Some killers are too cowardly to face up to the punishment for their crimes – or are, perhaps, too tortured by their evil acts to go on living. Here are the stories of six notorious killers who took their own lives while in prison or on remand.
1. Lawrence Phillips
In 2009, Phillips, a former American Football star and among the most famous killers in the US, was sentenced to 31 years in prison for driving his car into three teenagers and for assaulting an ex-girlfriend. Then, on 13 January 2016 – while facing a possible death sentence for the alleged murder of his former cellmate Damion Soward at Kern Valley State Prison – Phillips, 40, was found dead in his cell. It’s thought he committed suicide by hanging.
Tellingly, the month before Soward’s death, Phillips had written a letter to his mother saying he thought his anger might lead to his or someone else’s death. He wrote, ‘I feel myself very close to snapping. My anger grows daily as I have become fed up with prison. I feel my anger is near bursting and that will result in my death or the death of someone else.’
His instinct proved fatally reliable.
2. Richard Trenton Chase
Literally one of the most bloodthirsty of killers, Chase – dubbed ‘The Vampire of Sacramento’ – was convinced that his blood was being turned to powder by his imagined enemies, of which there were many. His only hope of survival, he convinced himself, was to keep up a constant intake of fresh blood. So he would kill and mutilate small animals and birds, then drink their blood.
But, before long, Chase’s bloodlust extended to humans. And, by the time he was finally caught in 1978, Chase had murdered, raped or sodomised and consumed the blood and body parts of four adults, two children and an unborn baby.
When detectives entered his stinking apartment, they found blood-stained rags and a blender containing bloody residue, as well as dishes with human brain and body parts in the fridge.
He was tried for second-degree murder and sentenced death by gas chamber, despite his defence team’s plea for leniency on grounds of insanity.
On 26 December 1980, while awaiting execution at San Quentin Penitentiary, Chase committed suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants that he’d been hoarding over a number of weeks, prescribed by the prison doctor.
3. Harold Shipman
One of the most prolific killers of all time, Shipman began work in 1970 at Pontefract General Infirmary, West Riding of Yorkshire, having graduated from Leeds School of Medicine. In 1975, he was caught forging prescriptions of the opioid analgesic pethidine for his own use. He underwent a period of drug rehabilitation, but resumed his career as a GP in 1977.
Then, in March 1998, Shipman came under suspicion after the local funeral director expressed concerns to the coroner for the South Manchester district over the number of Shipman’s patients who’d died under his care. Police investigated, but couldn’t find sufficient evidence to charge Shipman, and it wasn’t until his arrest on 7 September 1998 – following evidence that he’d forged the will of an elderly female patient who’d mysteriously died – that the full extent of his horrific crimes began to unfold.
On 31 January 2000, Shipman was found guilty of 15 murders, but an inquiry after his conviction confirmed that he had committed at least 218. He was given a life sentence with a recommended whole-life order, but was found hanged in his cell at Wakefield Prison on 13 January 2004, the day before his 58th birthday.
A verdict of suicide was recorded.
4. Fred West
Between 1967 and 1987, Frederick Walter Stephen West – first alone, but later with his second wife Rosemary West – tortured and raped numerous young women and girls they’d lured into their homes. They murdered at least 12 of their victims, some of whom were their own family members.
Many of the bodies were found in or around their homes at 25 Midland Road and 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, with some remains of their own daughter Heather recovered from under the patio at Cromwell Street.
The pair appeared before Gloucester magistrates on 30 June 1994, when Fred West was charged with 11 murders and his wife with 10. Fred West was re-arrested immediately afterwards on suspicion of murdering Ann McFall, whose body had been found on 7 June 1994. A few days later, on 3 July 1994, he was charged with her murder.
On New Year’s Day 1995, Fred West was found to have committed suicide by hanging in his cell at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham. He remains one of the most notorious sex attackers and murderers in British history.
On 22 November 1995, Rose West was found guilty of 10 murders and given a life sentence, with the recommendation that she should serve at least 25 years before being considered for parole. But, in 1997, home secretary Jack Straw extended her sentence to a whole-life tariff. She is currently 62 and serving her sentence at Low Newton jail in Durham.
5. José Luis Calva Zepeda
Zepeda was Mexican writer, serial killer and cannibal. After a disturbing childhood –his father died when Zepeda was two, his mother brought home men she’d force him to call ‘Dad’ and he was raped, aged 7, by his brother’s friend – he eventually married and had two children. However, his wife left him and took the kids to live in America, after which Zepeda fell into a deep depression. When his girlfriend disappeared, Zepeda came under suspicion of her murder, and he was found eating human meat seasoned with lemon. There was more human meat in his refrigerator and bones in a box of cereal.
In 2007, Zepeda was convicted of two murders and sentenced to 84 years in prison. On 11 December 2007, he was found hanging in his cell, apparently having killed himself with his own belt.
6. Philip Haynes Markoff
Markoff was a US student who committed armed robberies, one of which resulted in the murder of Julissa Brisman. He pleaded his innocence, but stood accused of first-degree murder, armed robbery and other charges.
Awaiting trial in Boston’s Nashua Street Jail, Markoff attempted suicide several times. Once was after his fiancee broke off their engagement. On August 15, 2010 – a year and a day after the date when he’d been originally due to marry – Markoff finally succeeded in taking his life in a gruesomely effective way. He fashioned a pen and a piece of metal into a rudimentary scalpel, then cut major arteries in his ankles, legs, and neck. To ensure there would be no chance of being resuscitated, he swallowed toilet paper, then tied a plastic bag over his head using gauze.