Berdella was born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio in 1949 and was raised Catholic, though he stopped attending church services when he was a teenager. His father, who would beat him with a leather strap, worked as a dye setter for the Ford Motor Company and his mother was a homemaker. When he was seven years old, he got a younger brother, Daniel, who became the father's favorite. He did very well in school, though teachers found him difficult to teach and he was bullied by other students. He was severely nearsighted and had to start wearing thick glasses at the age of five. When Robert was 16, his life took a dive for the worse; first, his father died of a heart attack at the age of 39. His mother remarried shortly afterwards, to Robert's resentment and anger. He later claimed that around the same time he was sexually assaulted by a male coworker at the restaurant he worked at. A loner, he saw a 1965 adaptation of the Robert Fowles book The Collector, which is about a man who abducts a young woman and holds her captive in his basement; he later said it made a lasting impression on him.
In 1967, at the age of 18, Berdella enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute hoping to become a professor, but instead pursued a career as a chef. During his time in art school, he engaged in animal torture at least three times; during two of them he tortured a duck and a chicken and on the third he experimented with sedatives and tranquilizers on a dog. He also began a criminal career, abusing alcohol and selling drugs. At the age of 19, he was arrested for possession of LSD and marijuana, but was released after only five days due to a lack of evidence. In 1969, he dropped out of school and became a successful chef full-time. As a member of a local chefs' association he helped set up a training program for aspiring chefs. He was also a member of his local crime prevention and neighborhood watch association. When he was 32, he quit working as a cook and instead opened his own store, Bob's Bizarre Bazaar, which sold all kinds of oddities and antiques. Having become open about being gay, he had a brief relationship with a Vietnam veteran, but it didn't last. Instead, he started hanging out with male prostitutes, befriending them and even trying to help them out of prostitution.
Killings, Arrest and Incarceration
In July of 1984, Berdella is believed to have started killing. He drugged one of his friends, prostitute Jerry Howell, and started keeping him in his basement, torturing and repeatedly raping him over a night before fatally asphyxiating him. In April the next year, another friend of Berdella, Robert Sheldon, came to stay with him for a few days and found himself drugged and held captive in the basement like Howell before him. At first, Berdella changed his mind about "keeping" him and took him to a doctor to have his injuries treated. Not long afterwards, he changed his mind and returned Sheldon to his basement. On April 15, a workman came to do some work on Berdella's home, forcing Berdella to fatally suffocate Sheldon so he wouldn't be heard. In June the same year, Berdella found Mark Wallace, who had helped him do some yard work, hiding in his tool-shed to seek shelter from a storm. He soon found himself in worse trouble when Berdella invited him inside his house, drugged him and started holding him captive. After hours of torture, he was killed like the previous victims. In September, he picked up James Ferris at a gay bar, invited him home and took him captive. After weeks of torture, he was killed.
In June of 1986, Berdella lured Todd Stoops, a male prostitute he had known for some time, to his house and held him captive for six weeks before killing him as well. The next year, he bailed Larry Pearson out of prison and started holding him prisoner in his basement, killing him after six weeks. In March of 1988, he abducted his last known victim, a prostitute named Chris Bryson, and put him in his basement like the others had been before him. While Berdella was at work, Bryson managed to break free and escape by jumping from a second floor window. He ran to a neighbor's house, wearing nothing besides a dog collar around his neck, and called the police. And so Berdella's killings came to an end. His dungeon was exposed along with the polaroids of his victims and his torture logs and remains of his victims were found on the property. Berdella ultimately made a deal to avoid the death penalty in exchange for a full confession. Berdella only spent a few years in prison before dying of a heart attack in 1992. Some time earlier, he had claimed in a letter that the prison staff were withholding his heart medication.
Berdella's confirmed victims were Caucasian men aged 18-22, who were all either prostitutes or acquaintances of his. After getting them to his house, he would get them drunk and/or drug them with "traditional" sedatives or animal tranquilizers and keep them gagged and restrained to a bed in his basement with piano wire. Over the course of anywhere between a night and several weeks, he would torture them in a variety of ways, such as electric shock; beating them various instruments; sodomy penetration by shoving his fist, his penis, or vegetables like cucumbers and carrots into their rectums; putting window caulk into their ears; applying bleach to their eyes using cotton swabs; injecting drain cleaner into their vocal cords; and eye gouging.
He would document the torture process with a camera and keeping a detailed log, before eventually killing them, usually by asphyxiating them, sometimes using a plastic bag. In the case of Todd Stoops, he died from exsanguination as a result of the torture. He claimed to have administered antibiotics to his victims to keep them alive longer. Afterwards, he would drain the blood out of their bodies by placing them in a bathtub (or by hanging their bodies upside down in his basement, in the case of his first victim) and cutting slits in them. He would then dismember their bodies with kitchen knives and a chainsaw and then leave the body parts inside trash bags to be picked up by garbagemen. He occasionally kept body parts, such as their heads (which he would bury in his backyard), wallets, and IDs as trophies.
Note: The dates denote when the victims disappeared.
- July 5, 1984: Jerry Howell, 20 (tortured by electric shock and sodomy; asphyxiated the next day)
- April 10: Robert Sheldon, 18 (tortured by electric shock, sodomy, and injecting Drano into his left eye; suffocated with a plastic bag five days later; kept his head)
- June 22: Mark Wallace, 20 (tortured by sodomy and asphyxiated the next day)
- September 26: Walter James Ferris, 20 (tortured and asphyxiated like the previous victim the next day)
- June 17, 1986: Todd Stoops, 21 (tortured by sodomy and injecting Drano into his eyes and voice box; died of exsanguination on July 1)
- July 9, 1987: Larry Wayne Pearson, 20 (tortured by beating and suffocated with a plastic bag on August 5; kept his head)
- March 29, 1988: Chris Bryson, 22 (abducted, raped, tortured, and intended to kill; he escaped five days later)
On Criminal Minds
Though Berdella has served as the inspiration for a number of unsubs on the series, he has only been mentioned once, and rather fleetingly, in the Season Four episode Zoe's Reprise. The reference was made by Rossi, who is reading from the foreword of his book Deviance: The Secret Desires of Sadistic Serial Killers.
Alongside John Wayne Gacy, Berdella seems to have been the inspiration for Adam Jackson, the unsub of "Conflicted". All three were abused by their fathers (Berdella and Gacy were abused by their fathers; Adam was abused by his stepfather) and targeted the same type of victims (teenage boys and young men), whom they would lure, rape, and kill by asphyxiation.
Berdella may have been the inspiration for Travis James in the sense that:
- Both lost parents during their adolescence (Berdella's father died of a heart attack; Travis's mother died in a tornado storm)
- Both were victims of sexual abuse of some kind (Travis was molested by Rosecoe Gulch; Berdella was allegedly sexually assaulted by a male coworker at the restaurant he worked at)
- Both had the same M.O. of luring Caucasian male prostitutes to their homes, drugging, imprisoning, gagging, and restraining them, dismembering them post-mortem, and keeping certain body parts of their victims
Also, Berdella may have been the inspiration for Steven Parkett. Both were abused by their fathers as children; had M.O.s that involved bringing their victims to their homes to restrain, torture, and dismember them (although Berdella did it post-mortem); and were given names by the media for their crimes that had the word "butcher", as well as the name of a city, in which they were active, in them.
In addition, Berdella has some similarities to James O'Neill. Both were serial killers who were abused as minors by adult males, had stressors that involved the deaths of their abusers, would take their victims to their homes where they would torture and kill them, decapitated their victims (although Berdella did it post-mortem while O'Neil decapitated his victims as a kill method), kept their victims' heads, and were given names by the media for their crimes.
More recently, Berdella seemed to have provided some inspiration for Mark Tolson. Both were homosexual serial killers who had troubled childhoods involving their fathers, and targeted fellow gay men (including acquaintances of theirs), who they would mentally incapacitate with drugs and alcohol. After killing their victims, both Mark and Berdella dismembered the bodies and disposed of the body parts, with the dismemberment being learned beforehand in their occupations (Mark worked in his father's butcher shop as a child, while Berdella once worked as a successful full-time chef).