Inside One Man’s Serial-Killer Unification Theory
There is a lot to question about the wild theories raised on Paramount Network’s new true crime series, It Was Him: The Many Murders of Ed Edwards, but let’s get one thing straight – the sincerity of the man behind them, John A. Cameron, isn’t one of them.
For the last eight years, Cameron, a retired cold case detective, has sought to prove that Edward Wayne Edwards was the most prolific serial killer the world has never heard of. He believes that Edwards committed upwards of a hundred murders, killing some of the most famous victims of the last 70 years: JonBenet Ramsey; Laci Peterson; Teresa Halbach (Making a Murderer); Adam Walsh (son of America’s Most Wanted‘s John Walsh); Chandra Levy; Jimmy Hoffa; Martha Moxley; Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers (of the West Memphis Three case); and the Black Dahlia. Cameron also believes Edwards was the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the Bay Area in the late 1960s, and that he is responsible for the “Atlanta Child Murders.”
And yes, he’s serious.
Cameron’s theories – which he detailed in his 2014 book It’s Me: Edward Wayne Edwards, the Serial Killer You Never Heard Of – have been met with almost universal disdain, especially from law enforcement, of which he was a member for 24 years; he’s been labeled a crackpot and a conspiracy theorist; he’s lost friends, colleagues and his job.
That Edwards was a serial killer isn’t in dispute. In 2010, the late con-man confessed to killing five people, including two couples: Billy Lavaco and Judy Straub in Ohio in 1977; Timothy Hack and Kelly Drew in Wisconsin in 1980; and his foster son, Daniel Gloeckner, in Ohio in 1996. He wasn’t caught for any of them until they had long gone cold – then, Edwards’ daughter ratted him out.
“Kids aren’t stupid,” April Balascio, Edwards’ daughter from his fourth marriage, told People earlier this year. She always knew there was something off about her dad’s obsession with murder, and the way he would move his family from city to city every few months. In 2009, she saw a news report about the newly reopened Hack/Drew murder case, and realized that Edwards had worked at the venue where the couple was last seen alive. She also remembered that two days after the couple disappeared, Edwards announced that the family was moving again – immediately.
“I was shaking,” Balascio told People. “Immediately I knew who it was that had committed the murders.”
Less than a year later, Edwards pleaded guilty to the two double murders and was sentenced to life in prison. He eventually confessed to killing Gloekner, and was given the death penalty. Just a few months before his scheduled execution in 2011, he died on death row from natural causes.
Cameron was already far down the rabbit hole by then. Initially, Edwards’ two “lovers’ lane” double murders reminded him of one of his old cold cases, the murder of a Great Falls couple in 1956; after he confirmed that Edwards was in the area at the time, he assumed his old colleagues would be happy to take over.
“When I when I first started, I thought, ‘Well it’ll be easy, I’ll just be able to get the real cops on board,'” Cameron tells Rolling Stone. “But as time went on, I was really shunned, even by my local police department. I was called in and read my rights, I was told to stay out of it.”
He and Edwards began exchanging letters instead, and his theories started to snowball. Cameron quit his job with the State’s parole board rather than give up the investigation no one else would touch. He believes law enforcement didn’t investigate Edwards any further because the serial killer was an informant, he claims, and made friends with police in every city he visited.
Over the course of six episodes, It Was Him takes a deep dive into just a handful of Cameron’s most controversial theories. Along for the ride is Wayne Wolfe, the show’s co-producer and Edwards’ grandson. Wolfe only learned his grandpa was a serial killer a few years ago.
“My mind was blown,” Wolfe tells Rolling Stone. “My grandmother had been contacted by John a few years ago, and she had made him promise to never reach out to me or my father because she didn’t want us to know.” Unbeknownst to anyone in the family, she had been living in fear of Edwards all her life.
Each episode features interviews with law enforcement, journalists and other experts with their own knowledge of the murders Cameron believes Edwards committed.
Los Angeles Times’ journalist Larry Harnisch, an expert on the Black Dahlia case, says he was “shocked” when producers asked him to appear on the series, because he had written a blog post slamming Cameron’s theory that Edwards killed Elizabeth Short, calling it “a whole new level of absurdity.”
“I told the producer, ‘Look this is crazy,'” Harnisch tells Rolling Stone. “‘And that’s what I’m going to say.’ They said, ‘Go ahead, call it like you see it.’… At some point I was told that in some of the other interviews that he did with law enforcement people they were a lot more blunt and impolite than I was.”
Of all his theories, Cameron’s belief that Edwards killed the young woman dubbed “The Black Dahlia” is his most outlandish. The 22-year-old waitress’s mutilated body was found in January 1947, having been severed at the waist and drained of blood. The LAPD investigated the possibility that Short was murdered by a surgeon or someone with extensive medical knowledge. Ed Edwards would have been just 13 years old at the time, and never received more than a sixth-grade education. There is a lso no reputable evidence that Edwards and Short knew each other; Cameron’s “proof” is a series of photo booth pictures of Short with a young man (not a teen) who looks nothing like Edwards at any age.
Cameron’s primary source material for his Black Dahlia theory is a 15-year-old website which “kept showing up” when he was “doing research,” he says. Cameron believes that Edwards was the author of the website, and the third person narrative (fingering a fictional suspect named Ed Burns) is meant to be a coded confession. As soon as he mentions the site on the show’s fifth episode, Harnisch couldn’t hold back a laugh.
“When I heard that his research consisted of Google, I thought, Oh no,” Harnish tells Rolling Stone. “His so-called source material? It’s just bonkers. It’s really flying saucer and men from Mars stuff. … I kind of feel sorry for him. In sitting down and talking to him, there was no question on my mind – does he believe everything he says? Yes, he does. Is he terribly, terribly wrong? Yes, he is terribly, terribly wrong.”
It’s easy to understand how Cameron became so fascinated with Edwards, who was a legitimately brilliant con artist. In 1972, he published his autobiography, Metamorphosis of a Criminal: The True Life Story of Ed Edwards, which detailed his troubled childhood, entry into a life of crime and the prison guard who inspired him to clean up his act. Edwards marketed the book as a tale of reform, touring the country as a speaker and claiming to be on the straight and narrow. He even released a motivational album (used for the opening credits of It Was Him) and appeared on the ABC game show To Tell The Truth. By the early Seventies, Edwards was on his fourth wife and had several more children, the picture of a reformed convict-turned-family man. Then, five years after the book was published, Edwards committed his first confirmed murder.
According to Cameron, a Metamorphosis of Criminal is hiding many more.
“His book was a blueprint for all the killing he had done and all the cities that he had killed in,” he tells Rolling Stone. Cameron believes Edwards wrote about the murders indirectly – the names he uses for different characters are linked to Edwards’ victims, he says, and seemingly innocuous anecdotes contain references to how the murders were committed.
“That’s really what the book was,” Cameron agrees. “It was the Zodiac Killer taunting everybody with who he really was, to see if somebody would follow his trail.”
Cameron’s belief that Edwards is the Zodiac Killer is central to many of his other theories. On its own, it’s not implausible. The Zodiac claimed responsibility for 37 murders, but he’s only been officially linked to attacks on three couples and a taxi driver in Northern California from 1968 to 1969. There’s some evidence that Edwards was in the area during those years, and the Zodiac, like Edwards, may have served time at Deer Lodge Prison in Montana
Balascio has said her father was obsessed with the Zodiac case and remembers him watching news coverage and yelling, “That’s not how it happened!” Creepy, but Edwards wouldn’t be the first person, killer or not, to be obsessed with the Zodiac case.
Cameron often says he “just follows the evidence,” but he also embellishes the facts to fit his theories. For example, on It Was Him, Cameron goes on and on about the craftsmanship of the black executioner’s hood the Zodiac wore during his third attack. Cameron describes the hood as being made of leather, with intricate stitching around the cross symbol on its front. While in prison, Edwards was trained in leatherwork, ergo, Ed Edwards must have made the ornate leather hood, Cameron concludes.
Except, there’s no evidence that the Zodiac’s hood was made of leather. The costume was never found, and the only description on record did not indicate what kind of material it was fashioned out of. A sketch artist’s official rendering doesn’t include any of the decorative details that Cameron seems to have imagined.
Some of his investigative methods also lack validity. Cameron’s claim that a cryptographer friend cracked the Zodiac’s infamous 13-character “My name is” cipher is too dizzying to follow, but in short, “Edward Edwards” fits perfectly, “you just had to know [his] name in order to solve it,” he says. This method of working backwards to solve a cryptogram has worked for other sleuths too – Cameron is not the first to believe he has cracked the Zodiac’s code with this strategy, nor is Edwards’ name the first to “fit.”
Cameron contends that Edwards and the Zodiac shared the same M.O. because they both killed couples, but Edwards raped at least one of his victims, while the Zodiac’s crimes had no sado-sexual elements. Besides, Cameron’s overarching theory is that Edwards targeted not just couples, but also single women and men, whole families and children, regardless of race or age, and used a variety of kill methods – he basically had no M.O.
Cameron’s Zodiac theory has fueled many of his others, a spiraling tornado of confirmation bias sweeping up any case that contains some resemblance. To Cameron, a mysterious note or letter seems to always be a sign from the Edwards/Zodiac.
Like the bizarre, rambling ransom note in the JonBenet Ramsey case. According to Cameron, the signature “S.B.T.C.” stands for “Signed By The Cross,” i.e. the Zodiac cross, while the text contains a quote similar to one from the movie Dirty Harry, which is loosely based on the Zodiac case. (The ransom note also contains a quote from the movie Speed, but Cameron doesn’t link Keanu to the crime.)
Or the letter that was sent to a Modesto Bee reporter in 2003 claiming responsibility for the murder of Laci Peterson and for framing her husband Scott. Absent any overt Zodiac references, Cameron hones in on the word “(me),” which is in parenthesis. When an “m” is turned on its side, Cameron goes on, it looks like a capital “E”, therefore “me” is actually “EE,” or Edwards’ initials.
“He was into crimes of recognition,” Cameron tells Rolling Stone. “He would create these horrific murders where he would frame somebody, it would be a press sensation, and then he could just sit back and read the paper every day about his murder. He didn’t need to be the guy that was finally identified and say, ‘Yep, it’s me, I’m the Zodiac.’ He wanted to die and continue to kill in his afterlife with the people he framed.”
Often, Cameron says, Edwards’ targets were the people he framed, and the murders were just a means to an end. Like Steven Avery, who Cameron believes Edwards resented for getting so much attention following his 2003 exoneration for rape. Cameron claims Edwards’ killed Teresa Halbach just so he could frame Avery for the crime. His efforts to reach Kathleen Zellner, Avery’s attorney, have been unsuccessful, but reached by email, she did give Rolling Stone her decidedly unfiltered perspective on his theory.
“I have had nightmares that make more sense,” Zellner tells Rolling Stone. “Edwards would not have had the opportunity to kill Teresa Halbach. She would not have pulled over for him. He did not have her schedule that day to know where she would be at a particular time. … Edwards did not have access to or familiarity with the Avery property to plant the evidence… at age 72, [he] was too old and infirm to have committed this crime. The Edwards theory is a convenient, wishful thinking placebo … and not the hard, cold reality of actually performing the painstaking work necessary to solve a murder.”
Those are harsh words, but they are also unlikely to change Cameron’s mind. It’s as if Cameron’s perception has become distorted, so that if he stares at a case long and hard enough, like one of those Magic Eye pictures, he’ll see Edwards. In many ways, he’s one of Edwards’ victims too.
“After going through the entire show and being able to reflect and think about everything, it’s definitely given me more of a respect for John,” Wolfe tells Rolling Stone. “I didn’t understand the type of PTSD that could come from dealing with Ed, and he had been dealing with it for years.”
Cameron isn’t alone in his belief that Edwards killed many more people. Detective Chad Garcia, who was in charge of the Hack/Drew cold case, told the Daily Jefferson County Union that he thinks Edwards killed at least 5 to 7 more people. Garcia used Edwards’ autobiography as one of several sources for a timeline of other unsolved murders that he might have committed.
One of those cases, the 1960 stabbing deaths of Larry Peyton and Beverly Allan in Portland, Oregon, is featured in the final episode of It Was Him. Unlike many of the other cases, this one has actual hard evidence: Edwards was seen hanging around the crime scene, and had a bullet wound in his arm that police suspected was related to a bullet hole in the couple’s windshield. Police even arrested him, but he escaped before he could be questioned – and for some reason, they didn’t pursue him.
Meanwhile, two other men were convicted for the murders and sentenced to life in prison – but they were both released within just a few years, without explanation. Both had long insisted they were innocent. Cameron hopes to officially exonerate them.
The is one theory that Cameron may actually be right about, and he makes a compelling argument for why the Peyton/Allan case should be reexamined. Unfortunately, the factual inaccuracies, bias-confirming investigative methods, cherry-picked evidence and dangerously questionable logic throughout the rest of It Was Him may have destroyed Cameron’s best – and maybe last – shot at being taken seriously.