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How America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer Almost Got Away With Murder


H.H. Holmes used to be considered America’s most prolific serial killer. He is said to have murdered 230 victims during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, is suspected of killing more than 90 women between 1982 and the early ‘90s. Yet both are dwarfed by a killer whose victims began disappearing in the 1980s.

For years, his murders went largely unnoticed. Then, in 2010, the Philadelphia police, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Federal Bureau of Investigation raided his place of business. They were looking for evidence of an illegal drug operation. What they found was an office filled with corpses—more than 30 of them. They also found evidence of hundreds, perhaps thousands, more.

For instance, an industrial-strength garbage disposal had been completely worn out. Evidently it was used to grind up bodies for disposal into the Philadelphia sewer system. A waste-disposal company had unknowingly hauled off countless more for incineration. Still others had been taken to the killer’s vacation home and used as bait in his crab cages.

The principle of corpus delicti requires that prosecutors have evidence of a body to prove murder. Because of this killer’s effective disposal of remains, however, we will never really know the final count. The sheer volume of his crimes was too physically taxing to perform alone. So he hired assistants. They helped bring victims into the office and dispose of the evidence.

Some even performed murders on his behalf, but they were not prosecuted. Eyewitnesses could testify to what they had done, but proving intent would be more difficult. The serial killer had trained girls as young as 15 years old in his own private medical school. There he taught as a legitimate medical procedure what anyone else would have recognized as murder in cold blood.

The name of America’s most prolific serial killer is Kermit Gosnell. He avoided the death penalty by waiving his right to appeal, and is serving life without parole. His story is told in the movie, “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.” It opens nationwide this Friday, October 12.

It is a riveting story on several levels. Perhaps uppermost is the question: how was he able to perform so many murders without getting caught? He had numerous witnesses, with evidence literally piled up in the hallways, stored in freezers and refrigerators. How could all of this go unnoticed for decades?

Answer: he was hiding his murders in plain sight. This was possible because they took place in an abortion facility, giving him an almost impenetrable layer of protection. Nobody wants to scrutinize abortion facilities or think too carefully about them. They have become sacrosanct, so that their very mention freezes us in place.

Consider your reaction to the paragraph above. If you’re like most, the appearance of the word “abortion” made you hesitate to consider whether you wanted to continue reading. Until it was mentioned, you might have suspected who I was talking about, but it was less emotionally conflicting.

Words do powerful things to us, but none greater than this one. It does powerful things to politicians, too. Because of the “A-word,” Philadelphia authorities were reluctant—unreasonably reluctant—to inspect Gosnell’s office or follow up on numerous complaints. While nail salons receive health department inspections every year, Gosnell’s facility had not been inspected by Pennsylvania’s Department of Health for more than 17 years—not once.

This is a bipartisan problem. It’s not only Democrat politicians who will move heaven and earth to block abortion-reporting laws, pro-life judges, and health standards for abortion facilities. Republican politicians also work to frustrate common-sense legislation and minimal enforcement of the laws. Most are afraid that if they look too closely at abortion practices, powerful lobbyists will destroy their political ambitions.

In Gosnell’s case, it was a Republican governor, Tom Ridge (later named George W. Bush’s first secretary of Homeland Security) who prevented discovery of the murders. Grand jury testimony alleged that his office instructed the Pennsylvania Department of Health not to inspect Gosnell’s facility unless it received a complaint. This permitted the practices and conditions of the facility on Lancaster Street to be effectively unaccountable.

Opening statements in Gosnell’s trial were held on March 18, 2013. He was charged with more than 200 counts of violating Pennsylvania’s law requiring a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, and 24 counts of illegal abortions after the child’s viability outside the womb. However, none of these illegal abortions counted toward his title as America’s biggest serial killer. He was convicted of multiple murders because of his practice of having his nurses deliver alive-and-healthy babies later killed either directly or by neglect.

His defenders, both in the courtroom and in the press, sought to portray him as merely a sloppy practitioner of partial-birth abortion. That procedure kills the baby after it is mostly, but not quite completely, delivered from its mother. Gosnell couldn’t be bothered to observe that fine distinction. After all, if it is legal to kill a baby a few centimeters and a few seconds before birth, what magically makes it illegal a few feet and a few minutes after birth?

This defense casts a spotlight on a plainly indefensible idea: that an infant’s passage through space and time bestows humanity and legal protection. This ridiculous logic inevitably blurs all human decency. Those who are unable to see that a fetus is a baby have no reason to see a baby as a murder victim, for the very same reason.

America’s press corps went into vapor-lock. Gosnell’s actual practice was too sick to support. But there was no logical way to distinguish his practice from what they were already supporting. So they just didn’t show up.

The most sensational trial of a serial killer in the history of America had virtually no reporters in the court room. The biggest crime since 1893 could not be covered because the reporters could not say why it was wrong.

One of those who noticed was Mollie Ziegler Hemingway. At the time she was a reporter for Nearly three weeks into Gosnell’s trial, there had yet to be any mainstream media coverage. So, on April 7, she published a story about the blackout. She followed up with six more, published between April 10 and April 16.

Meanwhile, J.D. Mullane, a reporter for Calkins Media, snapped a picture of rows of empty seats that had been reserved for the press. The photo went viral, prompting Kirsten Powers of USA Today to break the media silence. She published a column subtitled: “We’ve forgotten what belongs on Page One.”

Once the dam broke, all the major networks and newspapers dispatched reporters to Philadelphia to cover the trial. This had a significant effect both on the strength of the prosecution and on American public opinion.

In the new Gosnell movie, Hemingway and Mullane’s roles are woven together into a fictional character named Mollie Mullaney. In many ways she is the heroine of the story, and a reminder of the vital need for an unflinching press corps. Only by forcing us to face our hidden inhumanities can the press help us regain humanity.

Correction: This article previously used “habeas corpus” in place of “corpus delicti.”