— By JUDY SHERIDAN and CHRISTIN COYNE
In April of 2012, as the FBI in Anchorage, Alaska, prodded a suspected serial killer for information about his crimes, 34-year-old Israel Keyes confessed to setting fire to a house in a town he called “Alto.”
“If you want I can give you an arson in Texas,” Keyes negotiated. “I burned a house down. But I want a cigar for it.”
Investigators now believe “Alto” is really Aledo, and the house Keyes referred to a 3,500-square-foot Annetta South residence that burned to the ground Feb. 16, 2012, along with a barn some 40 yards away.
The connection was confirmed for the FBI by Investigator Lanny Padgett, of the Parker County Fire Marshal’s Office, who learned of Keyes’ admission shortly after his December death — ruled a suicide — in an Anchorage jail.
“He did confess and give away enough information for me to confirm it,” Padgett said. “It was close enough that I could understand the association.”
An unlikely suspect
Padgett was certain that the large, hot fire that spiked flames above the treetops in the 200 block of Terrace Court East was the result of arson, but interviews with the home’s owner and family, initially considered “persons of interest,” convinced him they were innocent.
“Most arsons are insurance fraud, a form of retaliation or just to get rid of the whole structure,” he said. “This was a little surreal.”
Keyes alluded to killing as many as 11 people, according to the FBI, and confessed to kidnapping and murdering an Alaskan teen days before setting the Annetta South house ablaze.
He details his activities in the Aledo area in a chilling April 17, 2012, interview with investigators posted by the Alaska Dispatch.
Keyes in Aledo
Confiding he was “kind of out of control” from the publicity associated with the “stuff in Alaska,” Keyes said he set out from Dallas on the morning of Feb. 16, 2012, in search of a small-town bank to rob.
He chose “Alto” because it was “a ways off the freeway,” he said, and picked out a bank near the center of town.
The house that appeared vacant in Annetta South drew his attention because it was “four or five miles out of Alto,” he said, far enough to draw law enforcement away from his target.
“I couldn’t tell if there was local police in ‘Alto’ or not. I never found the police station,” he told investigators. “I figured if I started the fire that would get them all the way from town, and I’d hit the bank after that.”
Keyes reveals that he was looking for someone to abduct as well, but was leery of the police presence.
“I was looking for an out-of-the-way ATM,” he said. “I was going to grab somebody from an ATM and take them to the house, but there are a lot of cops in Texas, so I guess I chickened out a little bit.”
He initially parked by the house, Keyes said, waiting for the bank to open, then discovered tools and gasoline in the garage.
After using a piece of steel from the garage to pry open the back door, he spent an hour or two “digging through stuff,” he said, unsuccessfully searching for guns, but eventually making off with “jewelry and a couple other things.”
“I found some pretty nice fur coats and had the coats by the door,” he said, “but when I lit the fire I forgot to grab them.”
Setting the fire
To ignite the blaze, Keyes said he opened up the attic access and all the windows, then made a trail of clothes and bedding from every room to different parts of the house.
“I poured gas on the clothes all the way out to the back door,” he said, “then lit it up from the back door. Then I went to the garage, opened up the attic access, took the gas that was left in there and torched that place, too.”
Keyes said he drove back into town and watched the fire with binoculars from a church on a hill, near one of the banks.
“They brought in a lot of emergency vehicles,” he said. “I decided to go to a bank a little farther away.”
A neighbor who responded to a motorist asking for directions in the Annetta South neighborhood probably talked with Keyes, Padgett said.
The man noted the motorist was a white man driving a small car, a description that could have fit Keyes in his rented Kia Soul.
“It seems strange to me that he asked for directions in front of a burning house instead of showing concern for the people in the house,” Padgett said.
Padgett said he has trouble believing Keyes was able to observe the fire without being detected because several investigators combed the area.
“I wish I’d had the chance to talk with him,” Padgett said, “but I’m grateful to the FBI for helping me close my case.”
Keyes robbed the National Bank of Texas in Azle later that day, also admitting that to investigators.
During the robbery, he wore a hard hat, a surgical mask and sunglasses and displayed a handgun, forcing everyone to the floor before leaving with an unspecified amount of cash.
He later said he watched police arrive at the scene as he filled up the tank of his rental car at a nearby gas station.
Keyes was arrested March 13, 2012, about a month after the fire, in connection with the abduction and slaying of 18-year-old Alaskan barista Samantha Koenig, on Feb. 1, 2012.
After demanding a ransom for her return later in February, he was tracked down in Lufkin when he used a stolen
debit card, authorities say.
Following his arrest, Keyes led the FBI to Koenig’s body, located by a forensic dive team in a lake north of Anchorage.
Keyes also admitted to killing others, including Bill and Lorraine Currier, a Vermont couple in their 50s, in June 2011, according to interviews published by the FBI. Their bodies have not been located.
In addition to the three known murder victims, Keyes discussed seven or eight others, according to Special Agent Jolene Goeden of the FBI’s Anchorage Division
When Keyes was found dead in his jail cell Dec. 2, he left investigators with many unanswered questions.
Help from public
Officials hope to identify Keyes’ other victims and released additional information recently, asking the public for assistance.
“He gave us a number of clues,” Goeden said. “He talked openly about some of the homicides, but much of what he said only hinted at the things he had done. So we are trying to get information out there about what he did tell us. We are letting the public know the types of cars he rented, towns he visited, campgrounds he frequented. Anything that might spur someone’s memory could help us.”
A former construction worker and Army veteran, Keyes avoided suspicion meticulously, traveling long distances from home and stashing items in rural areas to help with the abductions and killings, according to the FBI.
He reportedly left caches across the U.S. that contained items such as weapons, cash from bank robberies — including the Azle robbery — duct tape, zip ties, Drano and a shovel.
“Although he chose many of his victims randomly, a tremendous amount of planning went into these crimes,” Goeden said. “Keyes enjoyed what he did, and he had no remorse at all. He told us if he hadn’t been caught he would have continued kidnapping and murdering people.”
Anyone with information concerning Keyes is asked to call the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI.
More information on Keyes can be found online at www.fbi.gov.