‘They all belong to you’
A Texas Ranger has spent years gaining the trust of a prolific serial killer, said journalist Del Quentin Wilber in the Los Angeles Times. The goal: To find and identify his 93 victims.
Texas Ranger James Holland each day enters his windowless, cricket-infested office, flips on fluorescent lights, and is confronted by spectral visages staring back at him. Holland lined the walls with dozens of haunting portraits of women, rendered from memory by their killer. The women appear in vibrant colors, with unique features—a bob haircut, lush lips, narrow nose, mournful eyes. Some pictures carry inscriptions: “Tampa Dope Girl,” “New Orleans Sarah Left in Field 1973 April,” “Akron Left in Woods 1990.” Recently, the portraits have taken on a more haunting purpose, reminders that Holland is running out of time to put names to more of their faces.
He’s already found justice for some. Where a string of detectives had failed to crack Samuel Little, a pugilistic California prison inmate serving a life sentence for three brutal homicides in Los Angeles, the soft-spoken Holland managed to unlock a killer’s darkest secrets. In 650 hours of interviews over 16 months, Little confided to the detective that he had strangled 93 women and transgender women during a 40-year nomadic rampage from Florida to California, a tally that ranks him as the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.
Holland, who wears a Stetson and cowboy boots and carries an ivory-handled .45-caliber pistol, concedes their talks weren’t so much interrogations as meandering conversations over grits, Dr. Pepper, and Braum’s milkshakes. He has said whatever was required to keep Little talking.
“You are giving me a heart attack today,” Holland told Little last September when the killer seemed likely to quit confessing. “I still love you, brother.”
“Thank you, Jimmy.”
“Sammy, brother, for the record, me and you have been through hell over the last five and a half months.”
“We ain’t giving up, Jimmy.”
Then, as he often does, Holland played to Little’s ego, letting him think he was the one in control. “I know you are a powerful man,” Holland said, “a powerful man in the mind.”
“If you think so,” Little said, laughing.
Blue-eyed and square-jawed, with the tall and lean body of the college football player he once was, Holland grew up in suburban Chicago. In 1995, he became a state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Twelve years later, he joined the Texas Rangers, a storied agency of about 130 detectives.
Holland first heard about Little in December 2017 while he was teaching interrogation techniques at a police conference in Tampa and was approached by a Florida detective who wanted tips on how to interrogate Little, whom he suspected in one of his cases. Little was convicted in 2014 of strangling three women in Los Angeles in the 1980s and sentenced to life in prison. L.A. officials speculated that Little might have killed as many as 40 people, and police nationwide were searching for his potential victims. With the blessing of the Florida detective, whose case would turn out not to be connected to Little, Holland began digging into the killer.
Holland sought help from analysts at the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. They said that Little, whose real name was Samuel McDowell, had a lengthy criminal record and had spent significant time in Texas. They’d found 12 potential victims there. One, in particular, seemed to have the most potential: a prostitute slain in 1994 in Odessa. Like Little’s L.A. victims, she had been strangled and left partially clothed. Police records showed Little had been in the area around the time of the killing.
There is a maxim about serial killers—they only talk when they are ready. Perhaps Little was ready, thought Holland. Little had run out of appeals and was battling a heart problem and diabetes. Immutable life sentences and one’s mortality are among the strongest of motivations to confess.
In May 2018, Holland and FBI analysts Christie Palazzolo and Angela Williamson flew to California. They first met with L.A. homicide detectives, who impressed Holland with their thorough work on the investigation. The detectives said that Little despised them, and Holland was free to use that to his advantage. The detectives also said that Little hated being called a rapist, though his semen was found on the clothing of two victims and prosecutors labeled him a sexual predator. That was something he might be able to work with.
At 10:21 a.m. on May 17, with the FBI analysts listening in from another room at the prison in Lancaster, Little was rolled in a wheelchair into a cinder-block office and took a seat across a table from Holland. With a gray beanie covering his bald head, Little had a pockmarked face and deep-set eyes. He looked worn out, though he maintained the outlines of the street boxer he once was. One feature immediately drew Holland’s focus: Little’s hands, his weapons, were the size of shovels.
Holland introduced himself. Little immediately demanded to know what the detective wanted. “Just to visit for a little bit,” Holland said. Little shook his head, saying he would never help law enforcement because he had been convicted “on lies and fake evidence.” Holland said he didn’t think Little was a rapist, which seemed to please the killer. Trying to build rapport, Holland said he had heard Little was an artist (a 1976 newspaper story described him painting a mural in jail) and a boxer. Holland brought up college football. But Little just wanted to rag on L.A. police.
Then, a connection. What, Holland asked, should he call him? Most people called him Sam, Little said, but his mother and sister had called him “Sammy.” Holland said he was James to most people, but his mother called him “Jimmy.” Soon they were Sammy and Jimmy.
Holland asked about Little’s travels, wondering whether he had been to Midland and Odessa, neighboring cities in west Texas. Little said he had never visited Midland, but he had been to Odessa. The ranger felt a jolt. Little could have denied having been to west Texas. Holland sensed he was on the right path.
Little said that if he told Holland everything he had done, he would get the death penalty. On the fly, Holland promised to bring assurances from prosecutors that Little would not get a lethal injection if he spoke truthfully about Texas homicides. Holland also promised that if Little was honest, and he could verify his stories, he would tell the world “that Samuel Little is not a rapist.”
“Samuel Little is not a murderer. I will say that too,” Holland said. “Has Samuel Little killed people? Yeah, come on, we both know that. The question is, does Samuel Little want to talk about those killings and does he want to define what really happened?” Little studied the ranger. “Hookers is all you are going to find,” he said, finally. Holland could tell the killer was testing him. Holland shrugged. “Do you see me tearing up?”
Little paused and then admitted he had killed three women in Texas, including a prostitute in Odessa. He had strangled her and left her in a vacant lot. It all matched the reports of the slaying in a 4-inch-thick dossier on the desk in front of Holland. Little provided the outlines of two other stranglings in Texas (neither on the list of 12 potential homicides). The killer blew Holland’s mind when he said he had stopped counting his homicides at 84. He said he was sure there were more.
When the interview was over 2½ hours later, and Little was wheeled out of the room. Holland was elated but apprehensive; he knew how much work lay ahead.
Holland persuaded the Texas prosecutor to send him the letter pledging not to seek the death penalty. He handed it to Little the next morning. The killer smiled. He insisted that Holland take a photograph of him holding the letter.
Over the next four hours, Little confessed to 17 additional slayings. He said his victims were almost all prostitutes, drug addicts, or those he didn’t think would be missed.
Pressed about his life story, Little traced the urge to kill to his youth. He said he got his first erection in kindergarten when he watched his teacher touch her neck. Later in grade school, he dreamed of killing a girl who stroked her neck while teasing him. At 15, he was flipping through a true crime magazine when he came across a photo spread depicting a strangled 18-year-old. He pinned it to his wall. “She had a beautiful neck.” Little said he had been married once and had two longtime girlfriends who had followed him on his travels. He never killed anyone he loved and had made a conscious effort not to look at their necks.
“Did you have any favorite victims?” Holland asked. “They are all my favorites,” Little replied. “They all belong to you.”
Over the next few months in Texas and later in California, the detective tried to pry loose Little’s decades-old memories. It wasn’t easy. Little struggled to recall full names and wasn’t always sure in what town or county he had tossed a body. He was terrible at dates, often placing murders in the wrong decade. Holland came to call this the “time vortex.”
The ranger found cues to get Little on track. The best one was cars. Little was a car nut and could recall the make, model, engine size, and horsepower of all his vehicles, and when he had purchased them. Little knew he had killed a woman in Las Vegas in 1993 because he was driving a yellow 1978 Cadillac Eldorado that he had purchased that year. He was driving the same car when he strangled a woman in Perry, Fla.; as he squeezed her neck, “she started pointing up to the sky,” he said, re-enacting the woman’s final motion.
Holland could tell when those confessions were coming—Little crooked his neck, squinted his eyes, and began stroking his cheeks, as he recalled a woman’s face, or a murder scene or dump site.
The ranger asked if Little would draw portraits of his victims. Little agreed, and Holland set up a studio in his cell. The portraits—in watercolor, acrylics, and chalk—could be surprisingly accurate. Earlier this year, the FBI posted some of them on its website and got a tip that helped crack a case in New Orleans.
Though Little has begun to show some remorse, the serial killer seemed gleeful in recounting his slayings. He recalled how hard it had been to strangle a woman in Arkansas. She was slippery from sweat and squirmed and screamed as he tightened his grip on her neck. “She is fighting for her life,” he said, chuckling. “And I’m fighting for my pleasure.” As always, Holland passed no judgment and quickly asked the only question that matters to him: “What did you do with her?”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Used with permission. ■