American Monster: The Hunt For Serial Killer Israel Keyes

When Samantha Koenig disappeared from this coffee shop in Alaska, authorities didn’t know was that they were after the most notorious serial killer in a generation.

Pictured: Common Grounds Espresso Stand in Anchorage, Alaska

“He was the same dirty rat he’d always been. He got what he had coming. Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but you’ll never find him.”

Sitting with her laptop at a Starbucks in Anchorage, Alaska, Peggy Giles reads the ominous message on her Facebook page. “Whoever wrote it was probably drunk,” she says. Giles, a heavyset, middle-aged mom in glasses, wears a loud blue T-shirt and has long, frizzy hair. “You know what they say,” she laughs. “Friends don’t let friends Facebook drunk!”

But the guy online isn’t just spouting off. He’s angry at Giles for investigating the disappearance of Shanon Lovell, a young man from nearby Wasilla who has been missing for nine months. With a few taps on her keyboard, Giles passes along this guy’s threatening message to the cops. “Whatever makes the hair on my neck stand up,” she says, “I for­ward on to the police.” Here in Alaska, Giles is known as the Ice Cream Lady of Valdez, famous for selling Fudgsicles from a pink mail truck. But online she leads a stealthy second life: hunting for killers and their victims, like Lovell.

Photo: Anchorage Police Department / AP Photo | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: Serial Killer Israel Keyes 

Giles is a cybersleuth, an amateur snoop who harnesses the power of the Net to crack cold cases. It marks a new twist in the modern age of tracking down bad guys: Ordinary people with a laptop and the will can play digital detective—and occasionally piss off the professional investigators along the way. Sites such as Websleuths, the Doe Network, and Perverted Justice are hubs for DIY dicks and have led to numerous arrests. A group of amateur sleuths on Reddit (the Reddit Bureau of Investigation) has investigated the Boston Marathon bombers as well as missing-persons cases.

Now, with the help of James Koenig, a long-haired biker in a Harley-Davidson shirt sitting with us at Starbucks, Giles is trying to find victims of America’s most notor­ious serial killer in decades, Israel Keyes, an Alaskan who is thought to have killed at least 11 people around the country—including Koenig’s own daughter, Samantha. It’s the case that started these cybersleuths on their way and the one that haunts them to this day.

“I don’t want other families to have to go through this,” Koenig says, lowering his eyes. “There’s no manual on what you do when your child is missing or your family member is missing. I had to learn that the hard way.”

Photo: Mark Thiessen / AP Photo | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: Surveillance footage of Samantha Koenig from Common Grounds Espresso on the night she was abducted.

It was only Detective Monique Doll’s second day on the Anchorage Police Department’s homicide squad when the first call came in. On February 2, 2012, at 12:30 p.m., a patrol officer phoned to say an 18-year-old barista, Samantha Koenig, was missing. James Koenig had called in to say his daughter never came home the night before from her job at Common Grounds Espresso, one of the many ramshackle coffee kiosks around town.

The patrol officer had been asking questions in the area, but with no signs of a break-in, no struggle, and no blood, he told Doll, something just didn’t feel right. “The more time you have on this job, the more comfortable you become listening to your gut instinct,” Doll tells me one afternoon as we sit in a conference room at the police department. “That’s what kept our ancestors from being eaten by dinosaurs.”

Doll is a tough, tall young blonde with razor-sharp instincts. A third-generation cop raised in Upper Michigan, she spent a decade with the DEA busting smack dealers and meth-heads. “I like solving the puzzle, solving the mystery,” she says. “That’s why investigations called to me.”

When she saw the surveillance video of a masked man jumping through the window of Common Grounds and leading Samantha away, she knew this was serious. “It was like being punched in the gut,” she recalls. “We had to get all hands on deck and do everything we could to find this girl.”

From the get-go the case couldn’t have been stranger. Doll noticed that the kidnapper was holding a cup of coffee when he jumped through the window, and he had Samantha make him an Americano before they left. He’d also chosen a surprisingly conspicuous location: The coffee kiosk was outside a popular gym on a busy road. “It was so unusual,” she recalls. “Everything we touched with this case broke weird.”

Photographed by Brian Adams | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: Father James Koenig

For James Koenig the mystery wasn’t just weird—it was a nightmare. He was a single father who scraped by as a trucker; his daughter had seen hard times but was getting her life back on track. She was earning money with the hope of joining the service or becoming a veterinarian. Koenig feared the worst when, the night Samantha went missing, her boyfriend received a text from her phone saying she was angry at her father and staying at a friend’s. “It wasn’t like her,” Koenig says. “She would have called me directly.”

While Doll and her team canvassed the area, Koenig took the search into his own hands, staking out the coffee kiosk and rallying his friends around town. “I’m not just going to sit on my couch and let the cops do their job,” he tells me. “I’m going to be out there making sure they’re doing it, and I’m going to be doing everything I possibly can.”

He wasn’t the only one. Up in Valdez, Peggy Giles had also heard about the case, and, with daughters of her own, her heart went out to Koenig. When a mutual friend told her Koenig wanted help getting the word out about Samantha online, Giles jumped in.

Photographed by Brian Adams | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

​Pictured: CybersleuthPeggy Giles

Together Giles and Koenig launched a Facebook page, “Please Help Find Samantha Koenig,” which was quickly flooded with leads from around town. For Doll the cybersleuths’ efforts were “incredibly important,” but a mixed bag. On one hand, they turned up thousands of leads, but every lead had to be investigated—whether worthwhile or not. “That wastes a lot of resources,” says Doll. Half the leads were from online psychics. “It’s like, ‘I see Samantha, and she’s in a cold, dark place,’?” Doll recalls, scoffing. “Well, we’re talking about Alaska in February, so it’s like, thank you, Captain Obvious, appreciate that, we’ll get right on it!”

But the more Giles and Koenig took to the Net, the more the case became a local cause. As the community rallied around the cybersleuths, Koenig raised $70,000 in reward money. He also fired off a message on Facebook to his daughter’s kidnapper, in case he was reading. “I have resources, good and bad,” he typed. “I do not want to unleash the bad, I do not wish ill will against you and yours, but if this does not end soon, you leave me no choice.”

On February 24, three weeks after Samantha went missing, Koenig got another text from her phone—but this time it was a ransom note. The note was a kind of scavenger hunt, telling Koenig to go to Connors Bog, a park near the airport, and look for “Ralph.” Koenig called 911 and sped to the park, where he found a poster for a missing dog named Ralph, tacked to a pole. Taped to the poster was a Ziploc bag with a note demanding $30,000 for Samantha’s release. The kidnapper wanted the money deposited into Samantha’s bank account. There was also a Polaroid inside showing Samantha naked and bound—and possibly dead.

His mind reeling, Koenig fired off a text. “Fuck you,” he wrote. “I’ll put $5,000 in. You won’t get a penny more until you prove that my daughter’s still alive.”

As Doll and her team pored fruitlessly over the clues, the kidnapper began making withdrawals around town using Samantha’s ATM card, but security cameras captured only a man disguised in a hooded jacket and ski mask. Then, on March 6, they got a surprise: a report that someone using Samantha’s card had made a withdrawal from an ATM in Arizona. They checked the surveillance footage and saw, again, a man in disguise.

Photographed by Brian Adams | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: Detective Monique Doll

The following day the man made a withdrawal in Texas, and this time, when the surveillance footage was enhanced, Doll saw a couple of clues. The kidnapper was wearing white tennis shoes, and in the distance there was a white 2012 Ford Focus. An APB went out across Texas to be on the lookout. On March 13, Corporal Bryan Henry was driving past a motel in Lufkin, Texas, when he saw a white Ford Focus with Arizona plates parked outside. As Henry called for backup, he noticed something unexpected: another white Focus—this one with Alaska plates—parked across the street. Which car, if either, might be the kidnapper’s?

As the Texas Rangers closed in on the Ford with Alaska plates, Henry saw a lanky man emerge from the motel, climb into the car from Arizona, and drive off. With no time to waste, Henry took chase and, the moment the man broke the speed limit on Henry’s radar, pulled him over. As he cautiously approached the driver’s window, Henry spotted a pair of white sneakers under the passenger seat. The man handed over his Alaska driver’s license. His name was Israel Keyes.

The next day Doll was sitting across from Keyes in a Texas jailhouse. Despite his prison garb, Keyes seemed like a regular guy, calm and cooperative. She took out the ransom note and set it on the table in front of him. “I initially thought that whoever wrote this was a monster,” she told him. “But the more I read it, the more I came to realize that monsters aren’t born; they’re created. And that people who start off on one path end up on a radically different path because of things that people do to them.”

Keyes didn’t flinch. But when Doll, who knew that Keyes had a daughter, talked about James Koenig’s suffering, she saw Keyes’ chin quiver for a moment, as if he were holding back tears. Two weeks later Doll was having lunch when her cell phone rang. “He did it,” her colleague told her. “He killed her.” And Keyes wanted to confess his full story to one person, Doll, for whom he had this message: “Tell her she’s got her monster.”

Photo: Robert DeBerry / | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 201

Pictured: On April 2, 2012, Alaskan authorities recovered the body of Samantha Koenig from Matanuska Lake.

When he heard the news, Koenig could barely fathom the horror of what had happened to his daughter. Keyes had picked her at random after staking out the conspicuous location. He bound Samantha, then sexually abused and strangled her, leaving her corpse in a shed while—to the cops’ horror—he went on a cruise. When he returned, he dismembered the body and disposed of it in a hole he’d cut in a frozen lake nearby.

But Samantha wasn’t Keyes’ only victim. He also confessed to killing Bill and Lorraine Currier, a couple in Vermont (shooting the husband and sexually assaulting and strangling the wife), and suggested that he had as many as 11 other victims strewn across the country. Four were said to be in Washington State and another on the East Coast. He told police he had left what he called “kill kits” buried near his victims’ locales, which he would retrieve during his spree. Where the other victims were, however, he wouldn’t say.

That’s when Giles and Koenig decided to try to find them. “I’m not one to just crawl into that fucking corner and ‘woe is me,’?” Koenig says. “I want to help other families find their kids.”

The moment Giles and Koenig launched their new Facebook page—Have You Ever Met Israel Keyes?—leads began pouring in. People reported seeing a man resembling Keyes all over: California, Vermont, Texas. A woman in Maine swore she’d run into him at a conga lesson.

Using the gathered information, the two spent hours a day assembling a timeline of Keyes’ travels. They used Google Maps to pinpoint where Keyes had been seen, including dates, photos, and news reports. They found photos of him in a Hawaiian lei at his grandmother’s 90th birthday party, a fishing license he’d taken out in Alaska, shots of a cabin he owned in upstate New York.

Piece by piece Giles and Koenig saw a picture of the serial killer’s twisted life emerge. Born to a Mormon couple in Utah, Keyes was homeschooled—and troubled. As a teen in Washington State, he befriended two neighbors, Chevie and Cheyne Kehoe, who were subsequently convicted of murder and attempted murder, respectively. He joined a fringe religious group called the Ark and later spent three years in the Army before becoming a contractor in Anchorage, where he led a quiet life with his girlfriend and daughter.

But secretly he was living a double life: traversing the country and feeding his bloodlust. During an interview with investigators, Keyes said he had been feeling like Jekyll and Hyde for years. “There is no one who knows me—or who has ever known me—who knows anything about me, really,” he told them. “They’re gonna tell you something that does not line up with anything I tell you because I’m two different people, basic­ally. And the only person who knows about what I’m telling you, the kind of things I’m telling you, is me.”

As Keyes stewed in an Anchorage jail, awaiting trial for killing Samantha, Doll kept tabs on the cybersleuths’ detective work. “It’s a grassroots effort, and I commend that,” she says. “They bring resources, they bring time spent at the computer clicking away, throwing against the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Something stuck when a volunteer e-mailed Giles and Koenig a photo of a man who appeared to be Keyes robbing a bank in New York. The hunch was right. News soon hit that Keyes had been funding his killing spree by robbing banks around the country.

But Keyes soon stopped offering up any clues of his own. On December 2, guards found him in a pool of blood in his cell, his wrists slit with a razor blade, a bedsheet noose around his neck.

Photo: Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News / AP Photo | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Pictured: James Koenig at a memorial for his daughter, Samantha

As the sun sets over the icy waters off Anchorage, Koenig drives his truck past one of the many coffee kiosks that dot the city. Since Samantha’s dis­appearance, he has quit his job as a trucker and now delivers water to the coffee stands—a way to both make a living and keep an eye on the baristas alone behind the counters. There’s just one place he can’t bring himself to visit: Common Grounds. “It’s still hard to go by there,” he says as he stares solemnly out his windshield.

The search for Keyes’ other victims persists. Leads continue to come in—one Facebooker saw the killer in a grocery store in Sitka; another believes her cousin may have been his victim back in 2004. Though the cops still don’t tell Giles and Koenig how or if they’re using their clues, the two won’t give up until all his victims are found.

In the meantime they’re trying to bring support and resolution to others. While tracking down Keyes, they began receiving pleas for help in other missing-persons cases in Alaska. They launched a new site, Seeking Alaska’s Missing, as a clearinghouse. The reward money raised for Samantha’s case is now helping to fund their other investigations as well.

The two have used their crowdsourcing skills to farm leads for several high-profile cases, including that of Clinton Reeves, who was later found to have been murdered by a fellow Air Force airman, and Shanon Lovell, the missing 30-year-old whose open case led to the angry notes they received on Facebook. Lovell’s body was later found in a lake near Anchorage, and the cause of death has still to be determined.

But they’ve already had some happy endings. After a 16-year-old girl disappeared from her parents’ home in the middle of the night and didn’t return, Giles and Koenig flooded the Net with her picture and details. The girl’s case quickly became a local cause—and ended up smoking out the girl herself, who had run away. “She couldn’t handle the pressure and came back home,” Koenig says. He and Giles had the same success with two other teenage runaways who were spotted as a result of posting their pictures and last-seen whereabouts online. 

“The way I figure it, I’m going to get my reward when I get to heaven,” says Giles. “I don’t need to get any here.”

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Photos by Photographed by Brian Adams | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013