Serial Killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver Caught by His Victim's Family
Let's Celebrate the 160 Year Sentence He Received This Week
The media has spent so much time during Covid revisiting serial killers from the 1980s and 1990s (Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez) that we can overlook more recent ones. The one I want to talk about this week is Khalil Wheeler-Weaver, a quiet, well-mannered, twenty year old grocery store security guard and Essex County College student who murdered three young women in just eighty-four days in the summer and fall of 2016. He would have murdered a fourth if she hadn’t gotten away. And, no doubt, would have kept right on killing for as long as he could.
courtesy of the Essex County Prosecutor’s office
But by far the most interesting people in this case are the survivors. While Wheeler-Weaver may have carefully plotted out his murders, but he consistently underestimated not only the women he preyed upon but also the love their families had for them. I am happy to report that these two errors alone singlehandedly led to his doom (although not as soon as they should have).
The Deception Begins
His first victim was nineteen-year-old Robin West, whom he raped and murdered on August 31, 2016. She was out with a woman named Patterson, a good friends of hers, who actually joked around with Wheeler-Weave about taking care of her “sister.” West’s friend was so comfortable with Wheeler-Weaver that she wrote down his license plate number and saved it at a contact in her phone.
This connected West to Wheeler-Weaver. Police questioned him. In spite of these clues, nothing came of it. He was a fooler. Everyone who knew Wheeler-Weaver commented on how calm, easygoing and polite he was.
Friends and family members said Robin was a caring young woman who, sadly, had always struggled in some way. Her parents split up when she was a baby and she was estranged from her father until she was a teenager. School was hard for her, academically and emotionally. She had trouble concentrating in class and just couldn’t seem to get math or reading. As she got older, she couldn’t seem to find her place, bouncing alternative schools and psychiatric facilities.
Her parents noticed her mood swings and emotional challenges and, although never formally diagnosed, suspected their daughter might have an underlying mental illness. At the time of her death, she had moved from Philadelphia to New Jersey and was using sex work as a way to support herself.
Robin’s family panicked when, after several days, they couldn’t reach her. They didn’t know at the time, but authorities had received a call of a fire at an abandoned house in Orange, NJ, the day after she disappeared, on September 1. Inside, they found the 19-year-old’s badly burned body. It took nearly two weeks to identify her. Wheeler-Weaver claimed he’d taken Robin out to eat the day she died and dropped her off at a different house two blocks from where she was found.
The Victim Count Rises
Investigators were still puzzling over West’s death when thirty-three year old Joanne Brown disappeared. Already there were some alarming similarities between West and Brown. She had been homeless at the time she was last seen alive. She had been struggling with mental health issues. Witnesses had not seen her since climbing into Wheeler-Weaver’s car sometime in October. She was found by a work crew two months later in an abandoned home, nose and mouth covered in duct tape. She had been strangled to death with a jacket – which was still tied around her neck when she was found. Again, Wheeler-Weaver was questioned and, again, he managed to wiggle himself out of it.
Tiffany Taylor was the beginning of the end for Wheeler-Weaver although it was his final victim, Sarah Butler, who put the final nail in his coffin. His only survivor, she was the person who would give us a true glimpse inside the cold, calculated and sadistic mind of Khalil Wheeler-Weaver.
This Had Nothing to Do With Sex Work
Tiffany met Wheeler-Weaver through one of her best friends who was staying at an local hotel with her. He seemed to fancy her. He told her he had a crush on her. He called or texted her every two or three days, trying to try to convince her to meet up. Taylor later said that his sole purpose was to get her to trust him.
Tiffany said that one night she was driving her friend’s car when Wheeler-Weaver texted her. When she told him she was going to pick up something for her friend, he asked if he could ride along. Remember; this was someone she had met through someone she trusted. It was someone she had communicated with over days, who had been nice and polite and flattering and normal.
The two were riding along when Wheeler-Weaver asked her to pull over so he could use he bathroom. Her next memory is of waking up in the backseat of the car with Wheeler-Weaver’s hands around her throat. He was raping her. Several more times, he choked her into unconsciousness and sexually assaulted her. The last time, she woke up with handcuffs on her wrist and duct tape on her mouth.
It’s hard for me to express the depth of my admiration for Tiffany Taylor’s ability to keep her wits about her under these circumstances, but I’ll try. Not only did she manage to free one of her hands from the cuffs, she managed to do it without Wheeler-Weaver noticing. When the duct tape around her mouth loosened, undoubtedly due Tiffany’s sweat and tears, she managed to talk him into taking her back to the hotel room so she could retrieve her phone.
I imagine the conversation went something like this:
All those text messages you sent me are on that phone. Do you want the police to be able to link the two of us so easily? It’ll just take a minute for me to grab it. Plus, I know I can talk my friend into giving me some money.
It’s unclear how Wheeler-Weaver thought he was going to pull this off. He had pulled her coat up around her so her handcuffs weren’t showing, so maybe he thought she would keep her mouth shut. But the minute that hotel door opened, Tiffany ran inside and locked the door. For good measure, she pulled the curtain aside and showed Wheeler-Weaver (who was standing right outside) her free hand. He ran.
Her friend immediately called the police and she told them what happened. You’d think this would be the end of it, but you’d be wrong. The police didn’t believe her. You can watch some of her police interview on Youtube. I should warn you that some of it is infuriating, such as when a police officer says, “And you allowed him to duct tape you?”
Don’t get me started.
A Vulnerable College Student
Sarah Butler was his Wheeler-Weaver’s final victim. The pretty, smart twenty-year old Sarah Butler met him through the website Tagged. She was a second-year college student at New Jersey City College. She had led her high school dance team and worked as a lifeguard at the local YMCA. She had a loving supportive family and two wonderful sisters.
She was typically an upbeat, happy-go-lucky person but was going through a rough patch. After commuting to college during her freshman year, she had been excited about living on campus. But it wasn’t going well. She and her roommates weren’t getting along and she was struggling to make friends. She had recently come home for Thanksgiving break.
Perhaps out of loneliness, she had reached out to social media. She and LilYachtRock (Wheeler-Weaver’s online screen name) connected on November 19. They had several exchanges. seeming to hit it off. She was surprised and intrigued when he offered her $500 if she would meet and have sex. Family and friends later said this was completely out of character for her and at least one text she sent LilYachtRock seemed to reflect her hesitation;
You’re not a serial killer, right?
On November 22, she took the family minivan and met up with Wheeler-Weaver. That was the last time her family saw her. Nine days later her body was discovered in a county park. She’s been strangled.
Wheeler-Weaver probably thought that was the end of yet another fun adventure. But for Sarah’s family and friends, the game was just beginning. It was called “to catch a killer.”
You Picked the Wrong Girl
Sarah’s community responded to her disappearance as if every family had a missing child. One friend handled getting the word out to the media. Her church family prayed. Another friend, who was already out searching for Sarah, found the family minivan.
And Sarah’s sister and friends began some online sleuthing. They hacked into Sarah’s personal computer. It didn’t take them long to find the trail of messages from Sarah and LilYachtRock and vice versa. But how could they find out his real name?
Putting their heads together, they created a fake profile similar to Sarah’s. One, they hoped, that might lure this catfish into a trap. He bit. Ten ten days later, when Wheeler-Weaver arrived at a prescheduled location in anticipation of another sexual rendezvous (and probable murder), police arrested him.
The Bottom Line
I don’t know if it was Wheeler-Weaver’s arrogance or disregard for victims, but he made little attempt to get rid of a ton of incriminating evidence. He left behind inflammatory Google search histories on topics such as ‘date-rape drugs’ and ‘how to make homemade poisons to kill humans’. His call logs showed he was the last person to speak to Joanne Brown before she disappeared and location tracking technology put him in the same house where Robin West’s burned body was found. A search of his home turned up two cellphones on the nightstand beside his bed, and a third hidden under his mattress.
But those are the details that got him convicted. His biggest mistake was his belief that just because some people might be lonely or struggling with mental illness or living on the streets or engaging in sex work, they don’t have friends and family who care about them. Just because someone might have problems doesn’t mean they don’t have courage.
In 2019, Wheeler-Weaver was convicted of three counts of first degree murder, one attempted murder, and numerous other felonies. On Wednesday, October 7, 2021, he was sentenced to one-hundred and sixty years. Tiffany Taylor was the star witness.
What are your thoughts about this case? Until next time, mind detectives.