On a cool October morning in 1990, a man jogging along Basston Drive in Maryland Heights noticed an odor so foul it warranted alerting the two municipal workers cutting weeds nearby. The workers tracked the odor to a 35-gallon plastic trash bin sitting out of place in the grass between Basston and Page Avenue. The bin had no lid and was instead covered in trash bags secured with wire. The municipal workers attempted to load the bin into their truck only to find it was exceptionally heavy. Inside they found a body decomposed to such an extent that it wasn't until later in the day police were certain the victim was a woman.
She was somewhere between 18 and 40, police said, wearing a turquoise sweater. Her hands had been bound, a man's shirt wrapped around her head. Police determined she'd died of asphyxiation. On a concrete wall near where the trash bin had been sitting, someone had written in graffiti, "Sorry Kym."
The media and the police quickly connected the Maryland Heights Jane Doe to the case of Robyn J. Mihan, an eighteen-year-old whose body had been found six months prior. Mihan's body had been discovered bound between two mattresses in Silex, Missouri. Both women had been discarded on the side of highways — Jane Doe 20 miles west of the city, Mihan about 60 miles northwest. Both had shirts pulled tight around their faces and their hands tied together. Traces of dog hair had been found on both bodies as well.
Four months after Jane Doe's discovery, a security guard in O'Fallon, Missouri, found a third body — also a woman. She was in a homemade wooden box and was also badly decomposed.
"He was smart about where he dumped the bodies," says Joe Burgoon, who was a St. Louis police detective in the early '90s and now works cold cases for the department. "He knew to spread them out across jurisdictions to make things harder for us."
Between March 1990 and February 1991, one man abducted at least three women from the same area in south city, raped, mutilated and murdered them before leaving their bodies along highways outside of town. Because he discarded all the bodies in some sort of receptacle — a trash bin, a pair of mattresses, a homemade wooden box — the few people familiar with the murders refer to him as the package killer.
These killings made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but generally with scant information about the victims. When the killing stopped, the story quickly and completely faded, both from the newspapers as well as the city's collective memory.
Barb Studt, a stepsister of one of the victims, put it this way: "For about ten years afterward, if I said, 'My sister was the one they found in the box on Highway 70,' people would say, 'Oh yeah, I heard about that.' Now they have no idea what I'm talking about."
Criminologists say the package killer likely killed more than three people. But no one has ever been charged in any of the three linked cases.
The first two victims left police little evidence to follow up on. The mattresses Mihan had been bound between were tied together in the same manner that stacks of newspapers are bundled before delivery. All four corners were meticulously tied with Conex cable, Burgoon says, the sort of material an electrician would use to wire a house.
Jane Doe had been stuffed into a trash can with a Biener Hardware sticker affixed to it, and cable had been found at that scene as well. Maybe the guy was a construction worker or a contractor, police thought. But how many of those were there in the area? It didn't help that the second victim hadn't even been identified.
At least with the first victim, Robyn Mihan, police had a name.
It's very important to Saundra Mihan, Robyn's mother, that you understand this: "People are different things to different people. Robyn's life did mean something. She was loved."
Saundra is understandably wary of the media, who in 1990 printed that Robyn was a prostitute and murder victim and pretty much left it at that. For all the interest in the case at the time, no one seemed particularly invested in understanding who had been killed. The Post-Dispatch even got her age wrong, printing that she was nineteen when she was still six months shy of that.
Robyn lit up a room when she walked in, Saundra says. When she smiled her cheeks dimpled in six different places, a bit like rings around a planet. She talked with her eyes. Everyone who met her liked her. In high school, she was involved in the ROTC program. Later, she enrolled in beauty school.
Says Saundra, "You don't know what these women would have been, what they'd have gone on to do, if they had the chance, if their lives hadn't been taken from them."
Robyn grew up with her mom in Tower Grove East and later in Bevo. She went to Cleveland High School, a public school that is now abandoned, in Dutchtown. Saundra worked in health care and still does. Hearing about Robyn's childhood and teenage years, you get the sense they were quintessential south city: equal parts hardscrabble and unsupervised fun.
When Robyn was a teenager, both she and her older brother Tom got heavy into crack cocaine. A lot of St. Louisans did. Though the crack epidemic is often associated with the 1980s, it didn't stop at the end of that decade. In the early '90s, a packet of crack in St. Louis cost as little as $5. Newspaper coverage at the time stated that police busted individuals with four or five pounds of the stuff several times a week. At Lambert Airport, federal authorities intercepted over 50 pounds of cocaine and more than $1 million in drug money in a single year.
In 1988, when Robyn was sixteen, she had a daughter and named her after her mother. Baby Saundra was born three months early but healthy. When Robyn was seventeen, she became pregnant again.
"You're already a baby taking care of a baby," Saundra told Robyn at the time. She encouraged her daughter to put the second child up for adoption.
Robyn agreed. The baby, another daughter, was born in March 1990. Tom Mihan went to the hospital to visit his sister after the delivery; Saundra stayed home. She believed adoption was the right choice, but "I knew that if I went up there, I'd be taking that child home," she says. Not going to the hospital that day is now something Saundra deeply regrets.
Within two weeks, on March 22, Robyn would be reported missing. Four days after that, she'd be found dead.
The night she was abducted, Robyn was with her brother Tom in the Shaw neighborhood. The escort service Robyn worked for operated out of the house, and the siblings frequently hung out there.
For Robyn, the escort service was a safer way to make money than walking the street. But that night no calls were coming in. She, Tom and their friend Faye had exhausted their supply of crack, and Robyn was going through withdrawal.
"I told her to take a Valium and come down, crash. Tomorrow's another day," Tom says. "Instead, she went to the Stroll."
At the time, the city's red-light district, called the Southside Stroll, ran along South Jefferson between Broadway and Chippewa on the south and Cherokee to the north, a block from what is now Sump Coffee. In the early 1990s, the Mexican immigrants who would later revitalize Cherokee Street had not yet arrived in numbers sufficient to make much of mark; the hipsters were even further away.
"These women were easy victims," says an officer who worked the area at the time. "And they were easily victimized."
Robyn and her friend Faye left Shaw and went to the Stroll looking for a customer. They parked on Texas, a block from Jefferson, facing Cherokee, right next to the Fortune Teller Bar. As a rule, when one of the women got in a man's car, they made him circle the block once so the other could get a look at the car and its driver. This provided a measure of security. Robyn went around the corner onto Cherokee, and Faye sat in the car, waiting for the usual drive by. But that never happened. After two hours, Faye went back to the house on Shaw.
"We figured, with our lifestyle at the time, that she got in a car with somebody, and they went and partied," Tom says. "Still, I was worried. I was upset."
Four days later, police knocked on Saundra's door in south city.
"The only reason I was at home and not at work was because my daughter was missing and I was watching my grandbaby," Saundra says. "I knew they weren't going to tell me anything good. They weren't there to chit chat."
They peppered her with questions. When was the last time she'd seen Robyn? Who had she been with? The detectives seemed uneasy and avoided telling her why they were there.
"Look," Saundra eventually said. "I've tried to accommodate you by answering your questions. You haven't told me anything. What is it you're not telling me?"
They asked Saundra if her daughter had any distinguishing marks.
"Am I going to have to tell you that's what you came here for?" she replied. Saundra finally asked if her daughter was dead.
The detectives told her about a two-lane country highway an hour north of St. Louis. Saundra had never before heard of Silex, Missouri. The previous day, a driver who traveled the same route every morning had spotted a pair of mattresses, bound together, that hadn't been there the day before. He stopped to investigate.
Detective Burgoon says that Mihan's body was found with quite a bit of blood, signs of strangulation around the neck. There was a stab wound to the head that pierced the scalp but didn't go through, contusions on her face, cheek, wrist and feet. Some of these were defensive wounds, implying a struggle. Others were postmortem.
"My guess was she was in pain," Burgoon adds.
A few weeks after Robyn's murder, Tom says he was picked up by the police and wound up in the same room as members of the Major Case Squad. One of the officers threw a rolled-up wad of cash on the table.
"Tell us who did it, and you can keep it," the officer said.
"I don't fucking know who did it," Tom replied.
Implicit in the detective's offer were a world of assumptions: that Tom knew the killer, that he wanted to profit from his sister's death, that he'd only want to see justice if it meant a payday for him.
In the reporting of this story, Tom was generous with his time, talking for two hours about his sister and his life in the early '90s. Only one time, when he talked about police offering him a roll of cash, did he cry.
- COURTESY SAUNDRA MIHAN
- Robyn Mihan was a mother at sixteen and murdered at eighteen.
Saundra Mihan says that not long after her daughter's death, the police told her they'd searched a suspect's apartment and found candle wax, which had also been found on Robyn's body. The Post-Dispatch would later report that St. Louis police were ready to make an arrest, but because Robyn had been found in Silex, it was up to Lincoln County's prosecuting attorney's office to bring the charges. It was reluctant to do so. The assistant prosecuting attorney gave a quote to the Post-Dispatch that seemed to imply that the city police were hoping to arrest the suspect simply to gather more conclusive evidence on him.
Saundra was quoted in the same article: "If you got enough evidence on him, what does it matter what county it's in?"
Today, Saundra says she's still appreciative of some of the officers, like Burgoon, who treated her humanely. But in the months after the killing, she often felt left in the dark. A lot of the cops, she says, acted as if the murder of her own daughter was none of her business.
In an effort to identify the Maryland Heights Jane Doe, police released to the media a clay cast of what experts believed her face had looked like. This yielded nothing. Her body had been so badly decomposed, only a print from her ring finger could be of any use, and a computer database search found no matches. Police followed up with Biener hardware, since the body had been found in a 35-gallon trash can marked with its name. Biener had two locations at the time, one in Webster Groves and the other in north St. Louis County. The store said that thieves often stole their cans in the middle of the night.
Saundra grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress. In the days after the discovery of that second body, Saundra asked local news stations to come to her work and interview her there. Wanting to light a fire underneath investigators, she appeared on the front page of the Post-Dispatch holding a photo of Robyn. She wanted the city to know her daughter's life mattered.
"I'm sorry other girls had to be killed like this," Saundra said.
No one knew at the time that the third victim had already been missing for more than a month.
"He had two people," Burgoon says. "Whoever it was had a couple of bodies at the same time."
- JEN WEST
- Sandy Little often crashed in the spare bedroom of her stepsister, Barb Studt, while navigating a chaotic home life in south St. Louis.
Sandy Little had a lot of suitors in her late teens and early twenties. When the phone rang, she'd answer "Hi!" then pause for a beat. Depending on whose voice was on the other end, she'd very likely continue, "You have reached Sandy Little. I can't come to the phone right now but if you leave a message ...." The men never got wise.
When Sandy crashed with her stepsister, Barb Studt, friends and hangers-on materialized in the living room, drinking, having a good time. Studt usually had to work the next morning and would go to bed with the motley, ever-shifting crew around Sandy still going hard. But under Sandy's watchful eye, in the morning nothing had ever been stolen, everything was intact. During that period of her life Sandy could shut the party down as effortlessly as she got it going.
Sandy almost certainly did not inherit this social nature from her mother. Multiple people who knew Sandy's mother, Carolyn Little, say that she was intellectually disabled in some way, had the intelligence of a thirteen-year-old. She was profoundly self-centered, ill-suited to raising her three children. Carolyn had trouble pronouncing Sandy's name. It came out like Candy, and throughout childhood that nickname had stuck.
A stabilizing influence entered the Little children's lives when Robert Talbott married Carolyn. Studt, Talbott's daughter from his first marriage, was mystified by her father's attraction.
"I wondered what my dad saw in this woman," Studt says. Later she decided her dad married Carolyn because of the kids. "He felt like she couldn't take care of them, and he was absolutely right. As soon as he was gone, she lost custody of them."
After Talbott died in 1980, Sandy, her brother David and half-siblings Geneva, James and Robert Jr. bounced around in the foster care system. At one point they were adopted by a family in Homer, Alaska, but free-spirited Sandy was too much for those parents. They offered to keep the other children but couldn't deal with her. Perhaps Sandy, the oldest of the siblings and approaching her teens, couldn't handle Homer, Alaska (population 2,209).
Back in Missouri, Robert Jr., who was four years younger than Sandy, remembers being picked on by an older kid at a Presbyterian home for children in Farmington, Missouri. In the lunchroom one day Sandy told him to point out the bully. She knocked him out in his chair.
"She was like that," Robert says. "She protected us."
Sandy and her siblings eventually wound up back in south St. Louis, near Cherokee Street, living with their mother and her new partner. Their stepsister Studt lived nearby, and Sandy often crashed in her spare bedroom. On nights when Sandy stayed with Carolyn, Carolyn charged her $20 a night as rent.
"I always used to worry about the drugs," Studt says. "She and I would talk about it. That's why I let her live with me, because she didn't do them with me. But when she went back to her mom's, they were all on drugs there, and they hung with a bunch of drug heads."
Sandy walked the South Side Stroll to fund her habit as well as to meet daily expenses and her mother's demands for rent. She lived for a time with her aunt Diane Little, who kicked her out for using hard drugs.
Diane understood that prostitution was her niece's way of providing for her baby. "If she had stuck to prostitution [but] stayed away from the hard drugs, shooting dope, she could have continued living with us," Diane Little later told the Post-Dispatch.
At twenty, Sandy got pregnant. It was a boy. She moved in with the baby's father and his mother, a place that brought with it some measure of stability.
"That boy was her world," Studt says. "She was so excited to have him. She was so happy."
In 1990, Sandy was raising her child, supporting a drug habit and trying to get clean. She made earnest attempts to get steady work, taking a job at a fast food place, but continued to walk the street. It was dangerous. That May, her good friend Sandra Cain, who also worked the Stroll, was found dead on Highway 44 near the Compton overpass. According to the Post-Dispatch, police at the time didn't know "whether Cain had been chased onto the highway, thrown out of a car or thrown off the Compton overpass." Sandy Little had been the last person to see her alive.
The following month, the body of another woman who walked the Stroll was found in a trash bin in Laclede Park in south city.
That August, Studt saw Sandy walking the Stroll.
"What are you doing?" Studt asked.
Sandy said she needed money to buy formula.
On the Tuesday after the long Labor Day weekend, Sandy's boyfriend's mother reported her missing. Sandy would be officially missing for nearly five months.
- COURTESY BARB STUDT
- The Little siblings
Sandy's boyfriend Chris Day, the father of her child, has two dates seared in his brain. "September 4," he says. "February 17."
"Those months were unbearable," he says.
On February 17, 1991, a security guard at the General Motors plant in Wentzville was headed to work, driving on I-70 through O'Fallon, Missouri, when he saw a strange box on the side of the highway. It was odd looking, clearly homemade. The security guard stopped, picked it up and put it in the back of his truck. Apparently, he was a bit of a pack rat and regularly did this sort of thing.
"That morning he's driving to work and he starts smelling something," Burgoon says.
By the time the security guard got to the GM plant, fluid was coming out of the box. The security guard called the police.
The Wentzville police there asked the man where he found the box. When he said along I-70 in O'Fallon, the police decided it was O'Fallon's case, not theirs.
"[O'Fallon] was working what they could on it," says Burgoon. "But all they were trying to say is that it's a prostitute from St. Louis, and they tried to dump it on St. Louis." According to the rules of the trade, however, O'Fallon remained the lead agency. Says Burgoon, "Whoever's got the body got the body."
When detectives opened the box, they found that decomposition had set in. The body was mostly bones, one detective says. A doctor could only identify the remains as Sandy's based off a rib she'd broken and had x-rayed before her abduction.
The most important piece of evidence was a sock cap with a logo stitched onto it for Ticor Title, the title insurance firm. "Sandy would never have worn that sort of thing," Studt says, meaning that it must have belonged to the killer. Ticor Title has long left St. Louis, but at the time a representative said only about 100 of the hats were made and given out as promotional items. The hat was tested for DNA to no avail.
Studt remembers when she heard about the discovery of Sandy's body. She was in her kitchen, the local news on in the background. She sensed her stepsister's body had been found before she processed the newscaster's words.
What remained of Little's body wore the uniform of the fast-food restaurant where she worked. She'd been abducted after work, though it's unknown if she was walking the Stroll or walking home.
"She was someone who you loved to be in the room with because she would just brighten it up," Studt says. "She had a lot of demons, but you never would have known it if you'd just seen her."
"I think of her all the time," says Sandy's younger sister Geneva. "It stays with you. She's stayed with me."
BRENDA JEAN PRUITT
Three weeks after Little's body was found, police finally identified the Maryland Heights Jane Doe.
Her name was Brenda Jean Pruitt. She was 27, and her family had reported her missing nine months before, in May 1990. More than 21 weeks passed between the discovery of her body and her identification.
After the police's computer system failed to find a match for the single ring-finger fingerprint taken off the badly decomposed Jane Doe, a police fingerprint examiner named Janet Majors meticulously compared it with the prints already on file. One by one she compared the single print with more than 1,800 others before finally coming across a match.
Pruitt had no record of prostitution. Police were quoted in the Post-Dispatch saying that other women who worked the Stroll didn't know her. She had been arrested previously for a handful of minor offenses, which is why her prints were on file, but of all the victims the least is known about her. She had a friend in a senior living facility near Cherokee Street, Burgoon says. But whereas it's easy to understand the circumstances under which Little and Mihan got in a car with their killer, the picture is hazier for Pruitt.
The more you think about the way in which the bodies were left, particularly those of Pruitt and Little, the more bizarre the picture of the killer becomes. If a body is decomposed beyond recognition, why not leave it in the woods or in one of the city's thousands of vacant homes? To put the remains in a receptacle along the highway ensures they are found in short order and leaves no doubt of foul play.
Pruitt's family declined to speak to the media at the time, and extensive efforts to locate them in recent months yielded no contacts. Brenda is buried at Calvary Cemetery, the space and burial expenses donated by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The plot is unmarked, with nothing to indicate it is anyone's final resting place.
- JEN WEST
- Robyn’s mother Saundra Mihan and brother Tom Mihan have waited decades for an arrest in her vicious murder.
THE MISSING MISSING
Kenna Quinet is a professor of criminal justice, law and public safety at the University of Indiana-Indianapolis and one of the few academics who study serial killers. She has appeared as an expert in A&E's The Killing Season and, among many other works, published "The Missing Missing" in the academic journal Homicide Studies.
Despite a career studying serial killers, and sex workers as victims of serial killers in particular, the package killer's murders were entirely unknown to her. She finds them intriguing.
"You have the three known victims," Quinet says. "But then you probably have some number of missing women from the same area whose bodies were never found and who might also be victims. Then you have the 'missing missing,' women who were never reported missing, even though they went missing and their bodies were never found. They're not on anybody's radar. That number of three could grow pretty quickly."
Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from 100 to as many as 2,000 active serial killers in the country right now. And although serial murder in the U.S. has declined overall, it has declined much less for prostitutes. If you are a victim of a serial killer, Quinet says, it is highly likely you're also a sex worker.
And that, in many cases, allows these killers to stay off law enforcement's radar. Says Quinet of these victims, "It turns out, nobody gives a shit."
Quinet notes that serial killers who stay in the public's consciousness, like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson, tend to kill white, affluent women or college students or men. Earlier this year, the Oxygen network released an entire docuseries about the Smiley Face Killer, in which a pair of former New York City detectives investigate the deaths of college-aged men who drowned over the course of two decades, across several states, allegedly all at the hands of the same individual.
Nevermind, Quinet says, that a lot of these guys were drunk when they drowned and the only connection between the cases was a smiley face spray painted somewhere in the general vicinity.
Quinet finds it "ridiculous" that at a time when the public is interested in true crime stories, media companies are manufacturing farces like the Smiley Face Killer and "redoing the Bundy case for the millionth time."
"Good luck getting the public to pay attention to a serial murder case happening now involving prostitute victims, much less to an unsolved case from the 1990s," she says. "Good luck with that."
Yet despite the lack of public awareness in the package killer case, tantalizing clues have left some people convinced they know who did it.
It's a myth that serial killers don't stop," Quinet says. "There's some interesting work that's been published on serial murder as leisure activity. If you look at serial killers, it really is their hobby. People get really immersed in their hobbies for a time and then just wander off."
Discussing the case, Burgoon mentions numerous persons of interest but only names one suspect by name, a man who was in his thirties at the time and lived on Miami Street. Saundra Mihan, not knowing what Burgoon shared, also names this man and says that she knows he killed her daughter. Chris Day quickly volunteers the same name as Sandy Little's killer as well.
This man had come to the police's attention a few months before the series of killings began. According to Burgoon, one night a naked woman ran up Cherokee Street screaming that the man was trying to kill her. Other women who worked the South Side Stroll told detectives this man had tortured them. He had previously been booked on suspicion of attempted rape. At the time of the killings he owned a station wagon, the sort of vehicle that would have been necessary to transport a body.
Burgoon says that after the first murder, of Robyn Mihan, he and other detectives questioned this suspect for several hours, holding him overnight. After the discovery of Jane Doe in Maryland Heights, the suspect was at home waiting for the police. He'd seen on the news about the body and figured the police would be paying him a visit.
During the discovery of Sandy Little's body, in February 1991, the suspect was in California, a fact confirmed by San Diego police. However, it's not clear if this suspect was in California in September when Sandy disappeared. Her body "was basically bones," Burgoon says, meaning she had likely been killed not long after being abducted. An accomplice could have dumped the body.
The specifics of Robyn's case also bring to mind an accomplice. Think about the last time you carried a mattress. You likely had help. Now imagine carrying two mattresses with a body in between.
There is also the matter of where he kept these women and their corpses for a combined 308 days. How does someone do that without anybody, a roommate, a neighbor, noticing?
Today, the man lives in St. Louis. A sign on his front door states in no uncertain terms that he doesn't want visitors. He did not respond to a note with a brief summary about the story, asking him to call.
Quinet says that even though it's a myth serial killers never stop, sometimes they don't stop on their own accord. Maybe they're killed. Maybe they're put in jail for something else.
On July 15, 1993, a nude woman escaped from the basement garage of a duplex in High Ridge, Missouri.
The woman told police she had been working a stroll in East St. Louis when Frederick Brown forced her into his car at gunpoint. Later, Brown raped her, tied her up and gagged her before locking her into a plastic luggage container, the kind that sit atop cars. It was a space of three square feet and in his basement.
When Brown left for work, the woman managed to escape, sliding between the space where the two pieces of plastic came together. Jefferson County police arrested Brown when he came home later that day. He is now serving life in prison for kidnapping, armed criminal action and rape.
One police source who would only speak on background says that, to his mind, this is the man who most likely killed Robyn Mihan, Brenda Jean Pruitt, Sandy Little and perhaps others.
Brown was described in media reports at the time as a cabinet maker, a craftsman, which would explain the precise wiring of the mattresses in Mihan's case.
He had also worked off and on as a long-haul truck driver. He'd claimed to be in the Northeast during the time of the previous murders, but police could put him at a truck stop along I-70 the same night Little's body was dropped along that highway.
Brown operated his woodworking business out of a building in Rock Hill, next door to one of only two Biener Hardware locations in St. Louis. It was a Biener Hardware sticker that was affixed to the plastic trash can Brenda Pruitt's body was found in.
A man named Gene Kirkpatrick later occupied the same Rock Hill work space as Brown. Kirkpatrick says that he knows next to nothing about Brown, though he does remember Brown owned a black Labrador. The bodies of the three women all had traces of animal hair on them.
The woman who escaped Brown's home was working a different area than the other victims, but as Quinet says, "The idea that serial killers don't change their M.O., another myth. They change their M.O. all the time. They want to kill as many people as they can for as long as they can. They don't want to get caught."
However, there is this: The homemade box Sandy Little was found in had been jury-rigged together, imprecise cuts marked with a pen rather than with a woodworker's pencil. It's hardly the sort of object that would be made by someone who worked with wood professionally.
The evidence is entirely circumstantial, but that may not always be the case. Sergeant Jodi Weber of the O'Fallon Police Department recently re-examined the Sandy Little case. She says that right now, physical evidence recovered with Sandy's body is at the St. Charles County crime lab being tested for DNA.
Earlier this year, police testing physical evidence for DNA led to charges being brought in the murder of Angie Housman, who was killed in 1993. At the time, the case led to countless hours of police investigation, but no closure. This June, police announced that clothing found at the scene had yielded DNA belonging to a convicted child molester already in prison for another crime.
Brown and I emailed back and forth in the lead up to the publication of this story. He's currently in a medium security facility in Licking, Missouri, and says he has been denied parole three times due to the "circumstances and seriousness surrounding the crime." We talked in a general way about his 1993 case before I brought up Mihan, Pruitt and Little. I asked him directly if he had anything to do with their murders.
"To answer your question as simply and concisely as possible, no," he says. "I had absolutely nothing to do with any of those murders. Though I sincerely feel for the families and friends of those individuals. I know what it's like to seek closure for the loss of a loved one, I lost a son at the young age of 15, and not only couldn't I be there for him, there was nothing that could be done, if this matters to anyone."
He adds, "I owned the cabinet shop next-door to Biener hardware, that whole block (property and buildings) was owned by one family, and two of the family members had businesses in the back of my shop along with access to my shop and equipment. So, did the police do their due diligence and investigate them?...Or, and here's a thought outside the box, maybe there's no connection what-so-ever between the three cases and they just might want to consider the more difficult task which is, treating them all on an individual basis, looking for motives other than similarities? Knowing how the justice system works, including law enforcement, they're more interested in closing a case than actually having the person responsible."
Robyn Mihan, Sandy Little and Brenda Jean Pruitt represent three of St. Louis' 4,567 homicides since 1990. Of course, when you add to that number the ones left behind, the number of victims becomes impossible to tally.
It's hard to say how many of those homicides went unsolved. Establishing a clearance rate for the past 30 years is tricky, but the Washington Post found that during one of those decades, from 2007 to 2017, fewer than half of the homicide investigations in St. Louis led to an arrest.
In this case, the lack of closure doesn't seem to be for a lack of police trying. Detectives crawled into the HVAC in the building where Brown worked, looking for dog hairs to compare to those found on Mihan and other victims. They traveled south to St. Petersburg, Florida, and north to Michigan when similar killings happened in those states. Last year, when the media reported that a man in prison in California confessed to killing scores of people throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, one retired detective says the first thing he did was call the cold-case division and make sure they were following up.
Requests for police reports and investigative files in these cases were mostly denied by local police departments, who cited the fact that those documents are part of an investigation that is still ongoing. With the exception of Joe Burgoon, it was difficult to get law enforcement to speak candidly on the record.
The families of victims, however, were eager to tell the stories of the loved ones they'd lost.
"They meant something to someone," says Geneva Talbott, Sandy Little's sister. "Regardless of the demons on their backs."
Several of the family members say that in the wake of losing a loved one they became voracious readers of true crime books, ones about serial killers in particular. You can't help but wonder if they're looking in other stories for the closure that's been denied to them in their own.
On the morning of March 26, 1990, the police finished with their questions, delivered their grim news and left Saundra Mihan's house. At that moment Saundra knew exactly what she had to do. Just weeks earlier she'd encouraged her daughter Robyn to give up her second child for adoption. Now that Saundra had lost her own daughter, she had to have her grandbaby back.
"I basically lived over at the Department of Social Services," Saundra says. "Everybody over there knew me very well because I was trying to find this girl."
Despite Saundra's efforts, the state refused to provide information about the family that had adopted her. Saundra knew the child's birthday but not the name she'd been given.
She thought of her constantly, every Christmas, every birthday, every family gathering. Years turned into decades, and Saundra raised her older granddaughter, also named Saundra, and told her bits and pieces about Robyn. There were things the younger Saundra discovered on her own, but she never knew she had a sister. The elder Saundra figured she'd already put enough on the young woman she was raising.
In 2014, young Saundra was in her mid-twenties, working her way toward a nursing degree, when she got a Facebook message. She called her grandma.
"This girl says that if my mother's name is Robyn, then she's my sister," she said.
Robyn Mihan's two daughters, born just one year apart, are now reunited. And if you sit down with Saundra Mihan — grandmother, great-grandmother and the mother of a woman murdered far too young — she'll show you pictures. For now, it is her only happy ending.
Ryan Krull is a freelance journalist and assistant teaching professor in the department of communication and media at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.