How a Texas Ranger convinced serial killer Samuel Little to confess to murdering 93 people

Texas Ranger James Holland tells "60 Minutes" how he got serial killer Samuel Little to confess to his crimes

Extracting confessions from a serial killer

Tonight you're going to hear about the man the FBI is now calling the most prolific serial killer in the history of the United States. His name is Samuel Little, and over the last year and a half he has confessed to 93 murders. That's more than were committed by Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer combined. No one would have known the scale of Little's crimes if not for a Texas Ranger who had a hunch. Little had never confessed to anyone about anything, but over the course of 700 hours of interviews, Ranger James Holland coaxed the 79-year-old into revealing his life's work. The confessions have enabled investigators across the country to solve dozens of cold cases, but Holland needs help to match up the rest. It's why the Texas Ranger is telling us the story of how he got America's deadliest serial killer to confess.

With a swagger that would make John Wayne envious, Texas Ranger James Holland arrived this summer at the California State Prison. He was escorted to the interview room for another round with Samuel Little, the killer who went undetected for nearly half a century.

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Samuel Little speaks with Texas Ranger James Holland

Don't be fooled by his grandfatherly appearance...

Samuel Little: I got away with numerous murders, of women, in my life over the span of 50 years…

Ninety-three murders in 19 states, from 1970 to 2005. Now, near the end of his own life and out of appeals, Little has been spilling his secrets to Ranger Holland over the course of several interviews since May of last year.

James Holland: Where did you kill the most?

Samuel Little: Oh that's easy, Florida and California.

James Holland: What city did you kill the most in?

Samuel Little: Miami and Los Angeles.

James Holland: And how many did you kill in Los Angeles. 

Samuel Little: Los Angeles, approximately 20.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So how did he skip by so long?

James Holland: He was so good at what he did. You know, 'How did you get away with it, Sammy?' Did the crime, left town.

The drifter from Ohio preyed upon the fringes of society. Prostitutes, drug addicts, women he believed the police wouldn't work too hard to find. The ranger says Little was a cunning killer who sized up his victims and his surroundings.

James Holland: The first thing I picked up on is how wicked smart he was.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Smart?

James Holland: Oh, like genius. Yes, absolutely.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Why, why do you say that?

James Holland: Oh, well, number one, you know, the photographic memory, his memory for details. You know, like, Sammy, tell me what's around her? There's three tombstones over there. There's a caliche road. Drive down a quarter of a mile, there's a white Baptist church that needs to be whitewashed. Phenomenal.

For example, Little remembered unusual arches close to the spot where he killed a woman outside of Miami. Sure enough, when Miami detectives investigated, they saw the arches. Little had strangled Miriam Chapman near those arches in 1976.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You've never felt like he sent you on some wild goose chase?

James Holland: No. Nothing he's ever said has been proven to be wrong or false. We've been able to prove up almost everything he said.

Because of Little's confessions, judges and prosecutors nationwide have been able to close long-standing cases.

Judge: What is your plea to the charge of murder?

Samuel Little: Guilty.

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Here was Little via a video link from his prison in August, pleading guilty to two stranglings in Cincinnati. In just over a year, 50 cold cases that had been dormant for decades, have been solved due to the detailed confessions Little provided to the ranger.

James Holland: Tell me about North Little Rock. Tell me what that girl looked like…

Samuel Little: Had buck teeth. Had a gap between her teeth, that's what it was.

Little grows disturbingly animated as he describes how he strangled his victims.

Samuel Little: She was fighting for her life, and I'm fighting for my pleasure…

Sharyn Alfonsi: So how do you reach a serial killer? How do you get 'em to talk?

James Holland: You avoid the things that normally work for investigators.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you mean by that?

James Holland: You avoid things like remorse and closure for the family.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Cause they don't have remorse, and they don't care about closure?

James Holland: No. It doesn't appeal to them at all. I mean, you're asking them to open up their soul to the things that are more intimate to them than anything in life. Why should they do that with you? And that's what you're workin' for.

Samuel Little: A little skinny black girl. Real friendly. She was laughing while I was killing her.

James Holland: With Sammy, there's indications of visualization, of when he's thinking about a crime scene. He'll start stroking his face. And as he's starting to picture a victim, you'll see him look out and up. And you can tell he has this revolving carousel of victims, and it's just spinning, and he's waiting for it to stop at the one that he wants to talk about.

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Texas Ranger James Holland

Investigators had discovered that Little liked to sketch. Ranger Holland gave him art supplies, wondering if he might be able to use his remarkable memory to draw his victims. And he has…

Sharyn Alfonsi: Wow. These are all of his drawings.

James Holland: These are all his.

Sharyn Alfonsi: They're pretty detailed.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Is there one that you looked at and you knew right away, oh, that's…

James Holland: There's a lot of them.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Really? Yeah…

James Holland: Yeah, as soon as we matched it up.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How many has he sketched?

James Holland: I think there's somewhere around 50.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The note on this one is super creepy.

James Holland: 'Sam killed me but I love him.' He writes notes on some of the drawings.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Tall girl by the highway. Girl in a strip joint. Left in the woods.

Sharyn Alfonsi: 1972? And it's so…

James Holland: Right, yes, and we've matched that one up.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You have…

James Holland: Yes, that's a New Orleans murder.

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Texas Ranger James Holand shows correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi the sketches Samuel Littler has drawn of some of his victims

Sharyn Alfonsi: I can't remember the person who checked me out of the hotel this morning. If someone gave me a million dollars to draw her face I couldn't do it. The fact that he can still do this.

James Holland: Right. He basically takes a photograph in his mind of exactly what he sees as he leaves them.

A year and a half ago, Ranger Holland had never heard of Samuel Little. Little was rotting away in this prison at the edge of California's Mojave Desert, sentenced to three life terms in 2014 for strangling three women. In court, prosecutors had labeled Little a sexual predator. He denied everything and was defiant to the end. 

But the FBI noted that Little had somehow skirted charges for violent crimes year after year in state after state in places where women disappeared, including Texas. That drew the interest of Ranger James Holland, a skilled interviewer who says he's convinced dozens of killers to confess during his career.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Typically when people want you involved in a case, they want you there because why?

James Holland: Virtually every single case that I ever deal with, there's no DNA evidence, there's no forensics, there's no nothing.

And there was nothing linking Samuel Little to additional murders. Just suspicions. The ranger was intrigued by a cold case in Odessa, Texas. Denise Brothers was a prostitute working on the wrong side of town. Then she went missing in 1994…

Damien: We looked everywhere…

Her son Damien remembers driving around Odessa with his grandparents looking for her. A month later, Denise Brothers' body was found at the back of an abandoned parking lot, dumped in brush. 

Damien: We were asked to come down and look at the body.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You had to do that?

Damien: Yeah.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How old were you?

Damien: 14.

Sharyn Alfonsi: That sticks with you…

Damien: Yeah.

For 24 years, Damien didn't know who killed his mother or why. Ranger Holland learned Denise Brothers had been strangled and that Samuel Little was in West Texas at the time. 

James Holland: Did Sammy do it? I don't know, but I felt like there was a, you know a reasonable probability that he did it.

To find out if his instinct was right, the ranger went to California last year to interview Little, who had always been hostile to law enforcement.

James Holland: Did I believe he was going to confess? (laughs) Complete arrogance on my part. Absolutely.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And for the first couple of minutes, it really was going quite poorly. He's…

James Holland: Oh, horrible.

Sharyn Alfonsi: ...he's raging.

James Holland: Oh, yes.

Little vented in the interview room for 30 minutes that he had been wrongly depicted as a rapist…

James Holland: There was no doubt in my mind that Samuel Little was not a rapist. But I told him he knew it, and I knew it that he was a killer. And he stops and he kinda looks at me for a second. And he didn't seem to mind it. And then you could see in his eyes as he's lookin' away, and he follows back as I say the word, 'killer.' And that appealed to him. That's how he defines himself.

Sharyn Alfonsi: As a killer?

James Holland: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Was there a moment where you said, 'I've got him?'

James Holland: Yeah, when he talked about there may be three victims in Texas…

Three victims and one of them was in Odessa, Texas…

Christie Palazzolo: All of a sudden, we turned to each other. 'Oh my gosh, he's talkin' about Odessa.' And we grab our files and start goin' through and checking what he's talkin' about and verifying.

Christie Palazzolo of the FBI and Angela Williamson of the Department of Justice analyze violent crimes. They were listening to the interview across the hall and had access to the FBI database and the Denise Brothers file…

Sharyn Alfonsi: You've got the photos of the crime scene in front of you. Did it match up right away?

Angela Williamson: Oh yes (laugh).

Christie Palazzolo: Yeah.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And he had details…

Christie Palazzolo: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: ...that hadn't been reported?

Christie Palazzolo: Extreme details, yes…

Sharyn Alfonsi: Like what?

Angela Williamson: In Denise's case, he remembered that she wore a denture.
 
The autopsy confirmed Brothers did wear a denture. All the details matched. Samuel Little had killed Denise Brothers. Ranger Holland knew he was on to something big. He schemed to have Little extradited to Texas for a few months so he could talk to him around the clock and extract more confessions…

Sharyn Alfonsi: I would think Texas with the death penalty is the last place a killer like Sammy Little wants to go. 

James Holland: Basically, what I told him was, I can go to the district attorney and I can ask him to take the death penalty off the table. And, and I believe that he will do that.

Which was especially brazen since Ranger Holland had never met the district attorney in Odessa, Bobby Bland.

Bobby Bland: And he said, 'I'd like a letter from you on your letterhead, saying that you would waive the death penalty.' And I said, 'Well, (chuckle) you know, that's a pretty tall order just to do blindly.'

Sharyn Alfonsi: So why? Why did you do it?

Bobby Bland: There's a greater good. This strange (chuckle) ranger that was callin' me from California, telling me he had a serial killer. I put my faith in him.

The next morning, the letter waiving the death penalty was in Samuel Little's hands. Last September, the rangers sent a plane to whisk Little to Texas, where he was housed in the Wise County Jail. For 48 straight days, for hours on end, the two men sat in a small room. During that time, Little confessed to 65 of his murders. The ranger plied Little with pizza and Dr. Pepper to keep the stories flowing.

Sharyn Alfonsi: People will hear this and go, why were you treating a serial killer so well?

James Holland: What do I say to that? I say that we can have one case or we can have 93 cases.

Sharyn Alfonsi: It was in your best interest for him to be comfortable.

James Holland: Oh absolutely, yes, yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So why you? Why did he finally confess to you?

James Holland: At the end of the day (sigh) maybe Sammy just liked me.

Today, Little is back at the California State Prison. We wanted to interview him on camera, but state law won't allow it. So we asked him to call us.

He did, answering our questions for nearly an hour. We wondered why he decided to confess now.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Are you worried that there might be innocent people in jail for some of your crimes?

Samuel Little: Probably be numerous people who are-- been convicted and sent to penitentiary on my behalf. I say, 'If I can help get somebody out of jail, you know, God might smile a little bit more on me.'

For most of our call, Little spoke of his victims.

Samuel Little: They was broke and homeless and they walked right into my spider web.

It was uncomfortable to listen to his graphic stories. Towards the end of the interview we asked him to reflect on the depths of his crimes.

Samuel Little: I don't think there was another person that did what I liked to do. I think I'm the only one in the world. That's not an honor. That's a curse.

With Little's old age, failing health and a fear that his memory could slip, there is urgency to figure out who and where the rest of his victims are.

James Holland: It's kind of like never ending.You have to continue. You have to finish it.

Ranger Holland's been encouraging Little to keep drawing. Three new sketches arrived at the ranger's office just last week. Three new faces last seen in the mind of the most prolific serial killer in American history.

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich, Jacqueline Williams and Claire St. Amant