Our story begins in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, on the 31st of January, 1949. Robert Andrew Berdella, Jr. was born to Robert Sr. and Alice Berdella, a practicing Catholic couple who immediately integrated their new son into their faith. Robert’s younger brother, Daniel, was born when Robert was seven, and the two were raised as good, well-behaved boys who avoided bad behavior, lest they anger their strict father.
The young Robert suffered a large amount of bullying during his childhood years due to his nearsightedness that required he wear thick glasses. He slowly turned into a loner who rarely got involved in group activities or social interaction with friends. He was a good student with decent grades, but the constant bullying marred his school years and created a distant boy who behaved in a detached manner
Berdella’s teenage years were heavily influenced by his disaffection with Catholicism and a life-changing discovery: he was a homosexual.
When Robert was just 16, his father died of a heart attack at 39 years of age. This caused great sadness in the boy, but nothing hurt him more than when his mother remarried and moved in with another man just a few months later. In Robert’s immature mind, this was enough reason to feel insanely angry — he felt as though his mother had flippantly discarded his father’s memory and grabbed a new lover instantly while he himself was still grieving.
Initially, Robert attempted to find solace in religion, but this became harder every day, as the pain of losing his father ate away at him. This, along with an incident at work when a male co-worker took advantage and sexually abused Robert, made him reconsider his faith, and he abandoned the Catholic Church for good. He developed a cynical attitude towards religion and he began to read and investigate about different faiths, without truly believing in any of them.
Around the time of his father’s death in 1965, Robert watched the film adaptation of the book, The Collector. He saw the protagonist capture a beautiful woman, hold her captive in an underground, windowless room, and study her as a sort of specimen. The movie left an impression on the young Berdella, one that was strong enough for him to eventually decide to recreate these events in real life.
Berdella graduated from high school in the summer of 1967. Before long, he moved to Kansas City for a change of scenery. He wanted to study art and become a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. In college, Berdella was considered to be a talented student who worked extra hard at finding inspiration. However, he worked equally hard at abusing alcohol and he even began to sell minor drugs to addicted classmates. This eventually came back to bite him when he was picked up by the police for possession of drugs. Luckily for Berdella, they lacked sufficient evidence to impose anything harsher than a fine.
Although Berdella had friends in college, he still lacked the mercy that many normal human beings possess. On three particular occasions, Berdella experimented on live animals during art classes; the final time he murdered a dog in front of a crowd ‘for art.’ The College Board decided that enough was enough. Berdella was stripped of his place at the Kansas City Art Institute; an occurrence that caused him a significant amount of shame.
Where a normal person may have taken this as a signal to turn their life around, Berdella felt aggrieved by his expulsion from the Institute. Surely the Board at the Center of Studies simply didn’t understand his brand of art and were clearly just repressing his desires. It was at this moment the young Berdella, already troubled, took a turn for the worse. For the much, much worse, in fact.
Berdella’s Bizarre Bazaar
During his time studying art, Robert had adopted some unusual pastimes, such as collecting oddities and writing to distant pen pals in countries such as Vietnam and Burma. His interest in primitive art and antiques would eventually drive his desire to open a business in this field, but first, he needed to earn the necessary funds.
Thus, in 1969, following his expulsion from the Kansas City Art Institute, Berdella changed his direction in life. After brief consideration, he decided to move to the Hyde Park district of Kansas City. There, he was a helpful neighbor within the community, taking part in Crime Prevention and Neighborhood Watch patrols, and gaining the love and respect of his fellow Hyde Park residents. He was also known for participating in fundraising events for a local television station.
Another more secret, yet equally respectable side of Robert’s life, was what he did for several vulnerable young men of the city in the early 70s. After having a brief relationship with a Vietnam War veteran, Berdella began spending time with young males who had gotten into prostitution, drugs, or had run away. He tried his hardest to steer these young men back onto the right track and assisting them in leaving their harmful lifestyles behind. Those that were unaware of the sexual nature of some of these relationships thought of Berdella as a sort of ‘foster parent’ to these young men.
At the same time, Berdella attempted to improve himself on an interpersonal level, while he also strived to enhance his professionalism. Soon he started working as a cook throughout the city. When he wasn’t working at a bar or restaurant, Robert found time to sell antique items and art to contacts, all from the comfort of his home. Both of these activities allowed him to succeed and cover his expenses — expenses of which he would soon have many including: lawyer fees and fines that accumulated due to arrests. Berdella eventually became a prestigious, well-known cook in town, working for renowned businesses and even joining a chefs’ association where he helped train young students at a local culinary college.
Despite Berdella’s success as a cook, however, he found his interest in antiques and oddities couldn’t be denied, so he decided to invest the money he’d accumulated in starting an antique-selling business. In 1982, he rented a booth at the Westport Flea Market, naming it Berdella’s Bizarre Bazaar. He sold jewelry and antiques to both curious amateurs and expert customers.
While managing the booth, Berdella befriended a man named Paul Howell, as well as his son, Jerry. Robert and Jerry soon formed a friendship. They were often seen sharing drinks in the company of friends. At other times, Berdella gave the young troublemaker a bit of legal advice.
To everyone around him, it looked like Robert had finally found someone to care about and spend time with — something he’d never truly had since childhood. What was happening in truth, however, was far more sinister.
Berdella was beginning to measure his first possible victim, a process that would end with bloodcurdling results.
The Bloodshed Commences
Jerry Howell was just 19 when it happened. He’d owed Robert a sum of money for quite a while now and constantly evaded the man’s questions whenever the issue came up. As time passed, he seemed less and less likely to pay the debt. This angered Berdella, who was already filled with a strange and misguided anger — just waiting for a reason to unleash it on the world.
It didn’t take long to manifest.
On the 4th of July, 1984, Berdella decided that he had waited long enough. The signs had been there for years, but nobody had paid attention. It wasn’t really a killing instinct that drove Berdella, but rather the urge to cause pain and push the human body to its extremes. He felt he needed to know how much pain he could cause and how much damage and destruction he could inflict on a fellow man.
Berdella arrived at Jerry’s home with an excuse already on his lips — he had come to take the young man to a dancing contest. Jerry, naïve of his friend’s true motives, got in the car with Berdella. They drove for a while, with Berdella offering Jerry a drink in the car before they reached their destination. Unfortunately for Jerry, the drink was spiked with sedative drugs. Berdella simply drove around killing time until Jerry no longer knew what was happening.
Berdella grew excited and took Jerry back home with him. He injected him with even more tranquilizer to keep him submissive. Berdella bred Chow-Chow dogs and had collected plenty of animal sedatives for when the perfect moment arose. The youth became unconscious and all that Robert Berdella had ever hoped for was now his to enjoy: a helpless victim to torture as he saw fit.
He bound Jerry to his bed with glee, stripping him of his clothes and admiring his body—a body that became the target for more than twenty-four hours of sexual and physical abuse. Berdella didn’t just rape Jerry personally during his horrific night of captivity; he also introduced foreign objects — such as a cucumber — into the youth’s anus, tearing it without mercy. Whenever Jerry was conscious enough to beg for mercy and ask Berdella why he was doing such terrible things, Berdella would answer with a quick shot of sedative, which put him back under. Berdella even went to work while the man was unconscious, an attempt to keep anyone from suspecting what was truly going on. His plan worked.
When he returned from work, Berdella had new ideas how to cause agony to his captive’s body. Taking advantage of the young man’s helplessness, Berdella continued his torture despite Jerry’s pleas for him to stop. The twisted torturer decided to keep mementos for his future pleasure and documented most of the process with his Polaroid camera and a notebook; a pair of items he would soon come to use very often.
The horrific ordeal ended only when young Jerry died sometime after midnight, July 5, 1984. Berdella would later confess that he was unsure whether it had been due to Jerry asphyxiating on his own vomit — he had been gagged for a long period of the torture — or the fact that the excess of medicines had stopped his breathing. After a brief and failed attempt at CPR, a disappointed Berdella lifted up the now dead Jerry Howell and dragged him down to the basement. There, he hung the corpse from the ceiling over a pot and climbed back upstairs to search for his set of cooking knives. Berdella worked on the victim’s body like a butcher in a slaughterhouse, cutting open the jugular and inner elbow veins to drain the blood from the corpse.
Berdella left the body hanging overnight, returning the next morning to finish cutting it up with a chainsaw and bone knives. There was a feeling of dissatisfaction growing within him already, but he ignored it long enough to concentrate on disposing of the body in dog food bags that were then wrapped in larger black bags. The bags were left outside for the garbage collectors.
With his first victim dead and a long and detailed document of the killing safely in his Polaroid pictures and diary, another killer may have called it a day.
Berdella, however, was just getting started.
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