Published November 17, 2014
He's killed more people than the Son of Sam, but there are no made-for-TV movies about Alfred Gaynor.
The one-time handyman did not even pick up a macabre nickname as he attacked and strangled at least eight women in his hometown of Springfield in the 1990s, becoming one of his state's most prolific serial killers.
The scale of his killing spree only recently became clear when Gaynor, imprisoned on four murder convictions, confessed this fall to four other unsolved slayings in which he'd been a longtime suspect. Charges are possible in two more deaths for which he's confessed: a 20-year-old mother and her toddler daughter in 1996.
The deaths terrorized this western Massachusetts city, where Mace permit requests soared as the women's bodies were discovered in alleys, vehicles and their own homes between 1995 and 1998.
His new confessions came as part of a convoluted plea deal for his imprisoned nephew, who'd been convicted in another murder for which Gaynor, 44, now claims responsibility.
The families of the strangled women — including the victims' 16 children, now teens and adults — vacillate between relief to see him held accountable and anguish over learning details of the deaths.
"Some people are just evil through and through," said Janice Ermellini, whose 34-year-old daughter, Jill Ann, was killed in 1997 by Gaynor in an abandoned truck shortly after she moved to Springfield from Windsor Locks, Conn.
"When he finally confessed, I felt like a weight was removed from my shoulders. But that day in court when I heard the gruesome details ... it's different. There's no peace. It goes through my mind constantly," Ermellini said.
Gaynor remains relatively unknown beyond Springfield, where he met several of his victims in their mutual search for crack cocaine. Others were low-income single mothers, often acquaintances, whom he robbed for drug money.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said Gaynor may not have garnered as much notoriety as other serial killers because — rightly or wrongly — people might have viewed his murders as less random than, for example, Ted Bundy's rapes and killings of college students and young girls in the 1970s.
"When you have a case of a serial murderer like Bundy, who looks like he could be the guy at the next desk or the next house, that's intriguing and scary at the same time to people," Fox said. "Whereas if you have a serial killer whose behavior is consistent with the stereotype of a criminal or murderer, it's not so fascinating to them."
Gaynor was no stranger to police. The burly 6-footer worked occasional odd jobs in the 1990s, but mostly moved from one crack fix to the next, according to court testimony and files. He had also been tried and acquitted of a rape charge in 1997.
In the eight murders, his calling card was brutality: Authorities say several of the women were tightly bound, some had socks or other objects jammed in their throats, and the rapes involved violence that went beyond sexual gratification. In three cases, the women's bodies were found by their children.
Gaynor insisted for years that he was innocent, even after his first four murder convictions in 2000. It was only after the 2006 death of his 67-year-old mother, a woman described as his family's matriarch and one of his strongest supporters, that he admitted he was a rapist and killer.
He told police and prosecutors in a 2008 interview that he kept quiet until after her death because he "just couldn't destroy everything she believed in."
With eight convictions, Gaynor now joins the ranks of several more notorious U.S. serial killers, including New York's "Son of Sam," David Berkowitz (six convictions); executed Florida prostitute and killer Aileen Wuornos (six); and executed Connecticut serial rapist Michael Ross (eight).
And now, his victims' families await a final chapter: whether he'll be indicted based on his confession in two more 1996 deaths — 20-year-old Amy Smith and her 22-month-old toddler, Destiny, who was trapped for days without food or water in a sweltering apartment with the strangled woman's body.
Those are the deaths in which Paul Fickling, Gaynor's nephew, originally was convicted.
Prosecutors won't say whether charges are expected against Gaynor, though Hampden District Attorney William Bennett has said they expect "further action" on the case. They say Gaynor is not a suspect in any other murders.
Gaynor blames his actions on the crack cocaine he once told police was his "first and last love."
He says he killed his first victim in April 1995 when 45-year-old Vera Hallums let him sleep on her floor. He beat her with a kitchen pot and bound her with electrical cords. He said he had planned to rape her, but that she strangled first on the cords.
Four slayings followed in 1997, then three more in the first three months of 1998. In most cases, Gaynor stole cash and items to pawn for drugs: Mickey Mouse earrings from one woman, a few coins for bus fare from another.
By early 1998, many in the city were terrified. The police chief held community forums, a special task force was launched and the mayor promised unlimited overtime for detectives hunting the suspected serial killer.
Then, they caught a break when police investigating Joyce Dickerson-Peay's disappearance learned the name of the last person seen with her: Alfred Gaynor, whom they immediately placed under surveillance.
Ultimately, DNA linked Gaynor to Dickerson-Peay's death after her body was found, along with three other killings. Police didn't have enough physical evidence to connect him to the other four murders, though they always considered him their prime suspect.
Gaynor was so vilified in Springfield that his 2000 trial was moved an hour north to Berkshire County. One victim's adult son, who found his mother dead in her bed, was so distraught that he leaped over a courtroom divider at a 1998 hearing and beat the shackled Gaynor bloody with a chair before he was restrained.
Gaynor was convicted that year in the deaths of Dickerson-Peay, JoAnn Thomas, Loretta Daniels and Rosemary Downs. This fall, he received four additional life sentences after confessing in the unsolved murders of Hallums, Ermellini, Robin Atkins and Yvette Torres.
Massachusetts has no death penalty. Gaynor is serving his eight life sentences in a maximum-security prison, where he holds a menial job and, at one point, stirred controversy by trying to sell his artwork online.
"We really don't have any understanding of why he did it," said Oletha Wells, one of Hallums' four children, said of her mother's murder. "This is not nowhere near closure, nowhere near closure at all."
Gaynor has claimed he wants to give answers to the women's families, saying recently in court: "That's all I have left to give, is the truth. Without my truth, they have nothing."
But his confessions also helped Fickling, who'd been convicted in the deaths of Smith and her daughter. Fickling, whose grandmother was Gaynor's mother, always maintained his innocence.
After Gaynor's mother died, Gaynor said in a sworn affidavit that he killed Smith himself for $79 in food stamps, but did not want his mother to know he was responsible for the deaths and for her grandson's incarceration.
Fickling recently won a new trial based largely on Gaynor's confession. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter through a deal in which Gaynor confessed to those deaths and the other four unsolved killings.
For Fickling, accepting the plea meant a sentence of 19 to 20 years in prison, minus the 14 he already has served — a less risky option than going to trial and facing a possible life sentence if convicted.
Gaynor's attorney says Gaynor wanted to participate in Fickling's plea deal to finally come clean about his role in all of the unsolved deaths.
For several families, the new confessions provided no comfort.
"We live with her death every day," Jose Torres said of his sister, Yvette, whose body was discovered on a bathroom floor by her 11-year-old son. "The pain is still there and at some times, it's unbearable."