MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The faded photo of Rosie Hill shows a smiling teenager with her hands on her hips and a pink hat on her head, standing on the front porch of her mother’s house.
More than 35 years after the image was taken, her mother sits on the couch of that same house in Memphis, Tennessee, holding the picture of her late daughter on her lap, her fingertips barely touching the fragile frame. Minnie Hill speaks lovingly about her daughter, “a beautiful personality,” killed while living as a single mother in Florida.
Authorities say Rosie Hill was one of scores of vulnerable women preyed upon by Samuel Little, declared by the FBI this week as the deadliest serial killer in U.S. history.
“He was nothing but the devil,” she told The Associated Press. “Who knows of a person that killed that many people? What did she do so bad for him to kill her at the time her baby was but 2 years old?”
Little, who has been convicted of eight slayings in California, Texas and Ohio, has confessed to 93 killings across the country between 1970 and 2005, recounting the crimes in astonishing detail. Police have confirmed 50 cases after a Texas Ranger opened a floodgate of confessions more than a year ago, and the FBI this week released disturbing video interviews, hoping to solve additional cold cases.
Serial killer experts say Little’s confessions came from a desire for notoriety.
“He’s proud of his work. He’s not sad or feeling guilty. He sees himself as a killer. That’s his identity,” said Marina Sorochinski, an investigative psychology researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Victim closure, he couldn’t care less about that. It’s about him, getting attention.”
Still, Minnie Hill, now 79, says she forgives Little, because “I have to, for God to forgive me, because I do wrong and God forgives me.”
Authorities say Rosie Hill’s body was discovered in a wooded area next to a pig pen in Florida’s Marion County in August 1982. Authorities said the 20-year-old was strangled or suffocated. Investigators questioned Little at the time, but didn’t have enough evidence to charge him then.
Last fall, after Texas authorities began tying Little to murders around the country, Marion County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Michael Mongeluzzo joined police from several states who flew to Texas to bring closure to cold cases.
The sheriff’s office said: “Little confessed to killing Rosie Hill and dumping her body.”
Minnie Hill says Mongeluzzo later told her that Little said during the interrogation that Rosie “was a big fighter, but I won the fight.”
He was also tried in Florida in the 1982 death of Patricia Mount in Gainesville, but was acquitted.
“Little was able to prey upon women who were in a vulnerable state,” said Bryanna Fox, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida. “He picked the women and gained their trust, then he would kill them, and no one would report they were missing.”
Rosie Hill grew up in the Memphis area. She became pregnant during high school and moved to Florida to live with her grandparents and give birth to her daughter. She later moved to Ocala.
Minnie Hill says her daughter called her Aug. 4, 1982. They spoke again four days later. Rosie delivered an ominous message.
“She said, ‘Mother, I’m up into something, but I can’t get out of it unless I leave from here. So, I’ll be home the weekend,'” Hill said.
But Rosie Hill was reported missing on Aug. 12, Minnie Hill said. She and her husband went down to Florida.
“Didn’t nobody know anything,” she said.
Then, a call came that the morgue had her daughter. But Minnie Hill had her doubts about the identification, she said, when she learned the body was decomposed to the point where it was mostly bones and hair.
“For two years I waited to hear a phone call from her, maybe she’ll come home. She never did,” she said.
Hill had trouble sleeping and she remembers lunging for the phone every time it rang, hoping it was her fun-loving daughter who loved children, cooking, dancing and the church.
But no news came. Hill resigned herself to the knowledge that her daughter was gone.
Hill says investigators suggested her daughter had worked as a prostitute. Minnie Hill said that could have explained Rosie Hill’s statements to her that she was “into something.” But it was one of many half-clues and disappointing leads into a case that went nowhere — until last year.
Minnie Hill still lives in the working-class neighborhood where she raised her daughter, and later her orphaned granddaughter.
Hill holds closely to the memories of her daughter — the picture owns a prominent place in her living room. She described her daughter as well-behaved in school and a good student.
“She got along with just about everybody,” Minnie Hill said. “She always kept us laughing and cutting up. She used to love to dance. Sometimes we’d just be sitting around, have music on, she’d be the clown.”
Minnie Hill laments the fact that Little wasn’t stopped sooner.
“Maybe somebody’s life would have been saved.”
Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Fla. Kelli Kennedy in Miami and Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.