Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Enigmatic Case of Robert Charles Browne

Worse Than the Worst

Robert Charles Browne
Robert Charles Browne

Robert Charles Browne, serving time for rape and murder in Colorado, made headlines once again in July 2006 when he claimed to have killed 48 other people, which, if true, would make him America's most prolific known serial killer. However, there were skeptics. When his total proved to surpass by one the record set a couple of years before by "Green River Killer" Gary Ridgway, Browne's confession provoked skepticism. Was he telling the truth or just seeking attention by one-upping the current king of the hill? The truth can be difficult to establish, especially given the events that led up to his unexpected revelation.

In 1995, Browne pleaded guilty to the 1991 murder in Colorado of thirteen-year-old Heather Dawn Church. Five years later, he initiated a correspondence of cryptic notes to Texas prosecutors that suggested more victims: "The score is you 1, the other team, 48." He dropped a few clues, but seemed to want them to figure it out. A cold case squad got involved, and eventually Browne declared he'd been killing since 1970, in nine different states: on a crude map he showed 17 in Louisiana, 9 in Colorado, 7 in Texas, 5 in Arkansas, 3 in Mississippi, 2 in New Mexico, 2 in Oklahoma, 2 in California, and 1 in Washington state. He'd used a knife, a screwdriver, an ice pick and just his hands. He'd dumped victims everywhere, in lakes, rivers, and gullies; some he'd even cut up.

Heather Dawn Church
Heather Dawn Church

Even so, confessing and corroborating one's claims are two different things, and if Browne is exaggerating, he wouldn't be the first. Claiming higher numbers of victims, especially from prison, has become a regular pastime for serial killers since the late 1980s. To consider the motives Browne might have for such exaggerated claims, we need to lay out a bit of history, both his and that of prison culture. It began with the disappearance of young Heather Dawn Church. While evidently not Browne's first victim, this was the one that stopped him.


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