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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Buffalo's serial killer: an anniversary we can live without

Today Western New York is marking a grim anniversary.  One that not too many people remember, or are even aware of.  But if you lived through it, you remember.  You remember the fear, you remember the anger, and you remember wondering if it would ever end.
On September 22, 1980 we entered a very dark chapter in our history.  WNY was about to become part of something we wanted no part of.  A serial killer’s killing spree.
He became known as the 22-caliber killer.  Joseph Christopher.  A racist who targeted African-Americans.
It started small…like serial killings usually do.  One murder.  The victim, a 14 year old boy.  Glenn Dunn was shot and killed as he sat in a car outside a supermarket in Buffalo.  It was a big story on the news that night….how often is a 14 year old murdered?  But it was an isolated incident.  Or so we thought.
The next day, Harold Green was shot and killed at a fast-food restaurant in Cheektowaga.  And it didn’t stop there.  That night, back in Buffalo, Emmanuel Thomas was gunned down while crossing the street….just blocks away from the scene of Glenn Dunn’s murder.
Three murders in two days.  Unusual, but not unprecedented.
Then another one, the next day.  This one in Niagara Falls.  Joseph McCoy shot and killed.
Four murders in 48 hours.  All the victims were black, and we quickly learned this terrifying fact.  All were killed with the same gun. 
Western New York was in a state of terror.  The 22-caliber killer had people living in fear.  Not to mention racial tension.  The victims were all African American.  Buffalo’s black community complained about lack of police presence, lack of protection, lack of support.   
Imagine something like that happening today.  Internet.  24-hour cable channels.  Western New York would be under siege by the media as well as the killer.  We wouldn’t be able to walk down Main Street downtown without bumping into Anderson Cooper or Nancy Grace or one of the 42,000 other internet or cable or print journalists who would descend on this area.
Back then, it was different.  The local TV stations and radio stations and newspapers covered the story….and devoted a lot of time and resources to it….but it wasn’t wall-to-wall coverage.  People called talk radio, but had no message boards or forums to light up like a Christmas tree.
A lot different than it would be today.  But that’s how it was in 1980. 
And then, after the first four murders, there was a break in the bloodshed.  The killings stopped.  But only for a while.  And when they resumed, the nightmare was even worse.
Two weeks later….October 8th….Parler Edwards, a black cab driver, was found in the trunk of his car in Amherst.  His heart was cut out of his body.  The next day, the same thing in Tonawanda…black cabbie Ernest Jones found near the Niagara River, his heart cut out and carried away from the scene.
Now there were six murders.  Two of the victims found without their hearts.  What kind of sadistic killer was stalking black men in our area?  Was it ritualistic?  Was it Satanic?
Western New York was in a full-scale panic.  People were afraid to leave their homes.  Buffalo was like New York City during David Berkowitz’ murder spree.
But then the killings stopped again.
Until December.  And now….it was New York City’s turn to once again be terrorized.  The 22-caliber killer had moved to Son of Sam’s territory.
He didn’t use a gun this time.  He used a knife.  He used it often.  December 22, 1980.  Five blacks and one Hispanic were stabbed in less than 13 hours  Four of them died.  The New York media called the killer the Midtown Slasher.
But after those five attacks, the slasher was done with New York City.  But he wasn’t done killing….and he wasn’t done with Western New York.
Between December 29th and January 1st, five more stabbings took place in Buffalo and Rochester.  Two of the victims died.
A few days later, police dropped this bombshell.  They believed all the killings….the shootings in Buffalo, the stabbings in New York City, the stabbings in Buffalo and Rochester….all of them were the work of one person. 
12 murders.  All of them blamed on one serial killer.  The 22-caliber killer.
But the killings ended.  This time for good.  And the reign of terror was about to end.
12 days later, a break in the case.  At that time, Joseph Christopher was an Army private in Georgia.  He was arrested for slashing a black soldier.  Police searched his former home in Buffalo….where they found 22-caliber ammunition and two sawed-off rifle stocks.
Now investigators looked into the timing of the killings, and whether Christopher could have done them.  It turned out he could.  It turned out Christopher had enlisted in November, after the first wave of killings.  He was on leave from December 19th to January 4th.  And he had taken a bus to New York City.
Still no charges were filed against him.
But then, a few months later, Christopher was in the hospital for self-inflicted wounds.  He bragged to a nurse about killing blacks in Buffalo.  Four days later, he was arrested.
Christopher was convicted of three of the murders.  He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.  But it ended up a life sentence.  He died in prison.  Not killed by another inmate, like his fellow serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.   Joseph Christopher died of cancer.  A rare form of male breast cancer.  He was 37.
Let’s face it, we’re fascinated by serial killers.  When we hear of one, we can’t get enough information.  And we always say to ourselves, “Thank God that didn’t happen here.  Something like that couldn’t happen here”.
But it did once.  It was a terrible and terrifying time.  And it all started 31 years ago today.


  1. I've always heard he was killed in a revenge slaying using a broom handle as the weapon from another inmate. People insist this was the way it happened.

  2. Dear Bruce: Thank you for your blog on this important historical case. Like you, I am a native of Western NY. Back in 2010, I published a book on the .22 Caliber Killings, entitled Rendered Invisible. I did come back home to Buffalo to talk about it, at U.B. and also on WKBW TV. This weekend, I am discussing my book and the case as part of a discussion on racial reconciliation, for the MLK holiday. I will mention your blog to the audience. Here is a link to my website:

    Here is my email address:

    Best wishes,

    Frank Dobson