ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — The families of Brenda Pruitt, Sandra Little, Robyn Mihan and Donna Reitmeyer now know the identity of an alleged serial killer who put their bodies inside various containers and packages more than 30 years ago — and police are hoping to add the family of a yet-to-be-identified woman to that list.
Prosecutors from St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Lincoln County announced Monday Gary Muehlberg, 73, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder for the homicides of four women who were working as prostitutes when they were killed. Muelberg confessed to killing them between 1990 and 1991 after picking them up along Cherokee Street in St. Louis.
He's been in prison since 1995 for killing a man at his Bel-Ridge home who tried to buy a car from him in 1993.
The case came together after O’Fallon police Sgt. Jodi Webber sent evidence from a crime scene in Lincoln County to be tested for DNA. Earlier this year, DNA experts at the St. Charles County Crime Lab got a full DNA profile, which is required to run it through a national database of criminals called CODIS.
The evidence matched Muehlberg, who worked as a teacher, maintenance man and construction worker.
All three prosecutors sent letters to Muehlberg assuring him they would not seek the death penalty and that nothing about his current conditions in prison would change in exchange for a full confession.
Investigators say he is in kidney failure and is not likely to live long enough to be put to death.
The homicides of Pruitt, Little and Mihan were linked to the same killer early on.
All were abducted from what was known as the Cherokee Street stroll.
But Muehlberg confessed to two more killings – including Reitmeyer’s – that police weren’t expecting.
One of them remains a mystery.
In a letter to Webber obtained by 5 On Your Side, the killer wrote:
"I sincerely hope this new info helps and aids closure to all directly or indirectly to this negative actions. I am so sorry and only hope, wish and pray this in a way closure in loss of their oved ones family member, friends and can close off this terrible negative part of my past behavior. Finally, this past 1 1/2 months will close off the investigations to these untimely and unnecessary passing of the victims. May they now finally rest in peace."
"No matter how these victims choose to earn a living, they should not have had their lives taken in such a dark way. They should have had a better life, no matter the life style they had and been allowed to see family grow and enjoy a more fuller positive life, not to have been cut so short.
"I still dislike that negative, dark, short period in past life. I made terrible mistakes and will probably never be able to truly rest in peace -- but I hope and pray I can make amends by being realistic and truth for past mistakes I made. I am not asking for forgiveness but to aid closure in these cold cases."
The following information is based on interviews with sources familiar with the investigation, as well as the Salina Journal Sun and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The known victims
Her body was found on March 26, 1990, stuffed between two mattresses.
Investigators believe she had been killed about four days before she was found along Highway 61 and Highway E in Silex, Mo., which is in Lincoln County.
She had been strangled and her hands were bound.
She was 19 years old, and had given birth to her second child two weeks before her murder.
Her nude body was found June 11, 1990, inside a rubber trash can on the sidewalk along Gasconade Street near South Broadway.
Her body was too badly decomposed to determine a cause of death.
She was 40 years old and left behind three adult daughters.
She had her first child when she was 15 years old and married to a 17-year-old she met at Roosevelt High School, according to her oldest daughter, now Rhonda Sullivan.
Two years into that marriage, Reitmeyer left her young family behind.
She soon started a new family, giving birth to her second child, now Juanita Zills, and marrying her father, too.
Both women spoke to 5 On Your Side by phone. Zills from Iowa, and Sullivan from Polar Bluff, Mo.
They have distant, but treasured memories of their mother even though she was never a constant in either of their lives.
They described her as a kind, beautiful woman who would do anything for anyone in need – including taking a case to keep someone else out of jail or stealing something for someone just because she heard them say they wanted it.
Sullivan said she remembered visiting her mother in jail as a child, and seeing some of her mother’s artwork. She gave her daughter her colored pencils and the drawing pad – items Sullivan said she still keeps.
“She was in jail, she didn’t have anything, all she had to do was her artwork, and she gave me her notepad and her colored pencils,” she recalled.
In her teenage years, Sullivan said she started to rebel against her father and stepmother, eventually going to live with her mother.
She remembers watching over her youngest sister Dawn, while her mother and her mother’s boyfriend would go out.
She would buy her daughter outfits that matched hers, and she loved washing her hair with Pantene, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said she, too, experimented with drugs and drinking and believes it was a way to self-medicate her struggles with bipolar disorder and depression.
“I truly believe my mother self-medicated with drugs and alcohol,” Sullivan said. “Thank goodness I was able to try it and say, ‘OK, that’s enough.’”
Reitmeyer’s second child, Zills, meanwhile, spent most of her young life with her mother’s family and her father, who got custody of her when she was 6.
Reitmeyer’s parents and brother helped raise Zills, too.
Zills remembers her mother trying her best to give motherly advice when they reconnected when Zills visited her mother in jail when she was 19.
“She kept telling me to make sure I used moisturizer,” Zills recalled. “She was going to church while she was in jail, she just really wanted to be better.”
But when she got out, she went back to drugs and doing whatever it took to get them, her daughters said.
“I was only 21 or 22, and even at that age, how do you help her?” Zills recalled.
Two months before her mother’s body was found, Zills said she went to dinner with her in St. Louis.
“I was there for a week, and she didn’t come back,” Zills said.
Zills said she was devastated by the news of her mother’s murder.
“Here I was thinking, ‘I’m going to get to know my mom again,’” she recalled.
After her death, Zills said her family members found tickets for solicitation and drug paraphernalia among her mother’s belongings.
“I just want people to know she was more than her problems,” Zills said. “She had her struggles, but she was still a person, not just her mistakes, her addiction.
“I would have loved to see her overcome them.”
Zills said Reitmeyer’s mother, Edna Clark, died in 2020.
“She was so devastated by all of this, and it was horrible for her not knowing if she would ever find out who did this,” Zills said. “I hope there’s mothers that are still alive that are getting to know who did this to their daughters.”
Her body was found Feb. 17, 1991, on the shoulder of Interstate 70 in O’Fallon, Missouri, in a dresser.
Muehlberg told police he removed the drawers from the dresser and built a wooden box around it.
Her family reported her missing Sept. 4, 1990.
She was 21 years old.
Her body was found Oct. 4, 1991 inside a plastic trash can on the side of the road near Page Boulevard and Interstate 270 in Maryland Heights.
She had been smothered or strangled.
Her family reported her missing on May 9, 1990.
She was 27 years old.
Muehlberg told Webber he killed another woman and left her body in a metal barrel outside a self-serve car wash somewhere along Natural Bridge west of the innerbelt.
Webber found no police reports or any documentation of a body matching that description dumped at a car wash in that area.
But she tracked down the son of a car wash owner in that area who said he remembered his father being upset after a body was found at their other location in Pagedale.
A former Pagedale officer also told an investigator he remembered a body was found there, but did not remember what happened after it was discovered.
Webber said she is now working with the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office to determine whether any women’s bodies who were found in 1991 match the description.
He told investigators the woman was the last prostitute he killed, which would mean she was killed some time in 1991.
Kenneth “Doc” Atchison:
Atchison’s daughter, Carol Jones, said her father was a construction worker who, by the time he was in his 30s, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.
“He was disabled,” she said.
He did side jobs when he could, and, was acquainted with Muehlberg. Both men ate at the Overland Diner.
Muehlberg hired Atchison to build something at his house, and he gave Muehlberg dimensions for the materials he needed Muehlberg to buy, Jones said.
“When my dad got there, (Muehlberg) had gotten all the dimensions wrong,” she said.
Jones said her dad, then 57, refused to do the job after Muehlberg tried to convince him he could just cut the wood into the right dimensions.
“He wasn’t about to do all that work and said, ‘Find someone else to do the job,’” Jones said. “I don’t think ‘Muehlberg’ liked that very much.”
On Feb. 8, 1993, she said her dad went to Muehlberg’s house to buy a Cadillac.
He brought $6,000 cash with him.
He was never seen alive again.
She said they reported him missing to the Overland police department immediately, but never felt like they took their concerns seriously.
“One officer even told us, ‘$6,000 can buy a lot of sunshine,’” she recalled.
Then, she said the family got St. Louis County police involved.
“Within 48 hours they found my father,” she said.
St. Louis County police found Atchison’s decomposing body in a makeshift coffin inside Muehlberg’s house.
Muehlberg was arrested at a friend’s house in Wayne County, Ill.
“It took 45 days to get my father out of there,” Jones said. “It was a life-changing experience.
“When you see your father brought out in a makeshift coffin, it’s shocking. He had been beaten, tortured, shot four times and there was a ligature used.
“We don’t know how long he lived, and if the police would have done their job, could they have saved his life?”
Atchison left behind his daughter, a son and three grandchildren.
“My father was a very well-liked man,” Jones recalled. “His funeral was very well attended. We had to have two. One in St. Louis County and one in Shannon County, Mo.”
At his trial, Muehlberg’s attorneys tried to claim he was framed for the murder by drug dealers, who owned a construction company for which Muehlberg had worked.
One man testified that Muehlberg asked him to go to his house and move a box for him. Once there, the man testified he found a box with a man’s shoes sticking out one end and didn’t know what to do. He said he didn’t tell anyone fearing he would be blamed for the man’s murder.
Muehlberg was convicted of Atchison’s murder in 1995.
Atchison’s mother died at the age of 95.
“She lived long enough to hear Gary Muehlberg got convicted,” Jones said.
Jones’ brother died in 2002.
“I’m really missing him right now,” Jones said. “He was very involved in the 45-day ordeal.”
Jones said investigators recently knocked on her door to tell her about Muehlberg’s other killings.
“I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “He’s an evil person. I didn’t think my father was the first and only person he killed.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who has ever given off a more evil vibe.”
Jones said she now thinks of the other families of the victims who Muehlberg told police he killed.
“We couldn’t be happier for the other families who are getting closure,” she said. “It’s a very difficult thing to live with the unknown.
“It’s a particular type of torture.”
Muehlberg was one of three children, two boys and a girl.
His brother died in Viet Nam. Talking about him was the only time he teared up during the three times he met with investigators to give his confession.
He was born in St. Louis. The family moved to Kansas, where he got married and had a child.
In 1972, he went to prison for rape, kidnapping and aggravated robbery. In February 1972, a girl told police Muehlberg entered her home, bound and gagged her at knifepoint and asked if there was any money in the house before leaving abruptly without searching for money.
The victim was babysitting while her parents were away.
Muehlberg’s attorneys ordered a mental exam to determine “Muehlberg was insane at the time of the commission of the alleged crime,” according to the Salina Journal Sun newspaper.
After prison, he went to Central Methodist University to study psychology.
He went to Central Missouri State for graduate school, got married again and moved to St. Louis to be closer to his wife’s family.
The couple had two children, who are both deceased. The couple also divorced.
Muehlberg’s daughter died just days ago and refused to speak to her father.
He also didn’t want his remaining family members to find out about the murders.
“He doesn’t want to be viewed as a monster,” according to a police source who spoke to Muehlberg. “He said he thought maybe one day this day would come.”
The Bel-Ridge house where Muehlberg told police he killed all of his victims was demolished about a year ago, according to neighbors.
After Muehlberg went to prison, they said the house became a dope house, with lose dogs and people coming and going all the time.
Janet Hake said she remembered neighbors complaining of a smell coming from Muehlberg’s house not long after Atchison disappeared.
Hake’s family has lived near Muehlberg’s old address for 60 years.
She said Muehlberg was not well liked in the neighborhood when he lived there, and, at 6’4” tall and about 220 pounds, he was intimidating back then, too, Hake said.
“He thought he was better than everybody else,” her brother added.
He recalled a moment when another neighbor hired a professional to build a tie wall.
“He just stood there the whole time and tried to tell the guy how to do it,” he said. “Like he knew more than everybody else, and that guy was the professional.”
Hake said she saw Muehlberg go into his house with “a lot of different women.”
“I just thought he had a lot of girlfriends,” she said.
Hake said she once went inside Muehlberg’s house while it was up for rent out of curiosity.
“Everything looked normal until you got into the basement,” she said. “He had built a concrete room down there with no windows and no air.
“I got the most uneasy feeling when I walked by that room.”
She looked over at the vacant lot where the house with so many secrets once stood.
“I’m glad they got him,” she said. “He doesn’t deserve to live though.
“All these years he got to live and those poor girls didn’t. I feel sorry for their families.”
She then walked back toward her house, still nodding in disbelief about having once lived near an alleged serial killer.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date of death for Keith Atchison's son and mother. It has been corrected.