How She Caught a Killer: Is the Lifetime Film Inspired by a Real Serial Killer?

With Robin Hays as the helmsman, Lifetime’s ‘How She Caught a Killer’ is a crime mystery film that revolves around Linda Murphy, a rookie detective who has just passed out of the police academy. Determined to make an early impression and prove herself, she gets a chance to do so when she hears her boss, Detective David Goodman, talking about a particular serial killer who targets sex workers in the area.

Now, Linda joins forces with FBI agent Neil Carter and goes on an undercover operation to help solve the murders and bring the serial killer responsible to justice. Since murders, sex workers, and undercover missions are some things that exist in the real world, it is understandable for you to pose the question — Does ‘How She Caught a Killer’ have anything to do with a true story?

How She Caught a Killer is Based on Real-Life Murder Cases

By taking inspiration from some of the gruesome murder cases, the screenwriters — Yuri Baranovsky and Angela Gulner — collaborated and put their creative minds and exceptional penmanship to work in order to come up with a gripping yet true-to-life screenplay for the Lifetime movie. Interestingly, the duo has worked together on a few other projects, such as ‘Some Other Woman,’ ‘Binge,’ and ‘The Blind Girl.’

The real-life murders committed by Steven Brian Pennell AKA The Route 40 Killer in the late 1980s hold the most resemblance to several elements of the storyline of ‘How She Caught a Killer.’ Getting his name from US Route 40 where he abducted most of his victims, Pennell was a convicted serial killer, known for killing two Delaware women and suspected of murdering three others. Just as portrayed in the Lifetime film, Pennell’s first victim was an aspiring nurse named Shirley Anna Ellis who used to be a sex worker to make ends meet. On November 29, 1987, Ellis was abducted on Route 40 on her way home from the hospital and was later found seriously abused and dead on the side of the road.

Over the course of another year, Pennell reportedly killed four more women, most of whom were sex workers. But in 1988, a police officer named Renée Taschner decided to pose as a sex worker and started roaming around the infamous Route 40 in order to catch the killer in the act. When a vehicle stopped next to her in a more isolated area, the man inside, though nervous-looking, tried to convince her to enter the car. After refusing, she wrote down the license plate number of the car and sent it for examination. The results showed that it belonged to a 31-year-old electrician named Stephen Brian Pennell, who had no prior convictions.

Thanks to the efforts of Taschner, the authorities got a search warrant for Pennell’s vehicle, in which they found matching blood prints and hair of the victims along with a torture kit that consisted of pliers, whips, handcuffs, needles, knives, and restraints. With enough evidence against him, Pennell was arrested on November 29, 1988, and decided to invoke his right to remain silent. There are various similarities in some aspects of the story and characters of ‘How She Caught a Killer’ and the real-life case of The Route 40 Killer.

Moreover, over the years, there have been several other cases where a police officer had gone undercover to capture a suspected criminal. Another example is that of the former undercover operative Dominick Polifrone who came face to face with the notorious mobster and serial killer Richard Kuklinski AKA “The Iceman” during his undercover mission. His 18-month undercover operation was successful as it led to the capture of the criminal. Keeping the above-mentioned references in mind, it is clear that ‘How She Caught a Killer’ draws parallels with real-life cases. Thus, it is fair to say that the Lifetime film is rooted in reality.

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