ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – He was called “The Street Walker Strangler” and the “Videotape Killer.” Investigators linked him to the murders of 12 sex workers in the St. Louis area. However, he claimed to have killed far more.
For years, someone targeted those on the fringes of society, committing depraved acts against Black women addicted to drugs and desperate for money. His victims frequented an area called “The Stroll,” a section of N. Broadway in the Baden neighborhood.
The Street Walker Strangler would lure these women back to his home with money and drugs only to bind and kill them before discarding their bodies like trash along St. Louis metro area roadways. Between July 2000 and May 2002, authorities in several jurisdictions found the remains of several women connected to him.
The FBI was brought in to assist in the investigation when local authorities realized they had a serial killer on their hands.
- July 31, 2000: Mary Shields, 61; found in East St. Louis, Ill.
- March 24, 2001: Cassandra F. Walker, 19; found in Washington Park, Ill.
- April 1, 2000: Alysa Greenwade, 34; found in Washington Park, Ill.
- May 15, 2001: Teresa Wilson, 36; found in West Alton, Mo.
- May 30, 2001: Betty James, 46; found in St. Louis
- June 29, 2001: Verona Thompson, 36; found in West Alton, Mo.
- Aug. 25, 2001: Yvonne Crues, 50; found in East St. Louis, Ill.
- Oct. 8, 2001: Brenda Beasley, 33; found in East St. Louis, Ill.
- Jan. 30, 2002: Unidentified victim found near Mascoutah, Ill.
- March 11, 2002: Unidentified victim found near Highland, Ill.
- March 28, 2002: Unidentified victim found in Columbia, Ill.
- May 25, 2002: Unidentified victim found in West Alton, Mo.
DNA from an unidentified assailant was found on the bodies of Crues and Beasley. Police also made note of two different sets of tire tracks at the locations of James’ and Greenwade’s bodies. A tire mark was left on James’ leg — a Goodrich Advantage tire. A track located near Greenwade’s body was that of a Bridgestone Potenza.
TV and print reporters referred to the killer as the Street Walker Strangler.
In an effort to shed light on one of the victims and keep public interest in the investigation, reporter Bill Smith of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an article about victim Teresa Wilson and her struggles in life before her tragic end. The article ran in the May 19, 2002 edition of the paper. Less than a week later, Smith received a letter at his desk. While it’s not unusual for media members to receive letters or correspondence, this letter had an odd return address on the envelope – I Thralldom, 325/331 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012. The letter was postmarked in St. Louis, meaning it had been mailed locally.
The zip code 10012 covers parts of Manhattan’s Soho, Noho, Nolita, and Greenwich Village neighborhoods. But the “I Thralldom” location is fictitious; so why would someone use that word for a location? Merriam-Webster defines thralldom as “the state of being an enslaved person.” It was also the name of a bondage website.
The letter had been typed on a word processor using what seemed to be the Lucida Handwriting font with red print and little in the way of punctuation. At first, Smith thought somebody was pranking him. He soon realized the letter was no joke and that a person claiming to be the Street Walker Strangler was reaching out to him.
Dear Bill, nice sob story about Teresa Wilson. Write one about greenwade write a good one and I’ll tell you where many others are to prove im real here’s directions to number seventeen search in a fifty yard radius from the X put the story in the Sunday paper like the last.Letter to Bill Smith from the Street Walker Stranger
The letter came with a map printed on the same type of paper. Its edges had been trimmed to remove the website where it came from. The map had a small X drawn on it, just yards away from the St. Charles Street on/off-ramp located along southbound Highway 67 in West Alton, Missouri.
Bill Smith turned the letter and map over to authorities. When police searched the area, they found the skeletal remains of an unidentified woman. Investigators could not find any prints or traces of DNA on the map and letter. They seemed to have struck a dead end yet again.
A cybercrimes investigator with the Illinois State Police made a breakthrough in the case. He spent hours searching every online and CD-based service offering interactive maps to the general public. He ultimately discovered the map sent by the killer had been printed off the travel website Expedia.com. At the time, Expedia was using Microsoft as its map provider.
As reported on Forensic Files, the maps were proprietary, meaning Expedia was the only place offering that map. Federal investigators subpoenaed Expedia and Microsoft to find out everyone who had used their site to search that particular area of West Alton, Missouri between the time Bill Smith’s article had been published (May 19) and the postmark on the envelope (May 21).
Expedia and Microsoft traced the map to a single IP address. One computer had downloaded that map on the evening of May 20. That IP address was located on the service provider UUNET. When investigators contacted UUNET, they were directed to a residence in the 1000 block of Ford Drive in Ferguson, Missouri. Reports indicated an older woman owned the home. The home was placed on 24-hour surveillance.
On the morning of Friday, June 7, Det. Sgt. Tim Sachs of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department accompanied FBI agents and other law enforcement to the home on Ford Drive to speak with the person or persons living there. Maury Travis answered the door. A woman was with him. He was not in a good mood.
“He was mad. He was in a pair of boxer shorts. The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘It’s 7 o’clock in the morning,'” Det. Sgt. Sachs said on Forensic Files. “You’re right, it’s 7 o’clock in the morning. And we’re serving a federal search warrant. ‘Okay. Why are you here?’ Our response was you know why we’re here. He dropped his head and he said, ‘Yeah, I know why you’re here.'”
The ground floor of the home was tidy and well-kept. The woman, identified as Travis’ girlfriend, told police she had never been in the basement.
Downstairs, investigators uncovered a house of torture. They found bloodstains on the walls and the ceiling, and in the carpet and furniture as well. They discovered various women’s items like shoes, underwear, and wigs, along with a stun gun. The computer in question is also in the basement. Police break into a file cabinet in the basement and find a knapsack containing tape, belts, rope, and gloves.
While police searched the home and basement, the FBI agents and other investigators on the case questioned Travis in his living room for the next two hours. They learned his mother had owned the home and was letting him stay there. Authorities later said Travis would not admit or deny anything. Instead, he seemed more interested in how they arrived at his doorstep.
Travis became irate when detectives told him the computer-printed map had given him away. Shortly thereafter, police took Travis outside and put him in a car. He agreed to go downtown with the police for further questioning. Computer forensic experts went inside the home to examine Travis’ computer. They discovered drafts of the letter sent to reporter Bill Smith.
Once at police headquarters, Maury Travis scoffed at the notion that these slain sex workers were victims. Det. Sgt. Sachs put pictures of the women on a table in an interrogation room and asked Travis if he knows any of them. Travis said no. Minutes later, Travis asked to look at the photos of the dead women.
Sachs informed Travis that they never told him these women had been murdered. Travis would go quiet. He then shocked investigators by offering to lead them to another body in East St. Louis.
However, while approaching the Poplar Street Bridge on Interstate 64, Travis changed his mind and told police to take him back to jail. However, he still hadn’t confessed to any crime.
Back in custody, a detective asked Travis if he wanted anything to eat or drink. Travis asked for a soda and the detective obliged. After Travis finished his drink, he tossed the can away. The can was later collected and swabbed for DNA evidence.
The St. Louis Police crime lab eventually confirmed the DNA from the can matched the DNA evidence taken from the bodies of Crues and Beasley. Meanwhile, the blood found in Travis’ basement—over a thousand samples in all—matched at least six of the known victims.
The video tapes
Back at Maury Travis’ residence, investigators found several videotapes in the basement. What’s on those tapes is so horrific and disturbing, then-St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa ordered every detective who watched the tapes to undergo psychological therapy and counseling.
One of the tapes, labeled “Your Wedding Day,” shows Travis torturing, abusing, raping different women. A section of the tape shows he filmed himself killing Cassandra Walker. In the video, Walker is chained to a wooden support beam in the basement, her hands and legs restrained behind her. Travis then wraps a belt around Walker’s neck and strangles her.
With Walker dead on his basement floor, Travis is heard saying, “This is first kill. Number one. First kill was 19 years old. Name? I don’t know. I don’t give a —-. …First kill was nice.”
Travis’ psychological and physical torment also included gagging his victims and wrapping masking tape around their faces. He ridiculed one victim for getting into a car with a stranger while torturing her.
“You sorry?” Travis asks one woman.
“You sorry about what?” he asks again.
“Everything,” the woman says.
“For jumping in a car with a — you don’t even know? Hm? You sorry?”
“Yes,” she says again.
When the woman says she’s raising a child with the help of her parents, Travis cuts her off.
“You ain’t raising —, —! You’re over here on your back smoking crack,” he says.
The horrors on the tapes are as graphic as they are numerous.
According to St. Louis Police Capt. Harry Hegger, investigators also found a crude diagram in Travis’ home showing plans for a basement extension.
“He was going to build two cells in there where he could chain the women. He was planning for the air vents out the basement,” Hegger said to FOX 2. “And since there would be no bathroom facilities, he made a list of things that he needed and one was (adult diapers) so he could keep these women captive for some time.”
Travis was taken to St. Louis County Jail and placed on a 24-hour suicide watch while authorities in surrounding jurisdictions weighed their options for criminal charges. He was held on federal kidnapping charges for the time being, against just two victims – Betty James and Alysa Greenwade. Investigators were able to match the tire tracks located on James’ leg and near Greenwade’s body to Travis’ two vehicles.
As detectives assembled a timeline for the murders of the suspected Street Walker Strangler, they realized a brief prison stint in late 2001 coincided with a pause in the killings. Meanwhile, Maury Travis was plotting to take one more life – his own.
On the evening of Monday, June 10, guards at St. Louis County Jail found Travis hanging from a makeshift noose in his cell. He was 36.
Travis had been on round-the-clock observation; guards were scheduled to check on him every 15 minutes. However, guards failed to check on him for two consecutive observation periods. That gave Travis enough time to tear a strip from his bedsheet, thread it through an air vent above the toilet, and make a noose. He even managed to restrain his own hands behind his back to keep him from instinctively attempting to free himself.
Travis left a suicide note addressed to his mother.
I’m sorry for the pain this caused you and the family. My death seems to be the only way out and a fast end to all the publicity. You were the best mother a man can have. But I’ve been sick for a long time (sick in the head) since I was about 14. I don’t know why. I was just sick. I’ve never felt normal or happy at any time in my life. I think about the life I lead and what’s ahead of me. This seems the best solution for all involved, especially me because I won’t spend the rest of my life locked up or worse let them kill me with a needle. Tell grandma, Marina, James and everybody I loved them dearly. I love you the most, but you know that.
Forever your son, Toby TravisSuicide note written by Maury Travis
His note lacked two things: an admission of guilt and remorse.
Investigators who’ve studied the note believe a life-changing event in Maury Travis’ past drove him to become a cold-blooded killer. But in interviews with people who knew Travis, detectives found no clues about his childhood or upbringing that would have led to this; no incidents of abuse as a child or other trauma.
“He had a lot of disdain for prostitution. He had a lot of disdain for women who didn’t supervise their children properly,” Mokwa said. “And got a lot of self-esteem out of humiliating, degrading, and murdering people.”
Travis lived as an enigma. In death, his motives remain forever shrouded. Local police eventually turned a report over to federal authorities so it could be used for training cadets at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Maury Travis was never formally charged for any of the murders. And while police located the bodies or remains of 12 women, Travis claimed to have killed 17. By taking his own life, Travis may have taken with him any hope of finding the remains of those five other victims.
“I was devastated. It was terrible. It was the worst thing that could happen in the investigation – was for (Travis) to kill himself,” Det. Sgt. Sachs told Cold Case Files.
“We had a great case. That wouldn’t have been a problem, taking this to trial and getting a conviction. But all the information we could have gleaned from him, not only about his crimes but looking into the mind of what makes people do things like this. We had a million questions. A million and one questions. And (Travis) took every answer with him.”