An Unwanted Legacy

A look into the lives of the children who learned their fathers were serial killers.

Many of our shows dive deep into the minds of murderers and cult leaders, examining the lives affected by their crimes. One thing we have come to understand is that the damage caused by these violent crimes extends far beyond the victims themselves, and wreaks havoc on families, communities, law enforcement, and society at large. Unfortunately, the impact serial killers have on their own children is often overlooked in the fray.

Not many people are the children of serial killers, but for those who are, it is a lonely existence. While these children are not responsible for their parents’ egregious acts, they still inevitably suffer painful consequences, as though they are serving a sentence of their own.

“People do blame us, and people do hold us accountable,” said Amber Yates, daughter of the Spokane Serial Killer, on an episode of Monster in My Family. “I feel like I have to censor what I do...all the time. There are still times when I am afraid to say my last name for fear of the reaction.”  

Michael Brunner, one of Charles Manson’s many children, used to receive cruel notes in school from his classmates that read, “Your father is a murderer.” In 1993 he told KCBS, “People who don’t know me have a tendency to try not to get to know me.”

Outsiders always ask how they didn’t know they were living with a serial killer. For many, the truth is a complete shock because their fathers acted like normal fathers to them.

When the Green River Killer was arrested, his son, Matthew Ridgeway, was a 26-year-old Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton. Ridgeway told The News Tribune that his dad was a relaxed man who never yelled, taught him to play baseball, took him camping, and always came to his soccer practices and school concerts. When he was little, they would stop to eat snacks and play at the park after biking along the Green River trail. His father did nothing to make him suspect he was a cold-blooded murderer.

Melissa Moore, daughter of the Happy Face Killer, said the same of her own father. “He was a provider, a protector. He was what I thought every dad should be.”

Serial killers devastate everyone around them. For their families and children, it is an intimate horror, deception and betrayal. Moore once adored her father, looked up to him, and felt safe when she was with him. She remembers him as a smiling, joking man who took them on camping trips. Her memories of a kind and loving father felt real, unlike the devastating revelation that he raped and murdered eight women.

Unable to reconcile the two images, Moore brought her husband, four-year-old daughter and infant son to visit her father in prison. At the time, Moore thought she owed her children a relationship with their grandfather. “That’s the one moment as a mother, I wish I could take back,” she said.

She now keeps her distance and doesn’t read the letters he sends. “The dad I loved is gone. That’s the way I can separate the man I grew up with and the man he is.”

In an ABC News’ “20/20” interview, Moore said, as her children got older, she found herself baffled at how to tell them about their grandfather. “There’s no books [on] what to do if your dad is a serial killer. There’s no pamphlets, no support groups, and the best answer that I could find for myself was just little by little.”

Kerri Rawson, the daughter of BTK serial killer, simply told her children that their grandfather was in a “long time-out.” According to The Wichita Eagle, Rawson was diagnosed with PTSD after the truth about her father sunk in. She learned how to cope with her father’s actions through the help of her church and psychologist.

Like Melissa Moore, Rawson was torn between wanting to scream at her father and hug him. Despite the horrors the BTK killer committed, he had been a very good father to her; she couldn’t help but worry about how he fared in jail.

When the news first broke about her father’s twisted pastime, Rawson and her husband felt as if they were living under a microscope – as though nothing in their lives was sacred. TV crews knocked on their door, camped in their parking lot, and followed them to work. Rawson felt violated, unsafe, and began to analyze all her memories with her father and question his brief absences – was he putting a letter in the mail, making a grocery run, or brutally murdering someone?

Every time she looked in the mirror, she saw her father’s dark hair and eyes. It was as if her identity had been stripped away, until all that remained of her was the  BTK’s daughter. For a time, Rawson feared something would change in her – that she would become a serial killer just like him. She never did, but that didn’t stop her friends from questioning her wisdom in having children of her own. They thought she would pass on a “serial killer gene.”

Now living in Detroit with her family, Rawson says, “Coming back here to Wichita is like stepping into enemy territory.” She wonders whether people will recognize her.

Jenn Carson, daughter of one of San Francisco's Witch Killers, was only eight-years-old when she found out her father was a serial killer. “I found newspaper articles in the house. I remember the word bludgeoned because I didn't know what it meant, but I read the other words and I was able to figure out that they stabbed her in the neck 12 times...that's when my lifelong struggle with nightmares began,” she said. “How could the hands that changed my diapers, stab this woman to death?

She feels tremendous guilt for his actions, which has taken her to some very dark places over the years. Carson used to think that she was the daughter of the devil and evil. Throughout her teen years, she struggled with depression and an eating disorder, thinking she’d grow up to hurt people, too.

“I remember doing research and found out I was more likely to have a parent who died by being struck by lightning than have a parent who was a serial killer.”

Now, Carson works as a counselor for children and adolescents, with a particular focus on helping children whose parents have been sent to prison. While we should do all that we can to help the victims of crime, Carson stresses the importance of doing the same for the children whose parents are in jail.

After reading that Kerri Rawson’s brother was on suicide watch when their father the BTK killer was caught, Carson went public about her own past.

"A serial killer is smart," Carson says. "And much of the energy he puts into deception goes toward the people who are closest to him. Children of such people struggle with that. They struggle with a lot of things. I wanted the BTK killer's son to know that he wasn't alone. Having such a person in your family isn't easy. It never goes away. It's like a booby trap that keeps going off in your life."

Like Carson, Melissa Moore wanted to help people like her, and so she’s made it her mission to help the relatives of serial killers looking for answers, closure, and healing. She wrote a book titled Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter, hosted a cable network show called Monster in My Family, and was a special correspondent for Crime Watch Daily. As of 2015, Moore has corresponded with more than one hundred children of murderers, including Kerri Rawson and the Boston Strangler’s family.

“They have been living in shame the way I used to live in shame, thinking that you’re somehow responsible for that family member’s actions, that you owe the world an apology,” said Moore. “Being the daughter of a serial killer puts everything into question. Am I worthy? Do I have a right to exist when he took so much away from other people? And if I’m happy, is that a slap in the face to the victims’ families? I don’t want it to be.”

Michael Brunner, the son of Charles Manson, has said, “There’s no reason to treat me any different from the next guy.”

When asked how people should think of the children of serial killers and other criminals, Jenn Carson responded, "Like what they really are. Crime victims."

But no matter what they do to heal and help others, they will forever be haunted by their fathers’ evil. It matters little that they are not to blame for the crimes. The children of serial killers will carry the guilt, the destroyed childhood memories, shattered sense of self, ostracization, and in some cases, the loss of belief in their right to live and be happy, for the rest of their lives.