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Murderous "hobby' buys little fame

Published Mar. 24, 1998
Updated Sep. 12, 2005

In the end, even as a serial killer, Gerald Stano wound up a loser.

If you believed Stano, who was executed Monday for one of the 41 murders of girls and women he admitted committing in the late 1970s and 1980, he was one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history.

But, with the exception of his victims' families and some law enforcement agencies, nobody really noticed.

When people start recalling serial murderers, they talk about John Wayne Gacy and Aileen Wuornos and Charlie Starkweather, each of whom killed far fewer persons than Stano. They talk about Charlie Manson, Juan Corona, Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy.

But they almost never mention Gerald Stano.

Why?

Not everybody believed all of Stano's confessions. And, except for being a psychopathic killer, there was nothing remarkable about him. He was all but invisible, which probably made his victims more accessible to him.

For eight years, he drove his car up and down I-4 between Tampa and Daytona Beach, looking for women whose cars broke down or hitchhikers or hookers who would get into his car. He also claimed to have murdered women in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He would offer a woman a ride, solicit sex and then either stab or strangle her, dumping her body in a remote area.

I got involved in the Stano case in 1982 because Stano confessed to three murders of women whose bodies had been found in Pasco: a topless dancer named Joan Gail Foster, a Tampa motel clerk named Emily Grieve and a Tampa cocktail waitress named Diana Valleck.

He was never charged in those cases, but Pasco detectives told me he not only took them to the locations where the bodies had been dumped but also, in the Foster case, corrected detectives on details they had forgotten.

Stano's confessor was then Daytona Beach police Sgt. Paul Crow, who later became police chief and then public safety director in that city, but Stano rapidly became the darling of many police agencies as he spewed out details of murder after murder.

Agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who drove Stano around in a motor home while he pointed out body dumping sites, told me they had to switch off driving duties because they could stand hearing him only for brief periods. He would not shut up about his "hobby" of killing women.

But Crow was writing a book about his investigation, and some people couldn't help noting that the book could only get better with each passing confession.

I have heard since then that Crow has angrily denied the book project. He is not being truthful about that. I have him on tape discussing it and he introduced me to the freelance writer he had hired to write it.

There are a few things I will never forget about the Stano case. We interviewed dozens of victims' family members, and one's diatribe was so gut-wrenching that neither I nor the other reporters on the project could listen to the tape without choking up.

I will never forget the sad story of Donna Hensely, the prostitute who survived a Stano attack and turned him in. He had cut her with four different implements, but it was only when he came at her with a bottle of acid and she realized that acid burns would make her no longer able to turn $10 tricks that she ran screaming into the streets.

I had never before imagined a person with that little self-esteem. Before I could interview her, she had tried to kill herself in jail by burning herself.

At least one of Stano's cases was closed when somebody else was convicted of the crime, and he may not have committed all of the murders he claimed, but I don't doubt that he committed some of them, and if he was innocent, he was given 16 years to say so.

I'll never forget the looks on the faces of the spouses, parents and children of the women and girls he bragged about having murdered.

Paul Crow told me one thing I believed. He said Stano had an unnatural fear of the electric chair. He said that Stano had nightmares about it and that it haunted his every waking minute.

Good.