Updated: Jan 12
AFRICA’S GREATEST UNSOLVED MURDERS
The US has its share of cold cases, unsolved murders, and murder mysteries that have never been cracked, but there’s murder in Africa too. In the last blog, we saw a case from Kenya, East Africa, and before that, South Africa. Now we move to Ghana, West Africa, where the mystery of “The Accra Strangler” went unsolved for years. It might well have permanently become one of Africa’s greatest unsolved murders were it not for a combination of fortunate events.
Ghana, Africa map
THE ACCRA STRANGLER
From 1993 to 2000, more than thirty women were murdered in and around Accra, Ghana’s capital, and Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city. All bore the chilling signs of a repeat offender whose MO was to attack his victims (food sellers or sex workers) between 8 PM and dawn, rape them, and strangle them to death. The women were found stripped from the waist down with their legs drawn apart. In many cases unused condoms had been scattered around the crime scene, and some of the victims had their genitals mutilated. Bizarrely, empty syringes had been left at the scene and some victims had needle pricks where their blood had been drawn (or at least attempted). This set of killings came to be known as the Mataheko (“Mah-tah-hay-koh”) Murders, named after the area in which they occurred, although most of them took place in an adjoining suburb, Dansoman.
Distribution of Mataheko murders (Google Maps, annotations by Kwei Quartey)
A scared, angry community
Two such gruesome murders occurred within a week of each other on September 24 and October 1, 2000. On December 22, 2000, an angry street protest demanded the resignation of the Minister of Interior and the then Inspector General of Police. (The IGP was replaced a few months later, and the minister was voted out of office at the next election.)
By the end of 2000, the pressure on the police to find Accra’s serial killer had become inexorable. The accusation leveled at the police authorities was that they had failed to take the string of killings seriously and thus the situation had grown completely out of control. The police countered they were under-resourced and overloaded, which anyone who has familiarity with the Ghana Police Service (GPS) knows was and still is accurate. But quite apart from that fact, the authorities had no coordinated, logical approach to catching the killer.
A fortuitous meeting
In 2000, John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party won Ghana’s general election to become the president of Ghana. One of his campaign pledges was to commit to greater public safety, which included stopping the rampant serial murders that had gripped Accra. In April of 2001, Louis Freeh, the then Director of the FBI, stopped in Accra on his way to the Africa/Middle East Chapter of the FBI National Academy Associates Retraining Session in Cape Town, South Africa. It was the first visit to Ghana by an FBI director. During talks between the country’s top officials and Freeh, President Kufuor told the FBI director about the spate of killings in the country and he requested assistance to solve them. Freeh promised he would have an FBI team in Ghana within 10 days.
The FBI encounters a lack of competent investigation
True to his word, within 10 days, Freeh sent out a team of seven FBI agents to Ghana—four from the Critical Incident Response Group‘s Child Abduction & Serial Killer Unit, two from the Evidence Response Team Unit (ERTU) in the Washington, DC field office, and one polygraph expert from the Atlanta division. Gerard Downes, an experienced FBI Special Agent, led the team, which arrived in Accra to find the Ghana Police Service (GPS) awash with unsolved homicides and no strategy to crack them.
Downes was faced with a police force largely untrained in murder investigation, but ready and eager to learn. Downes and the Ghanaian authorities got together to organize training sessions for the police officers, who, according to Downes, were rapt with attention and hungry for knowledge. One of the first lessons was the use of a pin map showing the location of murders, part of a technique called geographic profiling. Another was the neighborhood canvass. In fact, in this investigation, the canvass was the major factor in breaking the case. Without solicitation by the FBI team, a single name came up repeatedly in each of the first four canvasses: Charles Quansah, a man eyewitnesses had seen in the vicinity of the victims’ last sighting.
A Man Called Charles Quansah
In 1986, 18-year-old Charles Ebo Quansah was convicted of the rape of a Dansoman woman and sentenced to nine months hard labor. But once a rapist, always a rapist, and only 3 months after Quansah’s release, police arrested him again for the same crime. A news source says he was sentenced in 1987 to 3 years at the medium-security Nsawam Prisons. While serving his time, Quansah met a fellow prisoner called John Bita (also written as “William Bittar” in some accounts), who taught him some carpentry (vocational training is/was available at Nsawam) and helped him find a job at a lumber yard in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city.
Charles Quansah (Photo courtesy FBI agent Gerry Downes & jerriwilliams.com)
The confession: how the FBI pulled it together
The GPS Criminal Investigation Department had preserved very little physical evidence from the murder cases. One notable exception was a bloody T-shirt a woman had brought to the police. She told them that Quansah was her boyfriend and that he had been away from home at the time of the last killing. When he returned, his T-shirt was bloody.
What the GPS did have were some good photographs of the victims and the associated crime scenes. Upon reviewing them, Downes and his team were confident that the murders had enough behavioral similarities to indicate they had been committed by the same offender. With Quansah’s name having consistently popped up during the canvass, Downes and the team asked the GPS to bring him in for questioning. Just to correct the record, Quansah’s arrest took place in April 2001, not in 2000 as often reported.
Initially, Quansah denied any involvement in the Mataheko killings or any others. The FBI team then polygraphed Quansah, something that had never been done before in the GPS. It proved easier said than done because the questions had to be relayed through an interpreter in order to accommodate Quansah speaking in his mother tongue. At any rate, the polygraph showed him to be deceptive.
The FBI team confronted Quansah with the polygraph results and then questioned him using a technique in which moral justifications (themes) are thrown out by the interviewer. Quansah latched onto one particular theme, finally blurting out that “the spirits” had made him commit murder. In the subsequent two days, the FBI polygrapher with the interpreter secured Quansah’s confessions to the murder of nine women, included a maid in his home when he had lived in Kumasi.
Downes and his team prepared the Ghanaian detectives for the remaining interviews, coaching them on the approach that promised the best results. Indeed, the subsequent interrogations by the Ghanaian detectives unveiled Quansah’s culpability in as many as thirty murders or more. He knew details about the victims that had never been revealed to the public and confirmed that many of them had been prostitutes. His MO was to befriend vulnerable women at night, strangle them to death after raping them, and then pose them in degrading postures, a practice common among serial killers worldwide. According to Downes, the FBI’s Quantico forensic lab detected Quansah’s DNA on the bloody T-shirt along with the victim’s blood.
The trial and sentence
On August 7, 2002, Quansah was convicted of the murder of nine women and sentenced to death by hanging. In practice, the death penalty in Ghana is rarely carried out, and the last execution was in 1993. Thus, Quansah continues to languish in prison, where he abruptly retracted his confessions and claimed innocence soon after conviction. In November 2002, he filed an appeal against his sentence in September, 2002. In 2005 and again in 2007, he was apparently still working on his appeal, even soliciting the aid of a penpal in Holland. There’s no information on this “relationship” that I can find apart from the letter below from Quansah to “Kamiel.” Given Quansah’s need for an interpreter during interrogations, it seems likely that someone penned the missive on Quansah’s behalf (note the fingerprint in lieu of signature.)
Charles Quansah's letter to a penpal in Holland (Courtesy Murderauction.com)
But incredibly, by 2010, the appeal had not yet been heard by the court because Quansah’s case docket couldn’t be located. Quansah continued to steadfastly claim he was coerced into confession and alleges he was tortured to that end. The police have flatly denied this. Note that the nine murders for which Quansah was convicted were probably those with the strongest witness corroboration, but some 30+ in total in Accra were ascribed to him, and another possible ten in Kumasi. Therefore, Quansah was prolific as a serial offender, even by world standards. He is Ghana’s only serial killer that we know of.
Long-term repercussions–good news
The reign of Charles Quansah’s murderous activity did have one very salutary result. Once the contact had been made between the FBI and Ghanaian authorities, at least three of Ghana’s top police officers gained admission to the FBI National Academy training course including David Asante-Apeatu, Ghana’s present Inspector General of Police (IGP). Under him, strides have been made in the modernization of the force—still with a long way to go, of course.
In a remarkable full circle, Gerry Downes was invited in 2007 to return to Ghana, which was hosting the annual Africa/Middle East FBI National Academy Associates Retraining Session that Louis Freeh had attended in 2001 in Cape Town. This time, it was in Accra. On his visit, Downes was impressed and gratified by the degree of progress within the GPS. To quote Downes directly, “It was just an amazing thing to see the way they had developed into a good police agency.” He felt proud to be a part of it.
My sincere thanks to retired FBI Special Agent Jerri Williams for her assistance personally and via her excellent website and podcast, with which every student of true crime should become familiar. Many thanks also to retired FBI Special Agent Gerard Downes for his patience with the questions I had for him and his engaging account of his time in Ghana.
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