In June of 1985, Detective Frank Geyer of Philadelphia searches for Benjamin Pitezel’s missing children. Holmes is in jail for faking Pitezel’s death and filing a false claim with the Fidelity Mutual Life Association in Philadelphia. At present, however, the police believe that Holmes actually did murder Pitezel and faked the scene to look accidental. Now, three of Pitezel’s children are missing: Alice, Nellie, and Howard. Holmes claims that he left the children with Minnie Williams. He admits he faked Pitezel’s death by burning a cadaver. In St. Louis, Holmes persuades Pitezel’s wife, Carrie, that Benjamin was still alive and wanted to see Alice, Nellie, and Howard.
Detective Geyer uses Alice and Nellie’s letters to their mother to follow the children’s trail. Holmes never mailed the letters. They guide Geyer through Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and finally Detroit. In each state, he teams up with a local detective. Holmes develops a pattern of staying in a hotel for at least a night and then renting a house for a couple days. Even stranger, in Indianapolis Holmes appears to have stayed in one hotel with his wife Georgiana Yoke, and kept the children in another.
In Indianapolis, Geyer learns that Holmes said he wanted to put Howard in an institution to get rid of him. Alice’s letters show she was very homesick and bored, yet Holmes kept them well-fed. Geyer suspects that Howard never left Indianapolis alive. In Detroit, he discovers that Holmes and Yoke are registered in one hotel, the children in another, and Carrie, with her two other children—Dessie and baby Wharton—in a third. All of these hotels are in Detroit, three blocks apart.
Alice’s last letter was to her grandparents. She asked them to tell her mother she was cold and needed a coat. She was homesick and wished to see them and her baby brother. She also wrote that “Howard is not with us now.” Geyer realizes that Holmes was playing a game of possession.
At Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, Holmes acts as a model prisoner in order to manipulate his guards. He pays to have newspapers delivered from the outside and delights in Geyer’s slow progress.
Holmes composes his memoir and includes a “diary” that he claims to have started writing the previous year. Larson speculates it is fiction for the purpose of garnering sympathy. Holmes describes his daily routine, his worry for his wife Georgiana, and his childhood. He describes it as idyllic, but this is almost certainly false. He also writes to Carrie and tries to reassure her that he did not kill her children or Benjamin.