NIPPERSINK, MI—In the '80s, this little town made its name in the news with a local eccentric old coot decked out from head to toe in thousands of buttons. In the '90s, it was the goofy car nut who converted his Chevrolet to look like the Statue of Liberty. Now, as residents and law-enforcement officials learned recently, this tiny Great Lakes fishing community has a local character who stands out with a zany hobby all his own: oddball Matthew Malbert, an otherwise unassuming pharmacist and school-board member, has a special passion for ritually murdering and dismembering at least 27 known victims.

Malbert in one of more than 800 goofball photos he took of himself and his hobby table over the past nine years

"Oh, God, oh, sweet Jesus, this is unbelievable," said Malbert's neighbor and longtime bowling partner Greg Henniken, who "never in a million years" would have suspected Malbert could be capable of anything this outlandish. When asked to comment on the recently uncovered menagerie of human body parts in Malbert's basement hobby-room, Henniken simply held his hand to his forehead as if to say, "Good grief!"

"This is truly beyond my comprehension," said Nippersink Police Chief Orin Lambert, just one of a dozen residents who have found themselves on TV as their wacky neighbor gets more and more attention for his unusual pastime. Malbert's hijinks were first reported in a surprise "breaking news" segment on the local news, then on the front page of the evening gazette, and now on countless network-news features as growing interest in the nutty character's antics put Nippersink on the map.

"I've lived here all my life, and nothing like this has ever happened before," Lambert said. "This is just—well, I've never seen anything like it."

"Never, ever," he added.

Malbert, who modestly describes himself in a newly discovered private journal—complete with diagrams of the female reproductive system, Polaroid photo collages of sawed-open human abdomens, and his own tiny, methodical handwriting—as a simple "collector," has already been on the front of Newsweek, Time, and more newspapers than local residents care to count. In fact, this longtime Michigan resident, whose work was until two weeks ago a complete secret to everyone but his more than two dozen bound and gagged victims, is soon to be the subject of a major profile on the popular TV program 48 Hours.

Malbert, on the advice of his court-appointed lawyer, was unable to publicly comment on all the fuss over his hobby, but, in typical fashion, released a short, offbeat statement through his attorney.

"This was nothing more than a way for me to while away the time," the statement read in part. "Honestly, I had never planned to share it with anyone. It did it purely for myself."

Malbert's parents, unassuming folks residing in his hometown of Des Moines, IA, said word of their kooky son's newfound fame came as a "complete shock" to them.

"When he was younger, he liked to horse around with [and mutilate] the animals around the farm," said mother Ethel Malbert, holding a third-grade photo of her son. "But that was just kid's stuff, you know. We never thought he would take it this far."

"He was a quiet, normal boy," added Malbert, quipping that the head injury her son suffered when he was 12 might help explain his offbeat obsession.

"In 25 years of forensic analysis, this is the first time I've come across anything so involved," said FBI agent Randolf McGrant, who was flown in from Detroit to file a report on Nippersink's new local celebrity. "And the scary part is that it may be many years before any of us know the full scope of what he's done."

Describing Malbert's work as a combination of taxidermy, sculpture, canning, cross-stitch, and "a bizarre form of poetry," McGrant says it's unlikely the media spotlight on Nippersink's most famous eccentric will let up anytime soon.

It seems this quiet hamlet has just earned a place in the history books, all thanks to that mild-mannered gentleman everyone simply knew as "that crazy ritual-murder guy."