul Train Music Awards in March 1997, Wallace was shot while riding in an SUV and pronounced dead that night at the hospital. Many theories have been floated about the killing, from retaliation over money owed to various conspiracy theories, but the shooter was never identified.

9. Jack the Ripper killings (1888)
One of the most infamous serial killers in history, Jack the Ripper is the name given to the unknown murderer who slaughtered a series of prostitutes in London at the end of the 19th century. Scotland Yard and local media outlets received letters from the killer (or possibly killers) included body parts from the victims. The slayings have inspired a host of fictional works as well as dozens of theories about the identity of Jack the Ripper, but the true identity of the killer has never been determined.

10. Oscar Romero (March 24, 1980)
Oscar Romero, the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating mass at a tiny chapel in El Salvador. A U.N. report posits that his killers were members of a death squad, and though Álvaro Rafael Saravia was eventually found guilty of conspiring in the murder, the actual killer remains unknown. Romero’s death came a day after he’d pleaded with his countrymen to stop carrying out their government’s orders to oppress basic human rights.

11. Andrew and Abby Borden (August 4, 1892)
Everyone knows the name Lizzie Borden from the children’s rhyme about her taking an ax to her parents, but though the young woman was tried for the double homicide, there wasn’t quite enough evidence to convict her of the crime.

12. Zodiac killings (1968-1972)
Seven people were killed throughout Northern California by an unknown man who came to be known as the Zodiac killer because of the taunting letters he sent to police. The letters also included cryptograms, some of which still haven’t been decoded. The first killings came in December 1968 and July 1969, and the first letters claiming responsibility for those killings were sent to three newspapers in August 1969. Some victims were shot and others stabbed, setting the Zodiac apart from serial killers that stick to one method of execution. San Francisco police detective Dave Toschi was one of those who worked the case, and would later become the basis for the fictional character Dirty Harry. Despite a prime suspect in Arthur Leigh Allen — identified years later by an early surviving victim as the shooter — the case was never solved. Allen died in 1992, but a film positing him as a likely killer was released to acclaim in 2007.

13. William Goebel (January 30, 1900)
William Goebel is the only U.S. governor to be assassinated in office. After winning a hotly contested election for the governorship of Kentucky, was shot walking to the Old State Capitol. He was sworn in a day later and died three days later. Political rival William S. Taylor was suspected of having knowledge of who pulled the trigger, but he fled to Indiana to avoid extradition and became a lawyer there. Some men were convicted of a conspiracy to kill Goebel, but the murderer’s identity remains a mystery.

14. William Desmond Taylor (February 1, 1922)
William Desmond Taylor was an actor in the early years of Hollywood whose death was one of the many lurid affairs that led to sensationalistic coverage by a thirsty media. His body was found inside his home in the early hours of February 1, 1922. He had been shot in the back. More than a dozen people were held up by the public as suspects, including friends and employees of Taylor’s, but most of the physical evidence needed to secure a conviction was lost because of crime scene mismanagement and threads of corruption in the LAPD. Actress Margaret Gibson is alleged to have confessed to the murder in 1964, but no hard evidence has even been able to produce the identity of the killer.

15. Harry Oakes (July 8, 1943)
Sir Harry Oakes, an American-born Brit who owned a gold mine, was found murdered in 1943 in his Nassau mansion. Instead of flying in detectives from Scotland Yard, the islands’ governor, the Duke of Windsor, brought in a pair of Miami detectives. They arrested Oakes’ son-in-law, but the man was acquitted when it was found that the detectives had fabricated evidence. The murderer was never found, though theories abounded. Some say Oakes’ son-in-law really was the guilty party, while others claim Oakes was killed as a result of his dealings with organized crime.

16. Barbara and Patricia Grimes (December 28, 1956)
The Grimes sisters disappeared shortly after Christmas 1956 in Chicago and were found dead on January 22, 1957. They were seen at a movie theater on December 28, but subsequent sighting claims are less reliable. An autopsy concluded that they died of shock and exposure to the cold, but that statement ignores the bruises and wounds on their bodies, including holes that could have come from an ice pick. The Chicago Police Department crime lab also found that Barbara Grimes had been sexually molested before her murder. A drifter named Benny Bedwell was suspected and eventually confessed, though he then said his confession was coerced by officers.

17. Deanna Cremin (March 30, 1995)
Seventeen-year-old Deanna Cremin was found strangled behind a senior housing complex in Middlesex, Massachusetts, shortly after her birthday. After going out with friends and visiting her boyfriend, the two walked back to her home, though the boyfriend left her at the halfway point. He is considered the last person to have seen her alive. The boyfriend and two other men were investigated, but no charges pressed. New forensic evidenced was announced in 2005, thanks to technology, and the case also received a boost in 2009 when Middlesex district attorney pleaded for people to come forward with information. Her murder, however, remains unsolved.

18. Amber Hagerman (January 15, 1996)
Amber Hagerman was only 9 years old when she died. Abducted while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas, her disapperance ignited a huge search that brought in the FBI. Her body was found by a man walking his dog four days after she’d gone missing. Her throat had been cut, and evidence showed that she’d been alive fow two days before being killed. The high-profile case and ensuing call from Amber’s parents for tougher laws for sex offenders, including a national offender registry, led to the creation of the AMBER Alert, a national bulletin distributed via TV and radio when a child goes missing. The alert’s name is technically “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response,” but it was named after Amber.

19. Suzanne Jovin (December 4, 1998)
Yale University senior Suzanne Jovin was stabbed to death near campus in New Haven, Connecticut. After chatting with a fellow student and continuing on her way, Jovin’s body was later that night found stabbed 17 times in the head and neck with her throat slit. Witnesses saw a brown van parked nearby, but nothing came of that lead. One of professors was suspected, a move that damaged his career, though he was eventually cleared. The killer has never been found.

20. The Somerton Man (December 1, 1948)
Also known as the Taman Shud case, the mystery of the Somerton Man is one of the most baffling unsolved murders in history. A man in his 40s was found on the Somerton beach in Adelaide, Australia, on December 1, 1948. He carried no identification, and the labels had been removed from his clothes. The cause of death was determined to be poison, though the type wasn’t known. Attempts to identify the body proved fruitless, and the growing pile of clues, including a suitcase of the man’s possessions, only added to the confusion. A slip of paper with the words “Taman Shud” was found in a hidden pocket in the man’s trousers, leading police to a collection of poems called The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. The book was found by a man in his car near the scene of the crime, and contained a phone number and portion of jumbled letters that might have been a code, though it’s never been cracked. The phone number led to a woman who said she didn’t know anything about the man and who police omitted from future searches, thereby eliminating one of the case’s best leads. It’s been more than 60 years, and no one has ever discovered the killer or the identity of the Somerton Man.

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