Convicted serial killer Samuel Little wants credit for the murders he’s committed, but one of the five killings he’s confessed to in coastal Mississippi has left even seasoned cold case investigators baffled and scrambling for information.
The case involves the killing of a young woman Little described as a native of Jackson who was living in Gulfport and working as a pipe fitter at Ingalls Shipbuilding.
“We think maybe her body was never found,” said Pascagoula Police Lt. Darren Versiga, a cold case investigator who has been tracking Little for decades. “He said he picked her up in Gulfport.”
Versiga and Harrison County investigators Kristi Johnson and Caleb Mitchell are among officers nationwide who have traveled to Texas to interview Little since he began confessing to his crimes that have spanned decades.
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In addition to the five killings in South Mississippi, Little also admitted killing a 16-year-old male in Jackson in 1984, though his identity is unknown.
So far, he’s confessed to 90 murders in 19 states, which include the strangulation deaths of Alice Denise “Tina” Taylor, 27, and Tracy Lynn Johnson, 19, both of Gulfport; Julia Critchfield, 36, of Harrison County; and Malina “Mindy” LaPree, 24, of Pascagoula.
Cold cases investigators are hoping the public can help them identify the unknown fifth victim Little has confessed to killing, though her body was likely never found.
“He kept up with the reports on what he did,” Versiga said. “He said he never saw anything in the news about her. He believes she was never found.”
Little vividly remembers the details of his crimes because of the sadistic sexual gratification he still gets from those memories, authorities said, but his memory of the dates and years are fuzzy.
As a result, Versiga said, authorities have to rely on details Little provides that only the killer could know — which positively link him to murders along with DNA matches in a large number of the cases.
Little has agreed to provide additional help to identify his fifth murder victim in Mississippi by drawing a sketch of what the woman looked like.
He’s provide other details as well.
The victim was a young, light-skinned black woman in her early 30s and about 130 pounds with a small frame, he said.
As for the year, authorities could say only that it was between 1977 — when Little first came to Mississippi to sell stolen goods — and Sept. 16, 1982, when Little attacked and strangled to death LaPree in Pasagoula.
Because he was boxer, authorities say Little had a habit of sucker-punching the women to keep them at bay once he got them in the car. His primary targets were prostitutes and drug addicts at a time when human-trafficking was becoming more and more prevalent nationwide.
In the case of the unidentified victim, Little said he met her in Gulfport and drove her to Pascagoula, where they ate dinner at a restaurant in what he referred to as the “Village,” in Pascagoula, which is now a low-income housing area called Carver Village.
Afterward, Little said he drove the woman about a mile down the road, then pulled off a dirt road, where he attacked and killed her.
He said he dumped her body in what he called a “wash-out” that Versiga seemed to be essentially a hole next to telephone pole surrounded by tall grass.
“She probably sunk down that hole when he threw her in,” Versiga said. “He seems to think she was never really found and we are leaning that direction as well.”
A bargain for confessions
Little began confessing to his crimes after he was sentenced to two life terms without parole for the killings of three Los Angeles women.
He did so after authorities agreed to take the death penalty off the the table and transfer him from a California prison to one in Texas. As of Friday, he remained jailed in the Wise County, Texas jail.
Versiga, Johnson and Mitchell are among those hopeful that someone will be able to provide the information they need to identify the unknown victim.
In addition, investigators have reached out to Jackson police to search their missing persons reports over the years to see if they have anyone in the system that would match the description of the young murder victim whose remains were never unearthed.
‘An unbearable pain’
For the relatives of Samuel Little’s victims, finding out what happened to their loved ones is welcome, but bittersweet because of the suffering they faced at the hands of a “monster.”
For years, Bob LaPree, oldest brother of Mindy LaPree, wanted to learn what happened to her, even though it brings back the pain of losing a sibling.
She wasn’t your typical runaway, he said. She lost her mom at the age of 7 and had to deal with vicious attacks from their father.
At some point, Mindy decided to run away and headed south until she ended up in Pascagoula. She got strung on drugs, mostly pot and some cocaine, and her boyfriend was pimping her out for money, Bob LaPree said.
“Mindy came from a loving family, but she just had really some unfortunate turns in her life with her mother dying when she was just 7,” he said. “But she was brilliant and musical genius. She taught herself any instrument she wanted.”
Despite attempts to get her to return home, she stayed in Pascagoula, doing odd jobs, even working on shrimp boats as well as selling drugs and engaging in prostitution to make money.
Shortly before her death, she gave birth to a son. LaPree’s family adopted and raised him. He’s now 36.
“This has such a profound effect on the on the surviving family members,” Bob LaPree said. “It’s a life-altering experience and for it to be a cold case for all these years, it becomes even more difficult to deal with.”
For years, he was angry at authorities in Mississippi for initially writing off his sister’s disappearance because of her lifestyle. In fact, he said, he had to push for testing on a body discovered in a cemetery that was just sitting in a morgue.
After work with an anthropologist and through the use of dental records, Bob LaPree learned that body was, in fact, his sister.
Since then, LaPree said he’s let go of the anger thanks to cold case investigators like Versiga who worked relentlessly to solve his sister’s killing.
“What’s really been difficult is how her life ended,” LaPree said. “I’ve come to know what actually happened to her in vivid and accurate details. It’s very unsettling.
“It’s very hard to really understand how somebody could be that way and do that,” he said. “To me, it’s just mind-boggling. “It’s pretty incomprehensible what he has done to so many.
And there’s other disturbing information LaPree has learned from detectives.
“From what I’ve been told, the reason he remembers things in such great details is because he relives them for his own self-gratification,” he said.
‘They are the heroes’
Long before Little was convicted in a killing, Versiga, Johnson and Mitchell were among investigators working cold cases Little was suspected in.
Versiga long thought Little was responsible for LaPree’s killing, but because her body was so badly decomposed, evidence needed to prosecute the case couldn’t be collected.
Little first went to trial for a killing in Florida, but was acquitted.
When he ended up on trial in California in 2014, testimony from Versiga and two women from Pascagoula — who the detective calls “heroes” — led to Little’s first conviction.
Versiga testified in part about how Little was identified early on as the chief suspect in LaPree’s killing.
The two women had barely survived Little’s attacks.
The first to tell her story at the trial was a Pascagoula woman now in her 60s.
In 1980, according to police reports, she was living in Carver Village. Little told investigators he came to Mississippi after he heard about the Village because he thought it would be a great place to sell his stolen goods.
The Sun Herald reviewed police reports from the victims and court testimony to provide the following accounts of what the two women survived.
The woman, now in her 60s, said she was working along a street known as “the Front” where prostitutes gathered to keep an eye out for each other for safety reasons.
It was hot night in July when she said Little picked her up outside a nightclub. She took him back to her place in the Village.
As soon as he shut the door, the woman said Little, a former boxer, grabbed her neck and started choking her before he knocked her unconscious.
When she came to, she said Little was on top of her, beating and choking her. She passed out and then woke up with her body submerged in her tub and naked with the exception of a scarf around her neck. She said the man used the lace scarf to yank her head in and out of the water, punching her when he pulled her and then forcing her back underwater.
She told authorities she lost consciousness at that point and woke later to find herself in the hospital and unable to talk or communicate. She initially reported she was attacked by burglar because her parents came to the hospital and she didn’t want them to know what she was doing for a living.
The other woman was in her 20s and selling shoes out of her car and prostituting herself to make money when she was attacked in November 1981.
It was about a week before Thanksgiving when she told authorities a man in a station wagon with wood paneling, later identified as Little, offered to pay her $50 for sex.
At the time, Little went by the name Samuel McDowell.
The woman got in Little’s car and said before she knew it, the man “cold-cocked” her in the back of the head and then punched her again between the eyes and started choking her.
The woman said he managed to escape a couple of times, but Little would catch her and drag her back to the station wagon. At one point, she said a young boy on a bicycle saw them outside the car and he asked if she was OK. Little claimed she was his wife and was drunk.
She couldn’t speak because of the relentless choking.
Eventually, the woman said she escaped through a cargo area in the back of the car and ran across U.S. 90 until she made it back to the Village. She said some people took her to the hospital, but she never filed a police report.
A search for tips
Since Little’s arrest, Mississippi investigators are among many others nationwide who are talking to Little to try to solve crimes he’s committed.
Tying Little to unsolved murders in Mississippi is good news but bittersweet in many ways to the investigators who work the case, Johnson said.
“It’s a lot of mixed emotions,” she said. “On one hand you are able to solve a case, and it shows cold case work is important, but at the same time you still have to tell a family a loved one was killed by a serial killer and that’s hard.”
Still, cold case investigators are hoping someone will read about the young woman Little claimed to have killed who has yet to be found or identified and report it.
“We want to be able to find out show she was so we can get in touch with her family,” Johnson said. “We want to try to solve this case.”
To report information, call Versiga at the Pascagoula Police Department at 228- 762-2211, the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department Criminal Investigations Division at 228-896-0678 or Mississippi Coast Crime Stoppers at 877-787-5898.