In May of 1978, the body of a four-year-old boy was found on the banks of the Missouri River. It belonged to Eric Christgen, who had disappeared from his home in St. Joseph, Missouri not long before. The body showed signs of sexual abuse and it appeared that the young boy had been suffocated to death.
The St. Joseph police questioned “every known pervert in town” before finally arresting Melvin Reynolds, a 25-year-old with an intellectual disability who had been sexually abused himself as a child. Over a period of months, Reynolds was subjected to numerous interrogations, two polygraph tests, hypnosis, and even the drug amobarbital, which at the time was considered a kind of “truth serum.” Eventually, Reynolds broke under the pressure, telling police, “I’ll say so if you want me to.”
Reynolds' subsequently embellished confession was enough for a jury to convict him of second-degree murder, for which he was sentenced to life in prison. Within four years, he was released, but this isn’t a story about the criminal justice system failing to keep a dangerous predator behind bars or get him the treatment he needed. Or rather, it is—but Reynolds isn’t that predator. He was released from prison in 1982 because another man confessed to the crime Reynolds had been convicted of.
That man was Charles Ray Hatcher, a serial killer who had been in trouble with the law since 1947. When he was arrested in 1982, while trying to check himself into the St. Joseph State Hospital, he confessed to 16 murders, dating back as far as 1969. By 1984, Hatcher had been convicted of two of those killings, both the death of Eric Christgen and the murder of 11-year-old Michelle Steele, who had gone missing in 1982. Like Christgen, her body washed up on the banks of the Missouri River, showing signs of having been sexually abused, beaten, and strangled to death.
Hatcher requested the death sentence, but was given life in prison instead. Four days later, he took the decision out of the state’s hands, hanging himself in his cell at the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Born in Mound City, Missouri, about 35 miles north of St. Joseph, Hatcher’s troubles with the law started early on. When he was just six years old, he saw his older brother die. The boy was fatally electrocuted when the kite they were flying hit a high-voltage power line. By the time he was 18, Hatcher had his first run-in with the law when he was arrested for stealing a logging truck from his employer, the Iowa-Missouri Walnut Company.
By 1959, at only 30 years old, he had already served six different prison sentences, for everything from auto theft to attempted burglary to forging a $10 check. Within months of his sixth release, he was back in front of a jury, this time for attempting to abduct 16-year-old Steven Pellham at knifepoint. By the time he arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary—not for the last time—Hatcher claimed to be the most notorious criminal in the state since Jesse James.
Even while serving time behind bars, Hatcher seems to have remained a threat to those around him. In 1961, a fellow inmate was found raped and stabbed to death on the loading dock of the prison kitchen, with Hatcher the only member of the kitchen staff unaccounted for at the time of his death. Hatcher was placed in solitary confinement, but there wasn’t enough evidence to formally charge him.
While spending time in solitary, Hatcher wrote a note asking for psychiatric treatment, but the prison doctor felt that he was just trying to scheme his way out of solitary confinement, and the treatment was denied. This, too, would become a recurring theme in Hatcher’s life.
Released in 1963, Hatcher confessed to abducting and strangling a 12-year-old boy in Antioch, California in 1969. He spent the next decade in and out of jails and hospitals, with doctors often giving starkly different testaments to his mental state and competence. Hatcher was frequently considered to be faking or exaggerating symptoms in an effort to avoid culpability for his crimes, while at other times he was declared insane and diagnosed with paraphilia, pedophilia, paranoid schizophrenia, and more. He was committed to the California State Hospital as a “mentally disordered sexual offender” and diagnosed as a “manipulative institutionalized sociopath.”
He also made numerous attempts to escape. Once such incident occurred in March of 1973, when guards found Hatcher with two bedsheets stuffed into his pants, attempting a breakout. Throughout the years, Hatcher used a variety of assumed names, and got in trouble for all sorts of petty crimes, as well as more serious assaults and, eventually, the murders for which he was convicted.
As he was bouncing from jail to prison to hospital to halfway house and back again, Hatcher was also racking up other victims. In 1969, he was caught in the act by a man walking his dog, who found him beating and sexually assaulting 6-year-old Gilbert Martinez. Hatcher had abducted the boy with the promise of ice cream.
When Hatcher was finally arrested for the murder of Michelle Steele in 1982, he confessed to a litany of crimes, dating back to the death of William Freeman in Antioch, California in 1969. Several of these were already known to authorities, while others came as a surprise—like when Hatcher drew a crude map that led police to the body of 28-year-old James Churchill, who was buried in the rocky soil of the Rock Island Army Arsenal near Davenport, Iowa.
In total, Hatcher confessed to some 16 murders, though he was only ever charged with two of them. Given his history, he may have been responsible for even more. As terrible as his crimes were, almost just as terrible is how avoidable they seem in hindsight. Hatcher was a man who literally begged for psychiatric care, yet was seemingly ignored by the system. What’s more, an innocent man spent four years paying the price for one of Hatcher’s slayings, a sentence he would have no doubt carried out for the rest of his life had Hatcher not confessed.