Did Robert Charles Browne Really Murder 48?

If Colorado convict Robert Charles Browne's claim to have killed 48 people over three decades is true, he would rank among the nation's most prolific serial killers. But is he really a mass murderer? Verifying that he is responsible for all of the deaths, some of which took place more than 30 years ago, will be a difficult task. And there's no guarantee that Browne's claims are on the level. "It should be no surprise that serial killers sometimes lie," says James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist and author of six books about serial killers.

False confessions are common, Fox says. "Once they are in custody facing life imprisonment or death,"—Browne is serving two life sentences in Colorado—"there is no disincentive to start bragging about other crimes." And dissembling can result in better treatment, personal amusement, sometimes even the ability to leave the prison confines for a while. In the early 1990s a Mississippi man named Donald Leroy Evans, already convicted of a murder, claimed to have killed about 70 people. He led police and the FBI to Texas and Arizona looking for bodies. "He led the police on a complete wild goose chase," says Fox. "It was just a lie."

Browne claims to have killed 17 people in Louisiana, nine in Colorado, seven in Texas, five in Arkansas, three in Mississippi, two each in New Mexico, Oklahoma and California, and one in Washington. Some were strangled, others shot. According to Browne, his weapons include a knife, screwdriver and ice pick; he cut up some of the victims and dumped their bodies in lakes, rivers, trash bins and ditches.

But how can police determine whether or not he's simply making it all up? Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler and author of "The Unknown Darkness: Profiling the Predators Among Us," says authorities must carefully scrutinize the details Browne provides. "Is he giving them exclusive knowledge, facts only the killer could know, or is he vague? If he's vague, that should set off alarm bells."

McCrary participated in the investigation of a serial killer in Rochester, N.Y., whose claims proved true. Found with a corpse, Arthur Shawcross was questioned about other local murders and confessed to 10. "It was cat and mouse in the interview but eventually he rolled over," McCrary says. Authorities were able to cross-validate his claims. "He knew facts that only a killer would know, such as how the victim was killed." Authorities also found carpet fibers from his car on some of the victims. "It was the postconfession validation that was key."

And even if Browne is truthful in some instances, that doesn't mean everything he says is true. "There's an old Italian proverb: a little truth helps the lies go down," McCrary says:  "He apparently has done some murders, but just because some of what he says is true doesn't mean everything is true.

Browne, 53, provided the first cryptic clues to his crime spree in a taunting letter to El Paso county prosecutors in 2000 while service life without parole in the Colorado state prison in Colorado Springs for the kidnap and murder of 13-year-old Colorado girl Heather Dawn Church in 1991. "The score is you[,] one, the other team[,] 48," Browne wrote from his cell. The letter piqued the interest of some cold-case volunteers who call themselves the Apple Dumping Gang. The group includes 79-year-old Charlie Hess, a former FBI and CIA agent, and Lou Smit, 71, who worked on the JonBenet Ramsey murder. Smit became interested in Browne after he learned that two women in Browne's hometown of Coushatta, La., were murdered in an apartment complex where Browne worked as a maintenance man.

Hess wrote to and then met with Browne. Four years of conversations eventually produced the confessions. In one that has been verified, Browne admitted to killing Colorado woman Rocio Sperry. Browne provided details about Sperry's marriage that could have only been obtained through direct conversation. Browne also described a ring he took from her finger and later sold; the El Paso County Sheriff's Office confirmed that story with the ring's buyer. Browne pleaded guilty Thursday to first-degree murder in Sperry's death and was given a second life sentence.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says Browne could be exaggerating but authorities must proceed as if the claims are true. Of the 48 murders claimed, Browne has provided information in just 19. Of that number, Maketa says Browne is a "strong suspect" in seven. Verifying the claims is an exhaustive process. "It's not like we sit down with him every day and he answers all our questions," says Maketa. "We have not been able to extract any information from him that he doesn't want to supply. Sometimes he doesn't want to discuss cases and only wants to chat." Browne has claimed nine victims in Colorado but has provided information on just two.

Hess says he has no reason to distrust Browne. "He provided extensive details on the method of murder, location of body, in some instances how the victim was dressed," Hess says. "In some cases he even drew maps." El Paso County officers contacted the jurisdictions where the murders took place and verified details in seven of the cases. "In those seven cases, the locations were all right on the money. The method of killing was in order. We didn't find any major discrepancies."

Hess describes Browne as being intelligent and respectful. "He never swears. He's courteous." He spoke with Browne for 30 minutes on Friday but did not discuss murders. Browne's attorney in the Sperry case has requested that authorities hold off on the questioning for now. Hess expects Browne will open up once again in the future. "I think we have a lot more to learn."