After Kendall Francois murdered a woman, he’d stash her body in the attic of his Poughkeepsie family home to let it rot. One after another, until there were eight.
The murders went on from 1996 to 1998, terrorizing the upstate city and befuddling investigators who failed to piece together clues linking the killings to Francois.
It was only after one of his victims escaped his clutches that Francois was brought in for police questioning. He ultimately confessed to the rape and killing of eight prostitutes.
Journalist Claudia Rowe revisits her tortured relationship with Francois in a new book, “The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder.”
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Rowe, at the time a stringer for The New York Times, carried on an intense four-year correspondence with Francois, visiting him in prison twice, as well as talking with him by phone for hours.
Now a reporter at The Seattle Times, Rowe’s conversations with Francois forced her to confront her own history of sexual assault. Along the way, she gained a deep look at the man and his murders.
Francois was discharged from the Army for obesity in 1992. Back in Poughkeepsie, he lived with his parents and younger sister, Kierstyn. Lumbering and unkempt, Francois sporadically attended school.
Mostly, he hired prostitutes. Or tried to.
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Wendy Meyers, 30, took his cash twice, but ran away. The time she gave him his money’s worth, she also gave him AIDS.
Meyers was in his bedroom when he started choking her in October 1996. She fought hard and wouldn’t die. Francois dumped her in the bathtub facedown and turned the faucets on.
When her leg stopped twitching, he carried her lifeless body to the attic.
Later, a cop charged with clearing corpses from the upstairs room at Francois’ place ruined two pairs of boots plowing through the sludge of decayed flesh.
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The skulls had been dumped into a kiddie pool. Three other bodies were jammed in a basement crawlspace next to where Francois’ father, McKinley, spent hours hanging out at night.
“Killing,” Francois told the prosecutor, “seemed easier than getting into a relationship.”
In November, he brought home Catherine Marsh, 31, who didn’t do much of anything to annoy him, but he killed her anyway. Up in the attic, she went.
Gina Barone, 29, was a working girl and a junkie. During sex in his car, she whined he was too heavy and it was taking too long. Francois choked her into silence so he could finish.
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Then she woke up, but she wasn’t conscious for long. Francois strangled Barone and threw her into the trunk, hauling her body in the next day.
The bodies in the attic were piling up and the smell was drifting down. Francois told his family there was a dead raccoon he couldn’t find.
The house was already a sordid mess. Syringes among the family pictures, soiled underwear in the kitchen, maggots in a bathroom sink. His sister slept on a mattress in direct line of the maggot casings that fell from the ceiling.
On the outside, the family maintained a middle-class appearance. Francois’ mother, Paulette, was a vocational counselor for the mentally ill. Sister Kierstyn was a full-time student pursuing a degree in family studies.
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Every few months, a police report would be filed, yet another half-naked woman running from 99 Fulton Ave. screaming, banging on neighbors’ doors for help.
Francois racked up a few arrests. But investigators saw him as a brute who beat up women, not as a sadistic serial killer.
Soon reports of missing women were filtering in to police. Lt. Bill Siegrist and Detective Skip Mannain carried on a lackluster investigation as community outrage swelled, according to Rowe.
The investigators figured the perpetrator was white. It’s an anomaly for serial killers to cross racial lines. Besides, Francois passed a lie detector test.
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The burly former middle-school hall monitor kept on murdering. Kathleen Hurley, 47, and Mary Giaccone, 29, were strangled in 1997. Sandra French, 51; Audrey Pugliese, 34, and Catina Newmaster, 25, all met grisly ends in the summer of 1998.
The details were always gruesome. Francois left French’s body on his Mickey Mouse comforter while he dressed and went to school. He finished off one woman by pressing his boot to her throat, exhausted from the struggle of murdering her.
Newmaster’s case drew particular outrage. She was an informant for the police, a “waiflike junkie.” Busted on dozens of drug arrests, Newmaster had dodged a sentence by wearing a wire for the cops. Mannain sent her back out on Main St. with instructions not to get in Francois’ car.
She did again and again. The police always found a way to pull her out. At one court date in the winter of 1998, Newmaster pointed at Francois — who was seated in the front row charged with assault.
“That’s him. That’s the killer,” she giggled out loud to a friend.
The details of her death are vague, but she was Francois’ last murder victim.
A week later, Francois set his sights on Christine Scala. Francois visited Scala’s motel room all summer, watching her get high. He later told Rowe he imagined marrying her and having a family together.
That morning, he invited her over to his house to get something to eat. Two blocks away, Mannain, making a rare appearance in uniform, was handing out flyers printed with Newmaster’s face to motorists.
Francois pulled the car into the garage and demanded sex. Scala told him that was not going to happen. First, he punched her in the face and held her down by the throat as she fought him.
Finally, he pulled her out of the car by her hair, demanding she perform a sex act on him. But his condom kept falling off. “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you,” Francois shouted.
It was then he heard his sister’s voice calling outside the garage door. Kierstyn really needed the car. She had to get to school. Francois and Kierstyn actually passed Mannain on the way. The cop and the killer waved at each other.
Scala stumbled into a convenience store where the cops, summoned by a customer, caught up to her.
Rowe writes that Mannain, whom she interviewed, was annoyed that he was pulled from his serial killer hunt to deal with yet another report of Francois assaulting a prostitute.
Incredibly, Mannain didn’t put it together. The thumbprints at her neck, the attack in the car, matched what Newmaster reported when she was alive.
Earlier in the case, Francois had invited Mannain into 99 Fulton Ave., taking him upstairs to his bedroom. There, right under the rotting bodies, the detective didn’t pick up the scent, according to the book.
In Attica four years later, Francois howled at that memory when he told Rowe. She’d never heard him sound so pleased. On the day of the attack on Scala, cops brought in Francois for questioning. It became obvious that the police were only looking at him for assault. That’s when he came out with it.
“I want to talk to the chief prosecutor of the missing women,” he announced. A full confession followed.
Nine hours later, the prosecutor, Margie Smith, stumbled out of the interrogation room and fell sobbing into the arms of a cop.
Later in court, Francois giggled as relatives read their victims’ statements. He pulled eight consecutive life sentences.
Francois died in prison in September 2014 at the age of 43, having served 16 years.
On Rowe’s last visit to Attica, Francois boasted that if he hadn’t confessed, “I could have kept going, it would have gone on and gone on, and they never would have found a thing.”
A Poughkeepsie cop had already admitted as much to Rowe.
So why did he do it? Why confess?
“It just came to me when I was sitting there by myself,” he said.
An exchange moments later made it chillingly clear Francois was still a monster.
“I was thinking I want to throw you down on this table,” he told Rowe, “and f--k your brains out.”
“The Spider and the Fly” will go on sale Jan. 24.Send a Letter to the Editor