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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Defining the Enemy: How a Serial Killer Rationalizes His Heinous Deeds

At the edge of "His Garden" behind the mall.
Nazi propaganda often portrayed Jews as rats. With that image came the message that an entire group of people flooded the continent with contagion while devouring invaluable resources. When Nazi guards beat and killed women and children in concentration camps, they honestly believed that they were not committing grievous crimes. In their deranged way of thinking, they were sweeping away the filth. It was a moral clean-up, of sorts, and they felt that Germany's national identity was made stronger and purer for it.

Likewise, the serial killer that I am writing about in my upcoming book, "His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer," rationalized strangling his seven victims as a kind of moral endeavor. As drug-addicted prostitutes, his victims were worthless objects. He was doing society a favor by snuffing out their lives and preventing the commission of future "thefts and petty crimes."

I am in possession of hours of audio recordings in which William Devin Howell and I discuss his crimes in great detail following his guilty plea hearing at the New Britain Superior Court in September 2017. In those calls, I probe his mind to try to figure out not just why he repeatedly raped six individuals and killed seven, but how he could justify the murders and go on to do it again. As with Nazi prison guards, Howell appears to have a split personality derived from a rigid binary moral code. When he was not torturing his helpless victims for 12-hour periods in the back of his 1984 Ford Econoline van, the infamous "Murder Mobile," it appears that he lived a day-to-day existence made up of normal activities: making money from a lawn care business, spending time with his then girlfriend, Dori Holcomb, and hanging out at bars to flirt with women that he had no intention of raping or killing. He once told me that he was a "good guy with a bad habit."

"Wow," I replied, "That's some bad habit, Bill."
The path that Howell took from McDonalds to His Garden.

The attached audio link includes excerpts of a phone call that I had with William Devin Howell on Monday. In it, he states that the women that he met at bars or had as friends were not in danger. In contrast, the drug-addicted prostitutes that he picked up in his van were in very grave peril. They belonged to his target group. Strangely, he could control his impulse to rape and kill based on his lawncare schedule the following day. If he had no lawns to mow in the morning, he was free to rape  his victims throughout the night and into the next day. When I challenge him with the fact that his victims were good people caught in a dark lifestyle based on drug addiction, he counters that "they were all good people at one time." However, he remains incapable of getting past categorizing them as worthless in their status as drug addicted prostitutes. That is what enabled him to look them straight in the eyes as he strangled them and watch as they took their last breaths. "There were just like objects," he states, "I got past that somehow. I used them for my pleasure and satisfaction and I killed them and justified it by saying the streets are cleaner...."

Sorry, this audio clip has been removed.

When I ask Howell why he chose to allow me to write a book about him and open up to me in the course of the last 2.5 years, he says that it is because, when I first wrote to him, I was "open and upfront and didn't bullshit" him. There is an authenticity to our author/subject relationship that transcends the dynamic of a reporter getting the scoop for an upcoming article or news show. As you can hear in the audio, there is a certain comfort and familiarity that we have with one another. He trusts me. No doubt, this will offend some listeners and will possibly come as an insult to the family members of the victims. I get that. Nonetheless, in my role as "good cop" I have been able to get inside of the mind of a killer. Were I to voice judgment or pose as an interrogator, Howell would have closed up to me a long time ago. I also believe that he would have never pled guilty to killing his six remaining victims without my presence in his life. So I make no apology for my demeanor in these conversations. It was a means to an end.

"Mind Hunter" John Douglas. My mentor from afar.
When I initially contacted Howell in July 2015, I had read the writings of John Douglas and other FBI profilers and I took that knowledge into all of my interactions with Howell. Douglas and others know what they are talking about. Talking to a serial killer and getting him to honestly discuss his crimes is like trying to get a frightened kitten out from under your bed. You can't scream at it or toss shoes in its direction. You need to speak gently and pose no threat. In his book, Anatomy of Motive, Douglas writes: "Not everyone was emotionally suited to carry out this kind of research. Though you'd have to steep yourself in the details of the hideous crimes, you couldn't show that you were appalled or come off as judgmental, otherwise you would get nothing. You had to be a good listener and a good actor- to know how to play the game."

I have been playing a game with Howell since starting this project. That is not to say that the feelings that I project in our conversations are disingenuous, but it is to say that I only convey a portion of my reactions when we discuss his crimes. The shock, the horror, the sorrow that I feel.... those emotions are all stuffed down, to be expressed in a private setting at a later date.

Which brings me to a problem that I have been having since Howell began confessing to me last September. I cannot always control when my suppressed feelings will rise to the surface, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. A client will tell me about his or her childhood history of sexual abuse, and I will tear up and leave the conference room for some water. A mother will hug her child and send him off on the school bus and simply observing the ordinary exchange causes me to shake with emotion. And yes, there are the panic attacks, which usually happen in the morning- the inability to swallow my coffee and the need to stop what I am doing and take some deep breaths. Couple this with my husband's recent recovery from Stage 4 cancer, and you have a very fragile woman on your hands who presents as a thick-skinned serial killer author to the outside world.

The important part of surviving tough times is to know when you need outside help. Last spring, I knew I needed that help, and so I hooked up with a therapist. "You need to finish this book!" she urges me in our monthly sessions. She is right. This shit has to stop. I am writing the final chapter next week and making final revisions in January, then it is off to the publisher. It will feel like a ton of bricks is lifted from my chest when that happens.

Sadly, the victims' family members don't have that luxury. While I can wipe my hands of this gruesome venture and be done with it once and for all, the family members will continue to live with the pain-filled residuals of Howell's evil acts for the remainder of their lives.

For those interested in pre-ordering my book "His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer,"about Connecticut's most prolific serial killer and the confessions that he exclusively gave me, go directly to this link, or the Amazon link below, to order it. OR This is the kindle version. The paperback version will also be available on July 10.
copyright 2017, Anne K. Howard, all rights reserved.
Post Script: Pictured above, Howell on Santa's lap, circa 1973. The Crime Watch Daily show is tentatively set to air on January 5, 2018. It is a four part show comprised of interviews with me, a victim's family member, audio recordings that I provided to the show, and an interview with a serial killer expert.    


  1. Oh Lord God! What a screwball!!!!!

  2. Thank you ANNE HOWARD for writing this post out. And for taking two or so years out of your life for the important research on these individuals. Anticipating the release of your book!!

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