Bob Berdella raised nastiness to a new level in Kansas City.
A former art student and former chef, he lived near Hyde Park in midtown and ran a curio shop — Bob’s Bazaar Bizarre — on Westport Road. He got along nicely with his neighbors and participated in his neighborhood watch group.
But he also killed at least six people after binding and torturing them for days or weeks. He injected caulk into their ears to deafen them. He administered electric shocks to sensitive body parts. He kept copious notes of his captives’ reactions and took photographs, sometimes after the men were dead.
At some point before the killings he began seeing male prostitutes. He offered some a place to stay. At first his motive seemed to be to help them straighten out their lives.
Then in 1984 he struck up a friendship with Jerry Howell, 19. That summer, he drugged Howell, bound him to a bed, sodomized him and eventually asphyxiated him. He cut apart Howell’s body, dumped it in a plastic bag and placed it outside for a garbage crew to pick up.
Over the next four years he repeated that pattern. He lured each victim into the house at 4315 Charlotte St., then drugged, abused, killed and disposed of them.
He kidnapped Robert Sheldon, the first victim he blinded with drain cleaner, in spring 1985. He buried his head in his backyard.
That summer he killed Mark Wallace. That fall it was James Ferris.
He picked up Todd Stoops, a 23-year-old male prostitute, in 1986 and tortured him for weeks until Stoops died of blood loss.
Summer 1987 brought six weeks of torture to Larry Pearson. Berdella suffocated him with a plastic bag, disposed of the body and buried his head in the yard. In doing so he retrieved Sheldon’s skull and displayed it in his home.
The pattern ended with Chris Bryson, 22, a male prostitute whom Berdella took into his house on March 29, 1988.
Berdella struck him on the head, drugged him, bound him and tortured him for days. One Saturday in April, after Berdella left to open his shop, Bryson found a match, burned through his ropes and jumped from the second-story window, naked except for a dog collar around his neck. A meter reader spotted him and took him to a neighbor, who called police.
Police swarmed Berdella’s house, where they found torture notebooks, photographs, syringes and other devices, along with two skulls and human teeth and vertebrae. After determining that one man in the photographs was dead, the authorities dug up Berdella’s backyard. They found Pearson’s skull.
Within two weeks of being indicted in Pearson’s murder, Berdella pleaded guilty in hopes of avoiding the death penalty.
More trouble arrived when a grand jury indicted him in Sheldon’s death. This time Berdella offered a full confession in return for a life sentence. To the dismay of the families of several victims, who favored the death penalty, Jackson County Prosecutor Albert Riederer agreed.
Over three days, Berdella told prosecutors the intricate tale of each of his victims. Then he headed to the state penitentiary in Jefferson City.
Stoops’ mother won a $5 billion judgment against him for her son’s wrongful death. It exceeded anything Berdella could pay, but it prevented him from keeping any money he might make from his story, such as from writing a book.
Even in prison, Berdella proved difficult. He filed lawsuit after lawsuit that Jackson County paid tens of thousands of dollars to defend. At least five times he sued lawyers who had represented him. He taunted inmates. As a result, Berdella had to be kept in protective custody.
In late summer or early autumn 1992, he wrote his mother in Ohio that he was feeling “yucky.” On Oct. 8, 1992, Berdella began complaining of chest pains. He died that day. A little more than four years after going to prison, the city’s most notorious serial killer was dead of a heart attack at age 43.
“The guy didn’t suffer long enough,” the wife of one victim said. “We didn’t get (Berdella) executed, but God did.”
Local millionaire Del Dunmire bought most of Berdella’s possessions, including his house, which he eventually demolished. As the work began in late 1993, a reporter asked a demolition worker what he thought would turn up.
“It’s a strange feeling,” the worker said. “You kind of wonder what you might find when you take a wall panel out.”
They found nothing.
When: 1980s | What: Grisly tortures and murders | Where: Midtown | Outcome: Confessed to avoid the death penalty. Died in prison of a heart attack in 1992.