Last Call – A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York
The gripping true story, told here for the first time, of the Last Call Killer and the gay community of New York City that he preyed upon.
The Townhouse Bar, midtown, July 1992: The piano player seems to know every song ever written, the crowd belts out the lyrics to their favorites, and a man standing nearby is drinking a Scotch and water. The man strikes the piano player as forgettable.
He looks bland and inconspicuous. Not at all what you think a serial killer looks like. But that’s what he is, and tonight, he has his sights set on a gray haired man. He will not be his first victim.
Nor will he be his last.
The Last Call Killer preyed upon gay men in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s and had all the hallmarks of the most notorious serial killers. Yet because of the sexuality of his victims, the skyhigh murder rates, and the AIDS epidemic, his murders have been almost entirely forgotten.
This gripping true-crime narrative tells the story of the Last Call Killer and the decades-long chase to find him. And at the same time, it paints a portrait of his victims and a vibrant community navigating threat and resilience.
Available from MacMillan Publishers
May 5, 1991
Ten minutes short of three o’clock on a moderately warm Sunday afternoon, a turnpike maintenance worker was emptying the green barrels at a rest area in Lancaster County on the westbound side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He was looking for aluminum cans to sort, when he pulled hard on a plastic trash bag that he simply couldn’t lift. A strong five foot six, he’d never had a problem emptying the barrels in his six years on the job. What’s in this bag that I can’t lift?
Annoyed, he rooted around for a stick, and opened the bag. “But every time I opened one bag there was another bag,” he recalled years later.
Another poke, another bag. Another poke, another bag. Another poke, another bag.
He assumed it was a deer carcass. Now he realized it was, in all likelihood, something more sinister.
When he finally got the last bag opened—eight in total—he couldn’t make out what it was.
“It looked like a loaf of bread,” he says. “But then I saw freckles.”
Grabbing a radio, he called his supervisors, who notified the Pennsylvania State Police.
The maintenance worker had been an emergency medical technician years before, so he was unfazed by the remains. Later on, though, after he transported the body to the morgue in Lancaster—an unorthodox turn of events, as no one else on scene drove a truck—he shivered with unease when it was suggested he take an AIDS test. He hadn’t come into contact with blood.
It was a time of heightened, often irrational caution; only a few years earlier, William Masters and Virginia Johnson warned that AIDS could be transmitted via a toilet seat. Eleven hundred and fifty six Pennsylvanians died of the disease the year before. In February, Jean White, whose teenage son Ryan had died after becoming infected during a blood transfusion, addressed an audience at nearby Elizabethtown College. “People need to be educated about AIDS, to understand the disease and how it is transmitted,” wrote the editors of the local paper. “AIDS is a frightening disease. But with education and awareness, people can learn how to take precautions against AIDS and to treat those who are HIV positive as real people, not as monsters.”
Queer Pennsylvanians—trans Pennsylvanians, disproportionately—were the targets. It was believed that AIDS dripped off the walls of the Tally-Ho Tavern on Lancaster’s West Orange Street. The city’s queer bookstore, the Closet, would be bombed twice that summer; the second time—after the proprietor had been shot at—four sticks of dynamite leveled the store, blowing a hole straight through the back wall. The rainbow flag in the window was partially incinerated.
* * *
State police are assigned to cases large and small, pressing and inconsequential, in jurisdictions that lack their own police departments. Such was the case in Rapho Township. The criminal investigations unit, considered the elite members of the troop, handled everything from criminal mischief to murder. It was a one-stop shop.
Jay Musser, a tall, fresh-faced officer with bangs cut straight across his forehead, was off-duty that Sunday afternoon. He arrived at the rest area at milepost 265.2 to find his colleagues already at work. He’d been a trooper for ten years and was part-time SWAT, which meant, his boss would say with admiration, he wasn’t prone to negotiation. Musser was a member of Troop J, charged with Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and Chester counties, and this was his territory. It was a lonely, forgettable stretch of road. The last incident that raised an eyebrow occurred thirteen years earlier when the white Lincoln ferrying Governor Milton Shapp—and driven, as it happened, by a trooper—was logged doing nineteen miles an hour over the speed limit.
A dead, naked man with visible chest and back wounds, found in a trash barrel on the turnpike about thirty feet back from the road, was a significant event in these parts.
A few years earlier, Musser was subject to a modicum of press coverage for his involvement in the case of the Amish Hat Bandit. As recounted by the Associated Press: a middle-aged man from Kirkwood, a little farming town, claimed that two assailants, one carrying a gun, broke into his and a nearby relative’s home and stole nearly twenty of his family’s hats, valued at several hundred dollars. The state police were called in. They suspected he had pilfered the hats himself, in part because he wasn’t in church when they’d gone missing. But there was little proof. Musser, however, deployed an interrogation method that exploited the man’s religiosity.
“You look me straight in the eye,” he told the perpetrator, “and swear to God that you didn’t take them hats, and I’ll believe you.”
Unable or unwilling to do it, the hat thief confessed.
But the larger Lancaster County had seen worse. In 1990, there were thirteen homicides. Most of those occurred in the city of Lancaster. Beyond those borders, however, things tended to be more peaceful. “Nothing but forest and farmland,” as Musser put it. To murder a man and leave him here, at mile marker 265.2, where there was nothing around but road, trees, and sky, was strange. “This ain’t like New Jersey, where the mafia is dumping bodies,” noted a trooper.
Musser, in seven years on the criminal investigations unit, had seen only one other dead body—a stillborn baby left by the side of the road in Amish country. He tended to compose himself well, not betray his emotions. In later years, he would fall apart only once on account of the job’s horrors, when a young boy who resembled Musser’s son hanged himself on Thanksgiving Day.
The rest area was little more than a barren strip on the edge of dense woods. The sight was gruesome: an emaciated man who, in addition to chest and back wounds, had his penis severed and shoved into his mouth. In times of absurdity, we sometimes resort to the ridiculous and banal, and Musser, as he surveyed the wound, was no different. It was, the trooper thought, missing from where it was supposed to be.
Musser felt intuitively the attack had been personal and deliberate and premeditated. It was not spur-of-the-moment.
The savagery of the corpse was belied by the victim’s facial expression. He almost looked calm. Peaceful. In fact, once removed from the bags and laid out on his side on the gravel, in a fetal position with his left hand clenched, he appeared to be sleeping. It looked this way because he had not been there long. Dead bodies tend to smell bad after a while, and this one, which showed no evidence of decomposition, didn’t. It was a fresh body.
Harnish, clean-shaven and trim, wearing a suit that drew no attention to itself—a pen nestled in the breast pocket—arrived on the scene a little after 5:00 P.M. He oversaw the troop’s criminal investigations unit of ten troopers and two corporals. The longtime local, who raised Christmas trees in his off-hours, was watchful, considerate. He expected his troopers to wear a tie and jacket, and would carefully fold his own and place it in the back seat before getting behind the wheel. This adherence to custom was a holdover from when he got to the academy in 1965. It was a prim and proper time, Harnish would say, when he could not recognize marijuana by either sight or smell.
The precise cause of death was a mystery, as was the man’s identity. Neither Musser nor the other criminal investigators could find any personal possessions.
Who was this guy?
At Harnish’s behest, the dead man in the green barrel was quickly fingerprinted. But the five-foot-four corpse, barely one hundred pounds, didn’t leave much for the troopers to work with. In several areas there was lividity, or postmortem settling of the blood, which suggested the body had been moved more than once. A lack of rigidity, often referred to as rigor mortis, meant death occurred no more than thirty-six hours prior to discovery. There were three bruises on the scalp, all fresh, indicating they were no more than a day old. There were similar, suspicious injuries elsewhere: a particularly large bruise on the forearm, just beyond the bend of the elbow, and one on the shin.
The stab wound in the back, between the inner margin of the right shoulder blade and the spine, was more consequential. But it was the abdomen that suffered the most severe trauma. There was a gaping, oval wound most likely made by something sharp. Just above that was another stab wound, roughly a half inch in length, oriented, a medical examiner observed, “in an eleven to five o’clock line as one looks at a watch.” The skin, the muscle, the omentum, and the mesentery—a fatty sheath that holds the intestines to the body wall—were all perforated. These were the wounds that killed.
Another wound showed only a negligible amount of hemorrhaging: the severed penis, blessedly, was a postmortem injury.
The man’s diminutive size initially led state police astray, to a racetrack. “We have to think of jockeys,” Harnish told a crime-desk reporter. He took the possibility of the dead man being a jockey seriously enough that his squad contacted Penn National, a mile away from where the body was found. Racetrack management reported that none of its forty riders were missing. There were other blind alleys: troopers from the Bowmansville barracks visited turnpike tollbooths and truck stops to inquire about suspicious people who might’ve passed through.
Meanwhile, the state police’s latent fingerprint examiner was given the eight trash bags. Using cyanoacrylate fuming, known colloquially as superglue, he developed twenty-eight fingerprints and three palm prints. The fingerprints were put into the state’s database, but there were no matches. The prints were then sent to New York, Virginia, and New Jersey. These searches, too, yielded nothing.
Tips came in, some of which were heartbreaking. A Lancaster woman wondered if the dead man was her son, missing a month. A New Jersey sergeant inquired if the body was, perhaps, a man who hadn’t been seen since December. Or the Pennsylvania man who’d gone missing. “Slight build, in 30’s but looks 50,” Harnish wrote in elegant cursive. “Tattoos on fingers.” It wasn’t his John Doe. But maybe it was a thirtysomething who had vanished three months ago? No—in that case, the upper teeth were missing. A call to the morgue confirmed that Troop J’s body had all his natural teeth and expensive dental work.
Other tips were intriguing dead ends. A woman driving east on the turnpike glanced in her rearview mirror and saw a man walking by the barrel. He appeared to be in his early twenties and had dark hair. Another call came in suggesting that, owing to the placement of the severed penis, their unknown man had been the victim of organized crime. The mob, after all, was known to do something similar to enemies. On any given case, Harnish estimated, more than half of the tips don’t go anywhere. Musser, for his part, didn’t often find them useful. They frequently came from people who just wanted to be part of the investigation.
State police placed posters with a composite sketch of the John Doe on the side of tollbooths. The payoff was immediate: the image looked familiar to members of First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, a National Guard unit.
The group, headed to a gathering at Fort Indiantown Gap, believed that the dead man was one of their own. They were even more certain when, upon arriving at “the Gap,” their friend was absent.
Suspicions were soon confirmed.
Five days later, at mile marker 303.1 along the Chester County stretch of the turnpike, a truck driver stumbled on two fifty-five-gallon trash containers. Among the effects were several pairs of socks—argyle, pink, blue—a corduroy hat, two pairs of boxer shorts, Brooks Brothers charcoal slacks, a brown belt, a T-shirt with THE BLACK DOG, MARTHA’S VINEYARD printed on the back, and traveler’s checks in fifty-dollar denominations.
There also was a parking ticket issued in Philadelphia, two pieces of paper with names and phone numbers, nineteen Mellon Bank checks with numerous deposit slips, and an identification card that confirmed membership in First Troop. The personal effects would prove useful to piecing together the man’s life, but they weren’t necessary for identification. National Guard dental records were a match.
John Doe was Peter Stickney Anderson, fifty-four, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 2021 by Elon Green
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.