“You’re not a serial killer, right?”
Those were the words that 20-year-old Sarah Butler messaged to Khalil Wheeler-Weaver shortly before meeting him on November 22, 2016. Unfortunately for her, authorities now believe that’s exactly what he was.
Butler went missing that night, after borrowing her mother’s van to “see a friend.” When authorities later searched through records on the social media network Tagged, they found that Wheeler-Weaver had previously offered her $500 for sex.
While authorities believe that Butler was Wheeler-Weaver’s last victim, they don’t think she was his first.
Khalil Wheeler-Weaver's victims
Robin Daphne Michele West
The body of 19-year-old Robin Daphne Michele West was found in an abandoned house in Orange, New Jersey on September 1, 2016. She had been raped, strangled, and set on fire. “Was she alive?” West’s mother wondered, during Wheeler-Weaver’s trial. “Did she fight? What were her last words?”
Though West’s body was found on September 1, it took more than two weeks for authorities to identify her charred remains—which weighed less than 60 pounds—through dental records. In the meantime, another woman had gone missing.
Joanne Brown and Tiffany Taylor
On December 5, contractors found the decomposing body of Joanne Brown in a vacant house in Orange, with tape over her eyes and mouth and a jacket tied around her neck like a ligature. She was last seen alive on October 22 – getting into a car with Wheeler-Weaver.
Between the disappearance of Joanne Brown and the discovery of her body, Wheeler-Weaver selected another target. Tiffany Taylor was several months pregnant, unhoused, and in need of cash. She met up with Wheeler-Weaver, she said, after he offered her money for sex via the Tagged social media app.
According to her testimony, the two of them drove around for some time before Taylor was struck in the back of the head. When she woke up, she was handcuffed, and Wheeler-Weaver was raping her.
She was eventually able to convince her attacker to drive her back to her hotel room on the pretext that she had left her cell phone inside, which contained evidence of their communications. Once she was inside the room, however, Taylor locked Wheeler-Weaver out and called the police.
Though she had managed to pull one hand out of the handcuffs, Taylor still had them hanging from her wrists when the police arrived. In spite of this, they didn’t believe her story. “They thought I was lying,” Taylor later said, claiming that the police seemed more interested in pinning a prostitution charge on her. She was the only one of Wheeler-Weaver’s victims who survived to tell the tale, and in spite of her claims against him, he remained free to prey on his last victim.
Sarah Butler—and finally, an arrest
Soon after, Wheeler-Weaver contacted Sarah Butler. A college student, Butler was home for Thanksgiving when Wheeler-Weaver convinced her to meet. She had been missing for five days when her family and friends hacked into her Tagged account.
There, they found records of her contact with Wheeler-Weaver. Rather than going to the authorities right away, however, they created a fake account and reached out to Wheeler-Weaver, arranging a meetup at a Panera Bread.
Only, they weren’t the ones who arrived. Instead, police met Wheeler-Weaver and questioned him—but even then, they didn’t place him under arrest. He wasn’t taken into custody until nearly a week later.
When Wheeler-Weaver was finally arrested for Butler’s murder, police began to go through his records, and found data connecting him to the other killings—not only to the women themselves, but to where their bodies were found.
Khalil Wheeler-Weaver's trial
During his trial, prosecutors argued that Wheeler-Weaver used dating apps to find and lure his victims, preying on sex workers and unhoused women. “This defendant mistakenly believed that he could kill them and dump their bodies, and no one would care,” Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens II said in a statement. “He miscalculated.”
In a 2019 trial, Wheeler-Weaver was found guilty not only of three counts of murder but also the kidnapping, attempted murder, and aggravated sexual assault of Tiffany Taylor, as well as aggravated arson and three counts of desecration of human remains. He was sentenced to 160 years in prison.
“The purpose of this sentence is that this defendant never walks free in society again,” the judge in the case said. “This defendant absolutely lacks remorse.”
According to Wheeler-Weaver, however, that wasn’t the case. Throughout the trial, he maintained his innocence, claiming that he had been framed for the crimes, despite the testimony of Tiffany Taylor. “I do feel sympathy for the victims,” Wheeler-Weaver said. “My heart goes out to their family and friends. However, I was not the person who committed these crimes.”
Another victim—Mawa Doumbia
Even after Wheeler-Weaver was behind bars, however, the trail of devastation left in his wake was not yet over.
On May 9, 2019, authorities found the remains of 15-year-old Mawa Doumbia in an abandoned house in Orange, New Jersey. She had been missing since 2016, and her remains were so decomposed by the time they were found that it took considerable time to identify them.
Once authorities knew that they had the remains of Mawa Doumbia, however, they began connecting her to Wheeler-Weaver, who they say solicited her for sex leading up to October 7, 2016—when he picked her up and she was never seen alive again.
As Wheeler-Weaver sat in his prison cell, prosecutors were bringing a fourth murder charge against him, citing “extensive digital evidence” linking Wheeler-Weaver to Doumbia’s death.
In March of 2022, Wheeler-Weaver was not only indicted on the fourth murder charge, but also on charges of attempted sexual assault of a minor, endangering the welfare of a child, and another charge of desecration of human remains.
Prosecutors say that Wheeler-Weaver contacted Doumbia online and solicited her for sex. He then picked her up at her family home in Newark on October 7 and took her to the abandoned house where her body was eventually found. There, he assaulted her and strangled her to death, much as he had his other victims.
Was the case mishandled?
Though Wheeler-Weaver is now behind bars, the authorities have been widely criticized for their handling of the case, with many pointing out that at least one woman would still be alive if police had taken the initial charges of Tiffany Taylor more seriously.