DNA Breakthrough Helps St. Louis PD Solve 'Package Killer' Serial Murders

Sept. 20, 2022
After repeatedly sending evidence for DNA testing over the years, St. Louis investigators finally got a match that identified a suspect in at least five serial killings in the area over 30 years ago.

By Erin Heffernan

Source St. Louis Post-Dispatch

CLAYTON, MO— Authorities said in a stunning announcement Monday that one man is behind at least five St. Louis-area serial killings, including the grisly murders of four women that went unsolved for more than 30 years.

Gary Muehlberg, 73, is already serving a life sentence in prison for a St. Louis County murder. On Monday, prosecutors charged him with four new counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Robyn Mihan, Brenda Pruitt, Donna Reitmeyer and Sandy Little.

All four women disappeared from south St. Louis within six months in 1990, only to have their bodies discovered by passersby in makeshift containers across the region: One bound between two mattresses. One concealed in a wooden box. Two stuffed into garbage cans.

All had ties to the same small stretch of Cherokee Street in St. Louis frequented by sex workers, then known as "The South Side Stroll."

All were gagged and strangled. All four were mothers. The killer always covered their faces.

Investigators long suspected the murders were linked to one person, but it took a DNA breakthrough this spring to finally link a name to the crimes.

O'Fallon, Missouri, police Detective Sgt. Jodi Weber reopened the cold cases in 2008.

As lead detective on the case, she repeatedly sent evidence for DNA testing over the years in hopes developments in the technology could find a new lead.

"I got into police work to work these types of cases," she said. "When I started to look into it, the fact that a woman's body had been found in a box in our jurisdiction — and it had never been solved — blew me away."

The match finally came in March.

The St. Charles County Police Lab found enough DNA to get a hit on Muehlberg in CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System database.

Muehlberg is 27 years into a life sentence at Potosi Correctional Center for the 1993 killing of Kenneth "Doc" Atchison, who he murdered for $6,000 before storing the man's body in a plywood box in Muehlberg's basement.

"I had been waiting fourteen years to talk to the individual responsible for these murders," Weber said. "The families waited much longer."

Muehlberg admitted to police in both written and spoken statements to killing all four women, according to court documents, along with one other murder with which he has not been charged. Police are continuing to investigate that case.

Muehlberg's alleged motive in targeting sex workers remains unclear, Weber said.

"I don't even know if he even knows why he did the things he did," she said.

Muehlberg has been diagnosed with cancer, according to law enforcement sources. He wrote Weber a letter in August saying he hoped to atone for what he had done.

"No matter how these victims choose to earn a living, they should not have had their lives taken in such a dark way," he wrote in an excerpt of the letter provided to the Post-Dispatch. He added: "I still dislike that negative, dark, short period in (my) past life."

Muehlberg ended the letter: "Glad I can finally do (the) right thing. I know you sort of understand. I must live with my past — the good and bad parts. No more running."

Family members of the victims Muehlberg is accused of killing expressed a mix of excitement, renewed grief and anger on behalf of those they lost.

"I've just been looking at his picture ever since I found out asking: Why? Why would you do this?" said Barb Studt, a stepsister of victim Sandy Little, killed at age 21.

Little's body was found five months later abandoned in a box off Interstate 70.

"She was more than someone selling her body. She had so many years stolen," Studt said. "They all did."

The first victim: Robyn Mihan

Robyn Mihan, 18, was the first woman police tied to Muehlberg to disappear from The Stroll.

Her older brother, Thomas Mihan, now 55, recalled his sister as a fun-loving young mother who, like many in the early '90s, developed a crack cocaine addiction.

"I kind of raised her for a little while. My mom was going to school and working at the same time, so the responsibility kind of fell on me," he said.

Robyn Mihan gave birth to a baby girl when she was 16 years old and at 18 put another child up for adoption.

She turned to sex work and was last seen, by another sex worker, on March 22, 1990, turning a corner near The Stroll.

Police believe Muehlberg took her to his home at 3520 East Edgar Drive in Bel-Ridge, where they allege he killed all his victims.

And like in every case, Mihan's body was "packaged."

The body was found four days after she disappeared off Highway E near Silex, a rural Missouri town about 60 miles northwest of St. Louis.

A man searching for his daughter in the area found the body stuffed between two mattresses bound together with coat hangers.

Medical examiners determined she had been strangled. A condom wrapper was found with the body. There was a shirt wrapped around her head. It had sweat stains investigators over the years hoped might hold DNA.

Robyn Mihan's brother, Thomas, said he's tried to block out the memory of what happened to his sister for the past 30 years but is relieved there's been a breakthrough in her case.

"What I'm most happy about is that the man has been incarcerated since 1993," he said last week from his front porch on Oleatha Avenue.

"I just miss her," he added. "All I can really say is: 'She was a good person.' You know?"

Thomas said he thinks about his sister the most when he is around her daughter, now working as a nurse with two children of her own.

"She looks just like her," he said.

May 1990: Brenda Pruitt

Forty-eight days after Mihan went missing, family members told police they couldn't find 27-year-old Brenda Pruitt.

For 10 months, it wasn't clear where Pruitt, who lived not far from The Stroll, went.

In October that year, a jogger on Basston Drive in Maryland Heights reported a foul odor to city employees cutting weeds. The workers searched and found decomposed remains in a brown plastic 33-gallon trash can lying on the grass nearby.

The body was in such a state that the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis was unable to identify the victim for another five months. In March 1991, Janet Majors, a fingerprint examiner with St. Louis police, sifted through individual fingerprint cards by hand to make the identification.

The Post-Dispatch could not reach family members of Pruitt Monday, but police said she had a young child at the time of her death and has grandchildren today.

June 1990: Donna Reitmeyer

One month after Pruitt disappeared, Donna Reitmeyer, 40, was last seen on her way to meet a customer near The Stroll.

A friend, Sheila Leach, told police she had been dropped off with Reitmeyer that night.

"I was supposed to meet her later, but she didn't show up and she didn't come home so I called police the next day," Leach told the Post-Dispatch at the time. "It wasn't like her to disappear like that."

Just like Pruitt, Reitmeyer's body was found in a rubber trash can. A pedestrian reported it a few days after her death on a sidewalk along Gasconade Street between South Broadway and Ohio Avenue in south St. Louis.

Reitmeyer had three children ranging from 13 to late 20s when she was killed, her daughter Juanita Zills said.

Zills said her mother had a drug addiction before her death.

"As prevalent as addiction is today, I think stories like this are important to remind people how it can put you in the car of someone dangerous," Zills said. "Unfortunately, my mom never had the chance to overcome her addiction."

Today, Reitmeyer is survived by five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, her family said.

"She just wanted so bad to be loved and accepted," her niece Tina Hubbard said.

September 1990: Sandy Little

The fourth came three months later.

Sandy Little, 21, was a sex worker with an infant son who managed to stay fun and upbeat despite a troubled life, her stepsister, Studt, said.

Studt's father married Little's mom when Little was a toddler.

"She was just like a little doll," Studt said. "She was the cutest little girl."

Little's father died when she was about 8 or 9, leaving Little and four other young children in her mother's care.

"I remember the police coming because Mom would leave Sandy alone to babysit the baby at 10," her younger sister Geneva Valle Palomino said. "The neighbors reported her."

For the next decade, Little bounced between foster care, group homes and her mother's house, including a foster care stint in Homer, Alaska.

She lived for a time as a teenager with Studt in St. Louis but rebelled, dropping out of high school and refusing to show up to her job at a south St. Louis Woolworth's department store, Studt said.

"She didn't do what she was told," Studt said. "But she always had a lot of friends and boys calling the house asking for her."

Studt said she remembers coming home from work when they lived together to Little dancing and singing to Michael Jackson turned all the way up.

Eventually, Little moved out of Studt's home and had a baby boy. She was living with the family of her boyfriend, the baby's father, and working on The Stroll when her family reported her missing on Sept. 4, 1990.

"We knew she would never leave her child," Valle Palomino said.

Studt said she remembers setting out dinner at her home in St. Peters in February 1991, about five months later, when she finally saw a report on the TV news about a body found in O'Fallon, Missouri.

"I immediately said that's got to be Sandy," Studt said.

A driver on his way to work at the General Motors plant in Wentzville found her decomposed body in a wooden box on the shoulder of Interstate 70, just west of Highway 79. A radiologist compared records from an old arm fracture to make the identification. A wool cap with the brand name " Ticor Title Insurance" was pulled over her face.

A few weeks after her body was found, Major Case Squad detectives made a clay model of Little's face to try and generate leads, to no avail.

Investigators by then suspected they had a serial killer on their hands.

"We're certainly looking at the possibility there could be one killer," Florissant police Chief Robert Lowery Sr., chair of the Major Case Squad, told the Post-Dispatch at the time. "I think we're dealing with someone right here in the St. Louis area."

Little's body was buried in the Baue Cave Springs cemetery. Her family didn't have enough money to buy her a gravestone, so her grave remains unmarked to this day, Studt said.

For Studt, the charges come with a mix of gratitude and caution.

"I don't want this news to give him any fame," she said. "He doesn't deserve any notoriety."

1991: FBI gets involved

By June 1991, the FBI confirmed local police suspicions that the deaths were likely the work of a serial killer.

The Post-Dispatch quoted an investigator close to the case in 1992 who said the FBI profiled the culprit as "a sexual sadist who goes after younger women he can control."

They thought he was a loner, probably divorced, with a history of menial jobs and a poor work record.

"He's playing games with us, leaving bodies in containers out in the open," the investigator said at the time.

Joe Burgoon, a veteran St. Louis homicide sergeant, had a role in the investigations over the years. He now works cold cases for the St. Louis County Police Department.

Burgoon first got involved after Mihan's body was found in Silex and said a series of suspects were considered, then ruled out.

Burgoon said the killer always seemed to dump the bodies at night and appeared to make a point to do so across different police jurisdictions.

"He'd get different departments working on it," he said.

One particular man was a keen focus of police for years, Burgoon said, after a woman was found running naked down a street in south St. Louis. It wasn't Muehlberg.

Burgoon said that Muehlberg was never a focus before the DNA hit.

"I'm glad they got him," he said of the charges. "It takes a long time sometimes."

February 1993: Kenneth 'Doc' Atchison

It was the disappearance of Kenneth Atchison that put Muehlberg in prison for life.

Atchison, who went by Doc, went missing two years and five months after Little was last seen.

His brother, Vernon Atchison, remembers the 45 panicked days he spent looking for him.

On Feb. 8, 1993, Muehlberg lured Atchison, 57, of Overland, to his Bel-Ridge home with a promise to sell him a used 1987 Cadillac for $6,000 cash.

But according to Vernon, police didn't immediately take his case seriously when his family reported Kenneth missing.

"They said they thought he went to Vegas," Vernon said. "They told me: 'He'll turn up in a week or two. You can buy a lot of sunshine for $6,000.'"

So Vernon combed ballroom dance halls Kenneth used to frequent. He called different police agencies begging them to search Muehlberg's house, where friends knew Kenneth had gone.

Vernon went to the Overland diner where his brother, a drywall contractor, often spent time with other tradesmen, including Muehlberg.

"They knew each other well," he said.

The men there told Vernon that Muehlberg came to the diner the day after Kenneth was killed. Muehlberg had a gun, the men said, and a wad of cash.

About six weeks after Kenneth went missing, a friend of Muehlberg's, security guard Ron Silanskas, finally went to police.

Muehlberg had asked Silanskas to move "a box" from his basement, offering to give him a 1984 Mercury Cougar to do the job. When he arrived, Silanskas found a crude plywood coffin with Atchison's shoes sticking out, he eventually testified in court.

Police recovered Atchison's body from the basement in March 1993. He had been gagged, handcuffed, strangled and shot.

Muehlberg, 44 at the time, was soon arrested in Wayne County, Illinois. He was convicted in 1995 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Until this year, police never linked Atchison's killing to the "package killer" deaths as he didn't fit the pattern of female sex workers.

"We miss him," said Vernon, who still has the pages of handwritten notes he took when he was trying to locate his brother. " Gary Muehlberg got a life sentence, but he needs two or three more."

Atchison said he'd often considered whether Muehlberg might have been behind more killings but only learned of the upcoming charges when a reporter from the Post-Dispatch called him Friday.

"I'm not surprised he was capable of this," he said.

Cases reopened

Lead detective Weber said she got the call on a Colorado ski trip: There was a DNA match in the "package killer" cases.

The DNA was found on the condom wrapper left with Robyn Mihan's body.

After the match, Weber worked to find out more about Muehlberg.

"The people I interviewed who knew him said he was a narcissist," she said. "He thought he was better than everybody else."

Muehlberg was born in St. Louis but lived for a period in Kansas, where he was charged with raping and robbing a woman in the early 1970s, Weber said. Police reports did not list the woman as a sex worker.

He served time in prison for the robbery but then earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from Central Methodist University.

He was married and divorced twice and had three children, Weber said.

Muehlberg hopped between jobs, spending time as a teacher at Hubert Wheeler School in St. Louis, rehabbing houses and doing maintenance at the Moolah Shrine Center in Maryland Heights, she said.

When Weber interviewed him the first time, she said he was unwell and seemed guarded but admitted to the murders of Mihan, Little and Pruitt after he was told about DNA evidence in the case.

"He was vague, and we asked him what would be stopping him from giving us more information," Weber said.

Muehlberg told detectives he would provide more information if prosecutors in Lincoln, St. Charles and St. Louis counties all agreed not to consider the death penalty in his case. They agreed.

"Ultimately, we knew that because of the time that had elapsed, it was going to require the cooperation of Mr. Muehlberg," St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar said at a news conference called Monday to announce the charges. "We are satisfied that so far he has fully cooperated."

Muehlberg sent a letter to Weber after the death penalty decision describing two more killings, including one police concluded to be Reitmeyer.

"I should have addressed or talked about two other 'cold cases' from the same time frame on your last visit," he wrote.

Investigators are still working to identify the victim in one of the killings. Muehlberg said he disposed of that body in a metal barrel at a self-serve car wash.

Weber and another investigator interviewed him a second time after receiving the letter. He showed signs of remorse, she said.

"The second interview was pretty powerful," she said. "He said he's thought a lot about these cases. He said his remaining time in prison would be easier getting this off his chest."

Weber said she hopes Muehlberg will continue to divulge more specifics to help investigators understand the killings.

"I'm ecstatic these victim's families can finally have a name," she said. "We still have work to do."


(c)2022 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com

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