I sat down with Maureen Callahan’s new true-crime book, American Predator, one night at about 11. The book was getting a lot of buzz, and I wanted to take a quick look to help me decide whether to put it in my review queue.
I jumped when my sleepy dog put his head on my knee. It was almost 1 a.m., and I had read 124 pages without stirring from my chair.
American Predator hooked me first with the disturbing story of the abduction of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig from a coffee kiosk in Anchorage, Alaska, one snowy night in February 2012. At first, police were slow to act, believing the teen had run away after a fight with her boyfriend. Then they got the surveillance video from the shop.
It showed a tall figure, face obscured by a hoodie. The person ordered coffee, then pulled a gun, bound Samantha’s hands, vaulted “like a cheetah” through the kiosk window and walked her away into the dark.
Three weeks after she disappeared, her boyfriend got a text from her missing phone that led investigators to a note demanding ransom, along with photos of Samantha. Now it was a kidnapping, a federal crime, and the FBI joined the Anchorage Police Department in the hunt.
None of them were prepared for what they found.
Use of her stolen ATM card led them to Texas, where they arrested Israel Keyes, a construction worker in his early 30s. He lived in Anchorage with his young daughter and girlfriend; he was in Texas for a family wedding. He had no criminal record, no connection to Samantha. When they searched his rental car, they found a hoodie and mask, a handgun — and Samantha’s driver’s license.
The core of the book is Callahan’s vivid recounting of the interrogation of Keyes once he’s returned to Anchorage. Members of the city’s police department jockey for position on the case, which is now drawing national attention, with the FBI team. Then all of them are bigfooted by the U.S. attorney, whose insistence on leading the questioning is a huge conflict of interest.
But skilled police and FBI interrogators manage to keep some control over the process. Now that he has been captured, Keyes wants to talk. And he has a lot to talk about — all of it the stuff of nightmares.
One of 10 children of parents who followed an assortment of white supremacist and fringe religious cults, Keyes was home-birthed, home-schooled and had little contact with the outside world as a boy. He was bright, resourceful, good at building or fixing anything, attentive to his younger siblings.
He also displayed, from childhood, a tendency toward such crimes as torturing animals, setting fires, committing burglaries and stealing and selling guns.
Callahan writes, “And somehow, in 1998, even without a birth certificate or a Social Security number, he talked his way into the U.S. Army.” There he was praised by superiors, called a “supersoldier” and easily passed the grueling training for Army Rangers. Even to the investigators, some parts of his military career remained obscure.
The interrogations are chilling, first as Keyes gradually reveals the horrific details of Samantha’s fate, then as it becomes clear she was far from his first victim — and might not have been his last, even though he was arrested a month after her disappearance.
Not only was Keyes a serial killer, one who might have been killing — men, women, children — for half his life. He was unique even among that vanishingly small group. Callahan writes, “The Bureau’s top criminal profilers were at a loss. The only thing they could tell the team was that Keyes was one of the most terrifying subjects they had ever encountered. There was no precedent for a serial killer with this MO: no victim type; no fixed location for hunting, killing, and burying; putting thousands of miles between himself and his victims; caches (of weapons and other tools) buried all over the United States. He avoided detection through travel.”
As he gleefully manipulates his interrogators, Keyes also opens up about his methods: flying to other states to find random victims, then transporting their bodies to yet another state for disposal; astonishingly meticulous preparation to avoid leaving DNA and other evidence; maintaining an apparently normal family and work life in between.
“I’m two different people,” he tells them.
Callahan has written for Vanity Fair, New York magazine and the New York Post, and she published two earlier books, one about Lady Gaga (Poker Face), another about ’90s fashion icons (Champagne Supernovas).
American Predator is a major shift in subject. It’s also part of the red-hot trend toward true-crime narratives, in podcasts, on television and in books. When you think about it, Callahan’s past reporting about celebrity culture isn’t so different from true crime, especially in a case like this one. In spite of all his efforts to keep his crimes secret, Keyes, like his hero Ted Bundy, craved fame.
So why have you probably never heard of him? Callahan ends the story with a pair of explosive shocks, and with this: “This case provoked the FBI to beg for the public’s help — but just as quickly, they decided to obscure much of the case and Israel Keyes from public view. Approximately forty-five thousand pages of case files remain unreleased by the Department of Justice, under claims of national security.”
In the end, American Predator is unsatisfying in the sense that any nonfiction book about a serial killer must be: Despite all the efforts of his interrogators, we never get inside Keyes’ head. If we come to true crime to try to understand how a monster is born, we finish still in the dark, and maybe it’s darker.
But Callahan’s portrait of this monster, and of the men and women who do their best to uncover his secrets, is one that will keep you up all night.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century
By Maureen Callahan
Viking, 385 pages, $27