Byron Saunders really knows how to make a girl feel like a piece of meat. “I like blondes,” he tells my assistant, eyeballing her golden locks when we meet for the first time. “They have less hair down there than normal people do. It’s thinner and it’s softer.”
As disturbing as that sounds, it’s even more horrifying when you realize it’s coming from a mouth that, according to its owner, has eaten the private parts of three of his victims. Literally, ate them. Chewed. Swallowed. Digested.
My assistant is visibly shaken.
Currently, we are having an interview with Saunders in a room the size of your average kitchen pantry at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburgh, New York. The same maximum-security prison that David Berkowitz calls home. Rosy-faced and plump, with a head of white hair, the 59-year-old self-proclaimed cannibal could pass for an off-duty mall Santa Claus, although he’d need to work on the jolliness. He sits two feet across from me, completely unrestrained: no straitjacket, no Hannibal Lecter–inspired face mask, not even a pair of Chinese handcuffs. When I ask prison superintendent James Watts if I should be concerned about this lack of restraint, his response is five seconds of silence…followed by, “Well, you know what he’s in for, right?”
Saunders is serving a 250-year sentence for strangling 11 women and, according to him, making meals out of three of them, along the Genesee River Gorge, near Rochester, New York. Saunders often spent time fishing at the gorge, but in March 1988, a group of hunters stumbled upon evidence of his other hobby in that area: the body of Dorothy Harrison, a 27-year-old prostitute who had been beaten and strangled. According to reports, she appeared to have suffered a ferocious kick to the groin, and teeth marks surrounded her vagina. Saunders had only whetted his appetite for killing: He subsequently proceeded to go on a 22-month murder binge.
The Lady Killer
“I know them by heart,” Saunders responds proudly when asked if he can name all 11 women he killed. He then names them in chronological order of death, all by asphyxiation. For three of the women on that list, Saunders claims he wasn’t satisfied with mere strangulation. June Keeler, Emily Fenning and Jane Nolletto all reportedly suffered vaginal trauma or mutilation. “I don’t know why I did it,” he says. “At the moment I did it, my hearing got real better, my eyesight got more sharpened.” He says he feasted on Keeler’s and Fenning’s warm bodies immediately after killing them, but that he didn’t have a craving for Nolletto’s flesh until four days after he strangled her. So, in the dead of winter, Saunders returned to the frozen body. “I was in a daze, a fantasy, and just ate parts of her. I think I was insane."
“Women write to me, ‘Why did you kill those women?’ I said, ‘No, I killed prostitutes,’” Saunders insists, as if their vocation made them less human. “In February ’88, I met a girl…and she told me, ‘One of the hookers you took out Molly Gibson is HIV-positive.’ It messed my head up.…If you’ve got somebody out there that’s HIV-positive, they’ve got AIDS, and they shouldn’t be on the street. So I figured, ‘I might as well go back and kill everybody else.’”
Like a psychopathic superhero, Saunders says he believed he was doing society a favor by helping to erase HIV carriers. But Saunders himself never got tested. Why not? “That didn’t cross my mind,” he says as if it were something as easily forgettable as picking up milk from the grocery store.
Before the press dubbed him the Cannibal of the Genesee and the Rochester Strangler, Byron as a youngster was nicknamed Oddie by the children at school. Kids can be so cruel…and accurate: Robert Lang, MD, a now-retired psychiatrist who spent more than a year diagnosing Saunders, says that Byron, by the age of six, was a troubled hellion who reportedly threatened others, set fires and tortured animals. But what Saunders recounts of his childhood isn’t what harm he caused others. He is the victim in his story.
Saunders grew up in Watertown, New York, in a seemingly typical nuclear family of the ’50s. His father, Byron Sr., and mother, Doreen, had four children together. Byron was the oldest but certainly not the brightest. In school, he failed grades four, five and eight before finally dropping out in the ninth grade at age 19. After that, he found employment by turns at a meat market, bakery and candle factory. Just like a Mother Goose storybook character, Byron was a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker—but that’s where the nursery rhyme ends and the horror story begins.
As Saunders tells it, his mother forced him to perform oral sex on her, first when he was four years old and again at ages seven and nine. By the age of 12, he says, he began regularly engaging in oral sex with his sisters, Jennie and Alice, and a cousin, Linda. “I didn’t like it with my ma,” he says, adding that he did like it with his sisters. When asked if the girls enjoyed it, he replies, “Did you ever see one that didn’t?” His family denies these allegations.
Saunders claims to have an arsenal of childhood memories that would make anyone squirm. There’s the one where his mother reprimands him with a broomstick when he was 12. (“My mother wanted to punish me…she just rammed that up my ass.”) Or the one where a 14-year-old Byron is on his way home from school and gets picked up by a child molester. (According to Byron, they got out of the car to urinate and the man said, “Don’t zip up.” Saunders says that then “he came over and started nibbling me.”) Then there’s the one where, at the tender age of nine, he voluntarily performed oral sex on a woman he says was his mother's lesbian lover. (“[She] was leaning over the sink, and she got nothing on but her panties and bra.…She turned around and seen me staring at her, and she got right down on the floor with me.”) One after another, the stories pour out, as if he’s a bottomless pot of trauma. And right when you think there isn’t a drop left, he brings up Vietnam.
In 1967, at the age of 22, Byron Saunders had already been married, fathered a son and gotten divorced. In September of that year, he wed his second wife. Instead of honeymooning in Acapulco, he was shipped off to war in Vietnam three days after the nuptials. Saunders says he served 13 months and claims to have killed either 30 or 39 people—mostly men, six women and even some children. “I shot a girl; she was probably about six,” he says, completely stone-faced. “She was walking toward the GIs with a grenade in hand. I hollered, and I got her right in the head. When she fell, she exploded.” He describes it with as much emotion as an accountant would use in describing his day crunching numbers.
Saunders wasn’t always so emotionless, though. After the first kill in Vietnam, he cried and shivered and didn’t think he could hack it. But “after about six, you get to like it,” he says, and goes on to describe many of the other killings. He talks of decapitations, brains being blown out, limbs being cut off. “The military teaches you how to kill. It doesn’t teach you how to stop,” he says.
Saunders drove that point home when, more than three years after returning from Vietnam, he made his first two killings on American soil. His victims weren’t twentysomething prostitutes, however. In 1972, he strangled 10-year-old John Blake and, four months later, eight-year-old Karen Milsen. Karen had also been raped, however by the time they found John’s body, it was so badly decomposed that authorities couldn’t tell whether he had been sexually assaulted. “They should have hung him,” Roger Milsen, Karen’s father, said of Saunders at the time. “All I want to know is that they put him away in an electric chair with double voltage and amperage, because that’s what he deserves.”
But Saunders didn’t get what he deserved. After pleading guilty to manslaughter and sexual assault of Karen, he received a mere 25-year sentence to be served at Attica Prison. Worse, he was rewarded for being a model prisoner and paroled after serving 15 years. Today, Saunders himself says he never should have been released. He’s not the only one who feels that way.
“I was hoping to God that he’d never be paroled,” Doreen Saunders said at the time of her son’s release. She has always denied his claims of abuse, instead blaming the mental problems he’s had since the ninth grade, when she says he was struck in the head with a metal discus he was tossing around. “I’ve got the best children in the world, but he’s sick,” she has said.
Professionals agree: “Byron has an inclination for pathological lying,” says Dr. Lang. He says Saunders had a normal upbringing in a family with no history of crime or drug abuse, and that even Byron’s first psychiatric evaluation, when he was seven years old, found that although he was disturbed, he was still a “well-cared-for child.”
Military records show that Saunders was assigned to warehouse duties and cleaning weapons—hardly the type of military specialties that invoke the Saving Private Ryan–type images he paints during our interview. But when I tell Saunders this, he gets defensive, saying he didn’t go into combat until five months into his service. “I know where the bodies are,” he insists. Furthermore, Dr. Lang says that autopsy reports offer no evidence to support Byron’s claims of cannibalism. Donald Vallens, a Rochester prosecutor on the Molly Gibson case, agrees, saying, “The cannibal claims, in my mind, are not credible.”
The Real CulpritStill, what could possibly turn an innocent, albeit odd, little boy into a monster? Dr. Lang has an answer: Saunders is neurologically, genetically and biochemically impaired. An extra Y chromosome, plus brain damage, compacted with elevated levels of a chemical called kryptopyrrole all add up to someone you don’t want to be stuck in traffic with. “These findings contributed to him becoming a very dangerous, antisocial individual who’s predisposed to violence,” Dr. Lang diagnoses. “He’s better off in jail.”
And behind bars is where Saunders ended up not long after police spotted him hovering near Jane Nolletto’s body on January 3, 1990. He had come back to take another look at his handiwork, days after killing her. Saunders admitted everything and eventually pleaded insanity.
In order to be considered insane in New York, he had to show that either he did not know what he was doing at the time or didn’t know it was wrong—in each crime. “There’s no question in my mind that he knew what he was doing,” Dr. Lang says. A jury agreed, finding Saunders both sane and guilty of 10 counts of second-degree murder (he later pleaded guilty to the murder of another victim: Gibson). He will be eligible for parole in 2240, when he would turn 295 years old.
Saunders doesn’t have it so bad, though. He says he has a cushy prison job as a teacher’s aide. He has a lot of free time to paint and write poetry. And he already has another wife. But there’s one thing he still hasn’t told me. “What did you think of The Silence of the Lambs?” I finally ask.
“It was all stupid,” he says. “Like when the guy gutted him and the guts dropped out? It doesn’t work that way. When you cut something open, the guts will drop, but they’re still attached. You gotta cut everything out.”
Yes, he definitely knew what he was doing.