Never get into a stranger’s car. Never get into a stranger’s car.
The stranger danger mantra has been so deeply etched into my consciousness that even today,
after more than two decades in NYC
I still feel a sense of trepidation every time I hail a taxi.
A stranger’s car is a stranger’s car—slapping a hackney medallion on the door can’t undo forty years of
Even with the sweetest of cabbies in the safest of neighborhoods
I’m hyperaware that I am, in fact, in a stranger’s car:
the only barrier between life and death is a Plexiglas partition and the grace of god.
Taxi driver and serial killer are the only two occupations in which it’s customary to drive a vehicle with door locks that can’t be opened from the passenger’s side—coincidence?
Definitely not, says my irrational paranoia.
That said, leery though I may be of cabdrivers,
it’s important to acknowledge that fear pervades both sides of the partition;
livery driving is consistently one of our nation’s most dangerous professions—according to CNN,
a cabdriver is killed on the job in the US approximately once per week.
And robbers aren’t the only danger a cabbie might find lurking in the backseat;
when two Buffalo taxi drivers were found murdered in 1980 their money was intact—it was their hearts that were missing.
Seventy-one year old Parler Edwards was the first to die,
his bludgeoned corpse found crammed into the trunk of his cab at a construction site on October 8th
in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst—his chest sliced open, his thoracic cavity empty
and his wallet replete with $95 dollars in cash.
Less than twenty-four hours later a passerby stumbled upon the body of fellow cabbie Ernest Jones, age forty,
secreted under branches on a boat ramp on the Niagara River
in nearby Towanda;
his blood-spattered taxi was found three miles away,
abandoned by the side of the road in Buffalo.
Like Parler Edwards
Ernest Jones’ skull had been caved in and his chest bisected with a neat horizontal slash;
his wallet was present but his heart was in the wind.
Both murdered cabdrivers were African-American, and both were streetwise, with minor criminal records;
aside from these superficial similarities and their shared profession
detectives could find no links between the two men, who were employed by different cab companies.
Celebrity pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, then an employee of the NY Medical Examiner’s Office,
autopsied the murdered cabbies and noted many similarities:
both had been attacked from behind, both were dead before their hearts excised,
and, as he told a journalist from the Associated Press, “there was a certain mutuality in the weapons used.”
Although Ernest Jones’ throat had been slashed and his windpipe severed
the crimes were otherwise identical.
It was clear to Dr. Baden that the cabdrivers had been slain by the same assailant.
The discovery of two heartless corpses within forty-eight hours created a media maelstrom.
Calling the murders “the most bizarre thing I’ve ever come across in my life,”
Erie County District Attorney Edward Cosgrove speculated the killer would possess a rudimentary familiarity with anatomy, possibly as a hunter,
and then succinctly gave voice to the obvious in an interview with United Press International:
“We have a deranged, mentally disturbed person involved in these two homicides,” he declared.
The fact that both slain taxi drivers were African-American further stoked community outrage;
it was an especially violent time for black men in Buffalo—only two weeks before the cabdriver slayings
a lone white assassin had randomly gunned down four men of color in a thirty-six hour period.
Fourteen-year old Glenn Dunn, the first victim,
had been shot three times in the head at 10pm on September 22nd
while idling in front of a supermarket in a stolen car;
approximately twelve hours later thirty-two year old Harold Green, an industrial engineer,
was shot twice in the parking lot of a Burger King while noshing in his car.
A slender white man in a blue golf hat was seen fleeing both scenes.
Later that evening an assailant screamed “Hey you,”
at thirty-year-old Emmanuel Thomas before blasting off three shots at close range;
Thomas was hit once in the head and mortally wounded as he crossed the street near his home at 11:30pm.
The final attack occurred the next morning in Niagara Falls,
where forty-three year old Joseph McCoy, an ex-boxer of some renown,
was gunned down by a Caucasian attacker who had hidden his weapon in a brown paper bag.
Area residents were stunned that such a beloved local fixture had met such a violent end:
“Joe don’t bother no one,” a female neighbor told the Niagara Falls Reporter.
As was the case with the slain cabdrivers,
there were no known connections between the gunshot victims in life but similarities in their deaths abounded:
all four had been shot in the left side of the head with a .22 caliber Ruger,
and the description of the lone white male seen fleeing each of the crime scenes was consistent.
The Erie County forensic laboratory’s subsequent determination
that the same gun had been used in each attack confirmed investigators’ suspicions that the shootings were linked.
The motive for the slayings, however, was unclear—aside from the color of their skin the victims shared little in common.
Attacks on black men in the Buffalo area continued:
the day after the cabbie slayings a thirty-seven year old African-American detox patient
was attacked at the Erie County Medical Center.
“I hate niggers,” the stranger hissed at Collin Cole while throttling him with a ligature.
A nurse’s arrival saved the day, but not before the assailant had inflicted severe damage to Cole’s throat.
The description of the white man seen fleeing the scene matched that of the Buffalo shooter;
as Erie County District Attorney and pithy quote generator Edward Cosgrove told a reporter from The Evening News,
“The identification jibed with other data and it seemed to be the same . . . maniac, if you will.”
Although the shootings—dubbed the “.22 Caliber Killings” in the press—had been forensically linked and the hospital attack appeared connected via the description of the perpetrator
investigators were uncertain if the cabdriver mutilations were related to the other crimes.
Aside from the race of the victims and geographic proximity
the cabbie slayings and the .22 Caliber Killings shared no similarities,
although as University of Buffalo psychiatrist Dr. Bruno Schutkeker opined,
“This could be one clever killer who changed his style.”
Dr. Schutkeker wasn’t the only expert investigators consulted
in the quest to determine whether the shootings and cabbie slayings were linked.
Famed FBI profiler John Douglas drew up a forensic analysis of the crimes’ probable perpetrators
and concluded the .22 Caliber Killings and cabbie mutilations were unrelated:
“For the four shootings and two eviscerations to have been perpetrated by the same individual
would have meant a severe personality disintegration between the murders of Joseph McCoy and Parler Edwards less than two weeks later,”
Douglas states in his book Manhunter: Inside the FBI’s Serial Crime Unit.
“If these six crimes were related,
it was more likely to me that the psycho who cut out the hearts might have been triggered by the racist who had already gone about assassinating blacks in the community.”
Douglas further theorized the shooter would be a firearm-enthusiast
who had joined or attempted to join the military but had washed out of basic training due to mental instability.
Despite Douglas’ profile and the existence of several eyewitnesses to the .22 Caliber Killings
the hunt for the assassin or assassins aprowl in Buffalo’s black community stagnated;
despite diligent investigation detectives were unable to develop any promising suspects,
and racial tension continued to grip the area.
As Buffalo police officer Larry Baehre told the Associated Press:
“The tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife; it is probably not prudent for whites to wander into black neighborhoods at night right now until this killer is caught.”
An ironic state of affairs in a metropolis boasting the official motto: “The City of Good Neighbors.”
Everybody loves Christmastime in New York City, even maniacs.
As racial unrest continued to roil Upstate New York a spate of random crimes began on December 22nd in Manhattan,
approximately four hundred miles south.
Within a thirteen hour period
six dark-skinned men were stabbed in Midtown by a white man brandishing a double-edged stiletto:
the first two victims—twenty-five year old John Adams, stabbed at 11:30am
and thirty-two year old Ivan Frazer, attacked two hours later—would survive their wounds.
Four fatal stabbings in quick succession followed:
messenger Luis Rodriguez, age nineteen, was slain at 3:30pm, thirty-year old Antone Davis at 6:50pm,
twenty-year-old Richard Renner at 10:30pm,
and an African-American “John Doe” was stabbed in front of Madison Square Garden at midnight.
The description of the perpetrator seen fleeing the scene of all six attacks was the same:
a white male, between 5’9” and 6-feet tall,
25-35 years old with a fair complexion, slim build, and wire-rimmed glasses.
Christened the “Midtown Slasher” by the New York tabloid press,
the Manhattan stabber’s description also closely matched that of the .22 Caliber Killer Upstate;
yet the NYPD was adamant the crimes were unrelated,
citing the difference in weaponry and the fact that two of the Midtown victims were not African Americans
but dark-skinned Hispanics.
Back in Buffalo, however, District Attorney Cosgrove was not as sure the crimes were unconnected;
during an interview with The New York Times he cited the many similarities in the crimes,
including “the motiveless, unconcerned and bold manner in which the assailant attacked, the geography, the time of day, [and] the fact all the victims had dark skin.”
The question of whether the NYC and Buffalo attacks were the work of a single maniac would soon be settled;
seven days after the last Manhattan stabbing a series of identical crimes
took place over four consecutive days in Upstate New York
that seemed to plait together the disparate strands of both series of attacks:
on December 29th thirty-one year old Roger Adams was stabbed to death in Buffalo,
and on December 30th Wendell Barnes, age twenty-six, was fatally slashed in Rochester.
Both victims were African-American,
and a bespectacled white man in a green jacket was seen fleeing from both attacks.
The following day, New Year’s Eve,
thirty-two year old Albert Menefee was leaving a tobacco shop in Buffalo
when a Caucasian stranger asked him for the time and then lunged, slashing his chest and nicking his heart;
Menefee thought he’d been punched in the stomach until he felt the warm rush of blood.
On January 1st two more attacks occurred nearby:
fifty-two year old Larry Little was beset while cleaning snow off his car
and Calvin Crippen, age twenty-three, was assailed while waiting for the bus—the three final victims survived,
and the trio all described an identical Caucasian attacker with wire-rimmed spectacles.
The attacks bore all the hallmarks
of the Midtown Slasher
yet occurred within
the .22 Caliber Killer’s hunting zone;
the existence of a single predator
stalking the dark-skinned men of New York state
could no longer be denied.
On January 6th authorities announced via press release that the crimes were “probably linked”—a task force was then assembled,
thirty-five detectives strong,
and more than a hundred plainclothes officers
staked-out the previous crime scenes lest the killer’s one-man ethnic-cleansing crusade resume on familiar ground.
Winter turned to spring and the killer failed to claim another victim.
The .22 Caliber Slasher’s campaign of terror had been aborted, it seemed,
yet despite the best efforts of law enforcement the reason for the cessation remained a mystery.
Although the task force beat the bushes for clues both Up- and Downstate the break in the case,
when it finally arrived,
sallied forth not from the Empire State but from the Deep South—on April 14th Fort Benning officials alerted Buffalo homicide detectives that a soldier at a the base psychiatric hospital
had told two army nurses he’d “killed some black men up North.”
The soldier in question, Joseph G. Christopher, was a twenty-five year old New York native;
in the early stages of the carnage—the.22 caliber shootings, cabbie killings and hospital throttling—he’d been an unemployed security guard living in Buffalo with his widowed mother.
Christopher had enlisted in the army on October 15th
and been away at Fort Benning during the lull between the gun and knife attacks,
but he’d been back in New York on holiday leave during the Midtown slashings and subsequent January stabbings.
Timing, as they say, is everything.
At the time of his confession Christopher was incarcerated in Fort Benning’s B-4 ward,
a military psychiatric facility;
he’d landed in stir on January 18th, two weeks after the final attack in New York,
when he was arrested
for stabbing an African-American fellow soldier with a mess hall paring knife—the victim survived.
While jailed in the stockade awaiting trial
Christopher became convinced his food was poisoned; precipitously dropping thirty pounds,
he was briefly hospitalized.
Upon being adjudged sane he was sent back to the prison unit,
whereupon he attempted to castrate himself with a razor blade—a course of action antithetical to most conventional definitions of sanity, even in the military.
It was during his second stay in the psych ward
that Christopher made two separate murder confessions to two different nurses,
one during his intake examination and the other after a group therapy session.
A search of the Christopher family home revealed a wealth of incriminating evidence:
quantities of .22-caliber ammunition were found,
along with a sawed-off gun barrel and a bloody fatigue jacket similar to the one worn in the Buffalo knife attacks.
Christopher had inherited two Ruger .22 rifles from his father,
and although investigators were never able to locate these weapons
detectives were eventually able to link Christopher to the gun used in the attacks—-a search of the family hunting camp unearthed bullets bearing the same rifling marks
as the casings left behind at the murder scenes.
Pvt. 1st Class Joseph G. Christopher was subsequently arrested and extradited to New York.
During a series of identity parades
witnesses to the attacks identified Christopher as the man seen fleeing the crime scenes;
although authorities deemed Christopher responsible
for all the .22 Caliber Killings and subsequent slashings
he was tried only for the crimes with the strongest forensic and eyewitness evidence—three trials ensued,
and he was convicted on all counts.
Christopher would eventually be sentenced to a minimum of thirty-three years in prison for the Manhattan cases
and twenty-five years for the Upstate attacks—his first parole eligibility was slated to occur in 2045
at the ripe old age of eighty-nine.
While an abundance of evidence ties Christopher to the .22 Caliber Killings and Midtown Slashings
his connection to the evisceration of cab drivers Parler Edwards and Ernest Jones is less clear.
Christopher was never tried for the mutilation murders,
and his own statements on the subject have been opaque at best:
during a 1983 interview with Buffalo journalists Christopher claimed credit for thirteen homicides,
but refused to provide specifics or details regarding the alleged crimes.
A total of ten men were killed during the stabbing and shooting attacks,
which leaves three deaths unaccounted for;
it’s certainly possible Parler Edwards and Ernest Jones were among Christopher’s victims,
but the evidence is far from conclusive.
During the 1983 interview Christopher—citing a Son of Sam-style conspiracy with a dash of race paranoia à la Charles Manson—claimed he’d been fomenting racial unrest at the behest of a shadowy cabal:
“I was ordered to kill. Who ordered me to kill? Who set up the conspiracy? I don’t know.”
He further babbled, “It was just a collection of people. I can’t explain it . . . I was a soldier.
They drafted me and ordered me to kill. One tin soldier, you know.”
Although his explanation is clearly the product of a disturbed mind
the impetus for Christopher’s crimes has never been rationally explained;
friends describe the soft-spoken high school dropout as “quiet” and “considerate”—a hunting and fishing zealot slow to anger and apparently devoid of racial animus.
Throughout his life Christopher reportedly had friends of all races;
as an African-American coworker told a reporter from The New York Times,
“He didn’t seem to have any strong feelings about race.
If he did these killings, something has to have come over him lately.”
Although defense psychiatrists claimed the thing that had “come over him lately” was paranoid schizophrenia,
pathologist Dr. Michael Baden believes Christopher’s crimes were prompted not by racism or mental illness
but by homosexual lust.
In his book Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner,
Dr. Baden alleges Christopher regularly engaged in acts of sodomy
with African-American prisoners in Fort Benning’s stockade,
and theorizes the murders were a result
of Christopher’s inability to reconcile his burgeoning homosexuality
with his macho upbringing—the killings, the Doctor asserts,
were Christopher’s futile attempt to snuff out his desires by eradicating the objects of his same-sex affection:
thin, mustachioed black men.
Unlike criminal profiler John Douglas,
Dr. Baden is convinced Christopher committed the Buffalo cabdriver mutilations.
As a hunter, Dr. Baden contends,
Christopher possessed sufficient anatomical knowledge to remove the cabbies’ hearts;
furthermore, he claims Christopher made admissions to a psychiatrist after his incarceration that contained information known only to the killer:
Christopher allegedly knew Ernest Jones had been assaulted with a square-headed hammer and Parler Edwards stabbed in the head with a screw driver,
two details which had never been made public.
The cabdrivers’ families, however,
continue to believe their loved ones’ deaths were unconnected to Christopher’s murder spree,
an assessment endorsed by John Douglas in Manhunter.
Joseph Christopher’s mental condition deteriorated during his incarceration;
confined in protective custody to shield him from inmate attacks
he became grossly obese,
and on March 1st, 1993 he died of a rare form of male breast cancer at the age of thirty-seven.
As former District Attorney Edward Cosgrove—erstwhile Greek chorus of Christopher’s crime spree—told The Buffalo News after the killer’s passing:
“I was saddened by his death; god bless his soul, but he was an unfortunate wretch.”
Although it may seem Joseph Christopher took the truth of his involvement in the Buffalo cabdriver mutilations
with him to the grave
I can’t help but feel the headstone chosen to adorn his final resting place
is sending some kind of message.
As shown above, the plaque features an etching of Jesus Christ,
the Prince of Peace, yanking His heart out through His chest;
and that’s the kind of detail you can’t make up.