Netflix’s The Playing Card Killer is an intriguing Spanish documentary miniseries that presents the case of arguably Spain’s worst serial killer. In 2003, a murderer was on the loose, having killed six people and attempted to kill three more, and the signature they established was leaving playing cards of the suit of cups at the crime scene. With three episodes, each within an hour, The Playing Card Killer is a fairly enjoyable watch that tries to cover the psyche of the killer, along with focusing on the victims and their families, and also the faulty actions of the police and the media.
What Is The Series ‘The Playing Card Killer’ About?
Twenty years ago, in 2003, Spain was facing a horrible increase in violent crimes, and the capital city of Madrid was at the center of this rise. During such a time, in February of the year, a dead body was found lying at a bus stand in the Barajas district of Madrid. A bus driver found the body and contacted the authorities; the victim was found to be a 28-year-old airport janitor named Juan Carlos Martin Estacio. Juan Carlos had been killed by someone with a gun, and no evident links between him and the mafia or any criminal gang could be found. Soon a single playing card from the Spanish deck of cups was found lying by the feet of the victim, which piqued the interest of the media. What the significance of this card, an ace of cups, could be was discussed all over TV news programs and newspaper articles.
Only a month after the murder of Juan Carlos, a couple in the Tres Cantos area of the capital had been suddenly approached by a man who then shot one of them, Santiago Eduardo Salas, in the face. Santiago’s girlfriend, Anahid, was able to escape unharmed, as she reported that the killer’s gun had presumably malfunctioned, and he had to flee the scene. But before leaving, the man dropped another card, a two of cups right at the place. Only eleven days later, in the very same month of March, a Romanian couple in the Arganda del Ray region of Madrid was shot dead, and two cards, the three of cups and the four of cups, were now left behind.
While the media had already started to extensively cover the case and attempt to find out about the mysterious significance of the playing cards, these two subsequent murders led to an absolute media frenzy. The police authorities were also under pressure to find the perpetrator as fast as they could, and their investigation into one of the most infamous serial killings in the country began.
What Leads Did The Police Initially Follow?
The police investigators were following a different matter at the time and were not much concerned about the playing cards left behind. They were instead focused on the weapon that had been used to commit the murders, which was a very special kind of handgun. Based on the wounds in each of the cases, it was deduced that the bullet used in each case was of 7.62-millimeter caliber, which is in itself very different from the usual 9-millimeter size. This specific bullet was only used with a distinct handgun called the Tokarev, which was only made in the Russian city of Tula. The bullets used in the murders were all from the former nation of Yugoslavia, and this fit in well with the fact that countries with Soviet influence often kept the Tokarev as part of their official arsenal. The question that now concerned the police was how the individual got hold of a foreign weapon that was illegal in Spain, and they investigated the matter to track the gun.
At the same time, the police also connected the three murders with two other incidents that had taken place earlier but in which no playing cards had been left behind. In January of 2003, a month before the murder of Juan Carlos, a 50-year-old doorman named Juan Francisco Ledesma was shot dead inside his own home in front of his young son. The bullet used in this case was also the same 7.62-mm Tokarev bullet, suggesting that the same gun had been used, surely by the same perpetrator, since the gun was extremely rare and only one person in Madrid possibly had it. Then, on the very next day after the murder of Juan Carlos, an attacker walked into a bar named Rojas in the Alcala de Henares locality and shot dead a young boy and a woman. The bullets used in this case were also similar. Therefore, these two murders were also seemingly connected to the same serial killer, even though no playing cards had been found at the crime scene.
Who Was Fichaje? Was He The Real Perpetrator?
The fact that a Russian gun was being used by the murderer was quickly linked to the fact that the Spanish army had been on missions to former Soviet countries in the past few years. It was suggested that the perpetrator must have been a member of the army, and it was also believed that he must have been a supporter of the Spanish far-right ultras, who had a prominent position in the army. This theory had actually been proposed by a journalist, as some of the victims had been immigrants in Spain and foreign nationals. This theory then also answered how the murderer had gotten hold of the Tokarev gun, and soon the police asked for records from the army about soldiers and officials who had been treated for mental health issues.
So far, there had been two survivors who had escaped the killer—Anahid, in Tres Cantos, and also the owner of the Rojas bar, Teresa, who had survived even after being shot. The police had gotten facial sketches of the perpetrator based on details provided by both women, but the two sketches did not initially match. In order to take the investigation further, the police now sought the help of Teresa in order to identify the murderer. A number of men, who all had served in the Spanish army and were also associated with far-right beliefs, were picked up by the police, and Teresa was asked to identify the attacker from a line-up.
The man she seemed to identify was immediately arrested, and he was known by his alias, Fichaje. The man had been a club bouncer before serving as a paratrooper in Bosnia and was also known to have neo-Nazi beliefs. However, it was later found that Fichaje did not really have anything to do with the murders, and the man was released from police custody. One of the investigative journalists later revealed that the arrest had been made by the authorities only to influence the election in Madrid that was about to take place only a week later. The government was also clearly under duress and had ordered any possible suspect to be arrested in order to show the public that they were taking active steps against the violent crimes.
How Did Alfredo Galan Get Caught?
As the police kept investigating the case, no new lead or suspect could be found in the following days until the matter took a surprising turn in July of the same year in the Puertollano region in the Ciudad Real province of Spain. A man named Alfredo Galan Sotillo walked into the local police station in Puertollano and confessed that he was the real Playing Card Killer. Although the police were naturally surprised by this and even did not want to believe the man’s claims, Galan mentioned details about the crimes that only the perpetrator could have known. For example, the cards left behind by the killer were all marked with a specific blue marker, but this detail was never released in the media by the police. Yet Galan knew of this, and he told the police about it. Another instance was that Galan described the crime scene at Juan Ledesma’s house with details that only the police had known until now.
Galan had been a member of the Spanish army that had gone to Bosnia on a humanitarian mission sometime before 2003, and it was here that he had procured the Tokarev gun. The mission that the soldiers had been on was to get rid of weapons from the general public, and the man had found the Tokarev during this time. When the army was leaving the country and heading back to Spain, Galan had hidden the handgun inside a CRT TV and brought it back to Madrid along with his luggage.
Very soon, it was officially announced that Alfredo Galan was indeed the real serial killer, and he was put up for a court trial. However, Galan had initially confessed under the influence of alcohol and then retracted his statements the next morning when he woke up sober inside the police station cell. He shortly denied all involvement in the matter, before then changing his story slightly. Galan now claimed that he had indeed brought the Tokarev gun back to Spain but had then sold it to two different men, whom he described as “skinheads.” The man claimed that the murders had been committed by these two men, who had then noticed it on the news and came back to meet with Galan. The two had apparently threatened Galan with going to the police and wrongly confessing to the crimes, or else they would kill his sister. But neither the police authorities nor the court wanted to hear any more about this theory, and it was almost like they did not want to let Alfredo Galan walk free at any cost.
Galan did have a history of mental health troubles, starting from the time when he accompanied the army to the clean-up of the Prestige oil spill. The man had attempted to steal a car from an elderly woman, and following this, he had been subjected to a mental health evaluation. Galan had then taken voluntary discharge from service and returned to Madrid, where he would actively follow local and global news about politics. Some of his old friends from the army also revealed that he had indeed gotten involved with far-right ultra-Sur group members in the army. Alfredo Galan had seemingly grown violent and unemphatic towards people around him. He stated that he had decided to kill people only for the sake of it, and he had indeed chosen his victims randomly, killing whoever he could find when he was in the mood to kill. The dropping of the playing cards at the crime scene, which became the man’s signature sign, was actually not even a part of his plan, and he had only picked it up after the media frenzy. The presence of the ace of cups at the first crime scene was mere coincidence, but the manner in which the media theorized about it made Galan feel that he should continue with the style, only to add more fuel to the frenzy.
What Finally Happened To Alfredo Galan?
After the police investigation was over and the court trial had started, various experts on psychology spoke with Galan and deduced that he was genuinely unremorseful of his actions. The details with which he described his killings made it seem almost as if he was secretly proud of his actions. On the last day of the trial, the judge allowed Galan the opportunity to say anything he wanted, but the man refused to speak. To many, this was indicative that he was indeed guilty of the murders and therefore had nothing to say in defense. Alfredo Galan Sotillo was ultimately sentenced to 142 years in prison for all the murders he had committed and attempted, and the court also made it harder for him to get any privileges in prison, or parole.
While imprisoned, in 2015, Galan wrote a letter to the police in which he wanted to help them solve the murder case of Eva Blanco, a sixteen-year-old girl who had been raped and killed back in 1997. Galan wrote that the killer was probably an introverted man feeling stuck in some small, unsatisfactory job who was also foolish enough to commit such a crime. He also mentioned that the police should use the media to hunt him out, just like they had earlier done with Galan himself. In 2016, Galan also changed his name and published a novel from jail, which told the story of a gay teenage boy who is regularly bullied at school. The ending of The Playing Card Killer mentions all these details, probably because they might very well reflect on the psyche and past of Galan himself. The man is currently still in prison and is set to be released in 2028, as the maximum length of imprisonment in Spain is 25 years.