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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Serial Murder, He Wrote

Amid the small talk in their letters, a volunteer investigator coaxes a killer to reveal clues to some of the 48 slayings he says he committed.

August 10, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

Almost two decades after his wife disappeared, Sperry said, he still had the missing-person's report. He felt vindicated. He reunited with his daughter, now 19, and the two flew to Colorado Springs. They appeared at a news conference late last month, hours after watching Browne plead guilty to killing Rocio Sperry. Browne was sentenced to a second life term. Then the Sperrys and the Sheriff's Office stood before the media and unveiled the stunning tabulation of death that Browne claimed.

Authorities released copies of the "murder map," as well as pictures of the victims in the seven killings the Sheriff's Office have definitively linked to Browne.

"He could be exaggerating," Sheriff Terry Maketa said of Browne's claimed body count. But, for the time being, the department was taking him at his word. Hess said the agency had enough detail to possibly confirm as many as 20 more killings.

Towns across the nine states are looking at decades-old homicides. Some have been unable to match unsolved cases to Browne's vague descriptions. For example, Browne claimed to have used a Ruger pistol to fatally shoot a couple camping on a beach north of San Francisco in 1986. California officials confirmed Browne had been stopped driving with a Ruger at that time, but they have yet to find an unsolved killing matching his story. The bodies, authorities note, could have washed away.

Hess' colleagues are amazed at what the retiree was able to accomplish. "He'd be the person who'd try to get the Viet Cong to come over to our side -- and that's what he did with Robert Browne," said Smit. "He got him to come over to our side."

Smit, Fischer and Hess say they are trying to use the tactics that proved successful with Browne to get other incarcerated criminals to admit other, long-unsolved crimes. Hess, now accompanied by Nohr, continues to visit Browne. The two brought the killer a card on his birthday last Halloween, when he turned 53. They hope to get more details on his other slayings.

The three have an unusually warm relationship, Hess said. The key to dealing with Browne, he said, was the willingness to treat him as a human being: "It was one of the things he missed. Communicating with someone from the outside world."

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