The bottom drops out of your heart early in “American Predator,” long before an unsparing account of the rape, murder and dismemberment of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig. All before the end of the first chapter.
The very dedication is arresting: “To the victims and their families, known and unknown.”
It’s that word, “unknown,” that haunts the pages of “American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century” (Viking, 285 pp., ★★★ out of 4 stars), Maureen Callahan’s chilling true-crime account of the life and crimes of Israel Keyes. Because in spite of the author’s thorough research and the investigators’ best efforts, the true extent of the serial killer’s crimes remain unknown and likely will forever.
Koenig’s murder was a shocking one, even by remorseless-serial-killer standards. On a wintry February night in Anchorage in 2012, the teen was abducted at gunpoint from the coffee kiosk where she was working alone. Weeks later, Koenig’s brutalized body would be found in pieces, weighed down at the bottom of ice-cold Matanuska Lake.
In between those events, Koenig’s abductor toyed with her family and with police, making them believe the girl was still alive by posting a ransom note on a public bulletin board demanding $30,000 be deposited to an account connected to Koenig’s ATM card. The card was then used to make a string of withdrawals across the Southwest, and investigators finally nabbed Koenig’s killer by following the trail to Texas.
The men and women of the FBI had seen many monsters over the course of their careers, but they still weren’t prepared for a monster like Keyes. “I can tell you right now there is no one who knows me, or who has ever known me, who knows anything about me, really,” Keyes told investigators. “I’m two different people, basically.”
Their discoveries over the course of months’ worth of interviews would bear that claim out. The same day Keyes dumped Koenig’s body into the lake, he attended a parent-teacher conference for his own daughter.
Keyes proved to be a frighteningly capable and meticulous criminal. From an impoverished childhood in a survivalist family prone to joining cults (including a militia-based white supremacist church called the Ark), Keyes learned practical skills that would aid him in committing murders, rapes, bank robberies and arsons across the country for years without detection. He prepared and stashed kill kits around the country, buckets containing weapons and supplies to dispose of bodies – like those of Bill and Lorraine Currier of Essex, Vermont, who’d gone missing without a trace in 2011.
The first half of “American Predator” is propulsive and un-put-downable in its mounting dread. The second half suffers from slowed momentum, perhaps unavoidably, as investigators find themselves stymied by an uncooperative Keyes, case mismanagement and a lax correctional facility that resulted in Keyes’ death by suicide in his prison cell months after his arrest at the age of 34.
Callahan’s approach is still a smart one. She puts us squarely in the headspace of the investigators and organically builds tension by showing us the case through their eyes. We learn what they learn when they learn it. We experience their desperation to save Koenig, then to bring her killer to justice, then to figure out just how many lives her killer claimed.
While the book doesn’t shy from detailing the extent of Keyes’ crimes, it never reads lurid. The author has, as much as is possible, remained respectful of the victims to whom the book is dedicated.
However many of them there may be.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter.com/BabsVan.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'American Predator' inspires nightmares of serial killer Israel Keyes