The killer taunted investigators, scrawling in blood on one dead man's wall: “Victem #4 in 2 weeks. Catch me if u can.”
He lit candles around the body and laughed when the man's daughter called and asked to speak with her father. “You can't,” he told her. “I killed him three hours ago.”
Investigators said they may never know why Stephen Bryant, who was on probation after 18 months in prison for burglary, started killing in 2004.
He pleaded guilty last month to three murders and a nonfatal shooting in Sumter County, a mostly rural area in central South Carolina. On Thursday, a judge sentenced him to death for one of the killings, and life in prison for the other two.
As relatives and friends of his victims wept, Bryant hung his head – a contrast to earlier court appearances when he stared at prosecutors and mouthed obscenities.
“Maybe now we can begin to get on with our lives,” said Teresa Becker, a friend of one victim's family. “Not a day goes by when we don't think about what happened. It's been a long four years.”
Bryant's three victims were found over a week, within 5 miles of each other in Sumter County, where dirt and gravel roads crisscross in the woods between Shaw Air Force Base and a state forest.
One other victim survived. Clinton Brown, then 56, was shot in the back while fishing from a riverbank. He drove himself to the hospital.
Defense attorney Jack Howle asked the judge to spare Bryant's life, saying he never recovered from sexual abuse as a child. Bryant started using drugs again about a month before the killings. Bryant also wrote a long letter apologizing to one victim's widow.
The most chilling murder was that of Willard Tietjen, 62, who was shot nine times. Bryant confessed he knocked on Tietjen's door and told him his truck had overheated. The two spoke about religion for hours before Bryant started shooting.
He spent a few more hours ransacking the home, dipping the corner of a pot holder made by Tietjen's daughter in Tietjen's blood to scrawl messages and using a pen to write other notes taunting investigators.