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Connecticut's Most Prolific Serial Killer Murdered His Victims And Buried Them In Strip Mall 'Garden'

After killing one of the women, William Devin Howell slept next to the dead body in his van for two weeks.

By Jill Sederstrom

Tucked behind a strip mall in suburban Connecticut, there was a secret “garden.”

But this garden wasn’t filled with bright flowers or leafy plants. It was where Connecticut’s most prolific serial killer, William Devin Howell, disposed of his victims in a wooded area behind the New Britain strip mall — what he’d later refer to as his “garden' — after raping and killing them in his “murder mobile,” a dilapidated blue van that served as his own personal torture chamber on wheels.

In just one year, investigators say Howell, who called himself the “sick ripper,” ruthlessly took the lives of seven people as he worked his way throughout central Connecticut in 2003, mowing lawns and taking odd jobs to support himself between kills, according to CBS News.

He’d later tell his cellmate that “there was a monster inside of him that just came out,” according to a warrant obtained by the news outlet.

By the time a hunter stumbled upon three of the victims’ bodies in 2007, the burly, heavy-set killer was already behind bars serving a 15-year-sentence for manslaughter in the death of one of his victims, 33-year-old Nilsa Arizmendi.

Arizmendi disappeared in July of 2003, but unlike the disappearances of his other victims—who investigators say were often connected anonymously to Howell through drugs—this time there had been a witness, according to an affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com.

Arizmendi and her boyfriend invited to Howell visit their motel room while the three smoked crack together.

Arizmendi’s boyfriend would later tell police that she disappeared on July 25, 2003 after getting into the blue van of someone the couple knew as "Devin" in a parking lot along Berlin Turnpike to get drugs, according to the court documents. Investigators were able to track the van to Howell, who had his middle name “Devin” tattooed on his bicep. Inside, they made a chilling discovery. 

The back cushion of the van’s seat was stained with blood "soaking through the fabric into the foam underneath," while another cushion had been removed and replaced with three sofa cushions, according to the affidavit.

Although the blood was found to belong to Arizmendi and another unidentified person, without her body, prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to prove she had been murdered and Howell agreed to the lesser charge of manslaughter before the body could be recovered, WVIT-TV reports.

Howell would later tell author Anne K. Howard from prison that Arizmendi had wanted a ride to Hartford, but instead, he had grabbed her, “raped her throughout the night and into the day,” before killing her and throwing her down the hill into his makeshift “garden,” according to True Crime Daily.

The bodies of Diane Cusack, 53, Joyvaline Martinez, 23, and Mary Jane Menard, 40, were found by the hunter in 2007 but the murders wouldn’t be linked to Howell until investigators got the break they needed from Howell’s fellow inmate Jonathan Mills, a triple murderer himself who had befriended the former landscaper behind bars, according to the Hartford Courant.

Using details he had gleaned from his conversations with the killer, Mills drew police a detailed map of where the bodies were buried and in April of 2015 investigators found the bodies of Arizmendi and three other victims—Melanie Ruth Camilini, 29; Marilyn Gonzalez, 26; and Danny Lee Whistnant, 44—in the same wooded area behind the shopping mall off Hartford Road.  

Howell’s crimes were distinctive because of their savage and violent nature.

His cellmate told investigators that Howell’s first victim, Melanie Ruth Camilini, had been raped, strangled and hit in the head with a hammer, according to his arrest warrant.

Mills told investigators that Howell kept the body wrapped up in his van, sleeping next to it for two weeks while calling her his “baby,” because it was too cold to bury her outside—a claim later refuted, in part, by Howell.

Howell told Howard in a series of jailhouse interviews that he only slept beside the body because he had “no choice” and said he never called the corpse his “baby” but had confided in Mills that he had “slept beside the body,” according to an excerpt of Howard’s bookHis Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer.”  

In an effort to conceal her identity, Howell said he cut off the tips of Camilini’s fingers and dismantled the bottom portion of her jaw before throwing the body parts in a dumpster behind The Dollar Store in Hartford and disposing of the rest of the body in what would become his graveyard behind the busy New Britain strip mall.

In another slaying, Howell said he kidnapped Gonzalez and raped the 26-year-old throughout the night before stopping at McDonald’s to get her a final meal—in what would become a strange ritual for the killer.

“I’d go through the Mickey D’s drive thru with a half naked tied up (expletive) in the back and told them if they made a sound it would be their last. None of them did,” he wrote to Howard, according to True Crime Daily.

Howell has insisted his motivation for the slayings was “never about the killing.”

“I just killed them to conceal the evidence,” he told Howard, according to her book. “I knew that once I raped them, they would go to the cops and I’d end up back in jail. So I had to keep that from happening. I definitely didn’t enjoy killing them. As I choked them out I was thinking—just hurry up and die.”

Although the Connecticut State Division of Criminal Justice was only able to link Howell to the rapes of three women, he admitted to raping all his victims, except Whistnant—who he said he killed in a fit of rage after realizing the 44-year-old was transgender.

“How would they know that I raped just three? The bodies were nothing but bones when they dug them up,” he said. “I raped all of them except Danny Whistnant.”

Investigators recovered DNA from six of the seven victims in his blue 1985 Ford Econoline van, which he referred to as his “murder mobile,” Howard told True Crime Daily.

Howell insisted he had been raised by a “good family in a good home” but was plagued by rape fantasies and anger as an adult.

He decided to turn his fantasies into reality one night after a fight with his girlfriend.

“I don’t know, something just made me say, ‘Well, tonight’s the night I’m going to cross the line. I’m going to do it. I’m going to make my fantasy come true,’” he told True Crime Daily in 2019, adding the murders were something he “chose” to do because he was “selfish.”

Howell decided to plead guilty to the six remaining murders in 2017 to spare his victims’ families the agony of a trial and tearfully recounted his crimes at an emotionally charged sentencing hearing that year.

“First, I want to apologize to the victims’ families,” he said, according to the Hartford Courant. “I know everyone wants to know why I committed these crimes. I don’t have an answer. I do not know myself.”

Howell was hoping for the death penalty, but capital punishment was abolished by the state in and Howell was sentenced to 360 years behind bars instead, according to the Division of Criminal Justice.

“This sentence doesn’t do justice for the evil done by this defendant but it is as close to justice as we can get,” New Britain’s State’s Attorney Brian Preleski said at the time, according to the local paper.

After claiming seven lives, Howell still believes he isn’t a monster.

“I mean, I committed monstrous and heinous crimes, but my true character isn’t a monstrous and heinous person,” he told True Crime Daily.

The families of his victims would disagree.