Southern Nightmare sheds light on the first serial killer caught by DNA

When Timothy Wilson Spencer stood trial for capital murder in Virginia in 1988, the use of DNA was still very new and very controversial. With little other evidence available, DNA was all that tied Spencer to several Richmond murders committed by a serial killer labeled as the South Side Strangler. Spencer’s was the first DNA case in the nation, years before Jurassic Park and O.J. Simpson’s trial brought DNA science into mainstream public knowledge. In fact, Spencer’s trial marked the first time in the world that a serial killer was caught and convicted using DNA. 

With all the attention on DNA this year, from the Golden State Killer’s arrest to the flurry of cold cases finally closed, it’s important to look back at the landmark case that established DNA as reliable if not irrefutable evidence. The real mystery is why such a monumental moment in criminal justice history has gotten so little coverage in the true crime world.

Thankfully, Richmond writer Richard Foster stepped up to share the story with his podcast and book, Southern Nightmare: The Hunt for the South Side Strangler. Before learning of the podcast, I had never even heard of the sadistic killer who stalked Richmond neighborhoods thirty years ago. Intrigued by this overlooked piece of local history, I feverishly followed the 10-part podcast all summer long and raved about it to every RVA murderino I knew.

The first season of the podcast has ended, but the story continues with the book Southern Nightmare: The Hunt for The South Side Strangler. When Foster asked me to read the book and share my thoughts, I couldn’t wait to dive deeper into the case that captivated me all summer.

Reading the book provided the perfect capstone to the podcast experience, another chance to fully absorb all the details that I might have missed in my first listen. The book follows the same timeline and storytelling approach as the podcast, beginning with the murder of Debbie Davis and detailing each step in Spencer’s spree of violence that spanned Virginia throughout the fall of 1987. But while the podcast describes the murders with a powerful and emotionally compelling narrative, the book is able to tell the full story in more depth and visual detail than the podcast could allow. 

After consuming the story primarily in audio form, seeing photos of the victims and major players in the case really brought the events to life. The book also includes a map of Richmond and a timeline of events, which I found to be a helpful reference. (Side note: The former journalism student in me geeked over the appendix, which includes transcripts of Foster’s interviews with former officials who played critical roles in solving the South Side Strangler cases. How cool is that??)

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Perhaps it’s the theme of 2018, but both the nature of the South Side Strangler cases and Foster’s retelling of them reminded me of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara’s posthumous memoir of her investigation into the Golden State Killer’s crimes. However, the smaller scope of the South Side Strangler cases makes it possible for Foster to dedicate a whole chapter to each of Spencer’s five murder victims. By sharing heartfelt interviews with their families, friends and coworkers, Foster makes a concerted and often deeply emotional effort to portray these women as the interesting and ambitious individuals they were, before Spencer cut their lives short. Those details about the victims’ personalities, careers and hobbies make their stories painfully relatable, especially when you imagine the terror they experienced in their final moments. It’s deeply unsettling to realize how vulnerable we all are in our safest spaces, including at home.

Along those lines: I read most of this book while I was home alone at night, which I don’t necessarily recommend. Chapter 5, which outlines the crimes Spencer committed as Arlington’s Masked Rapist, is a particularly rough read. Shortly before her death one of Spencer’s victims, Carolyn Hamm, confided to a friend that her greatest fear was that someone would break into her house and kill her. We all share that fear, which is why killers like Timothy Wilson Spencer and Joseph DeAngelo are so terrifying — and why their stories are so gripping.

Southern Nightmare is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook!

If you haven’t heard the story, download the podcast and learn more on the Southern Nightmare website. If you want to support Foster’s work and fund the upcoming second season of Southern Nightmare, become a patron here.

Did you listen to Southern Nightmare? Have you read the book yet?