By Janie Jones | Photo by Jamison Mosley
Some serial killers stay close to home in their comfort zone. Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis (BTK) Rader and John Wayne Gacy come to mind. But others stay on the move. Their nicknames attest to their mobility and wandering ways: the I-5 Killer, the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Killer, the I-45 Killer and the Freeway Killer (actually three murderers acting independently of each other). In 2004, an analyst with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Terri Turner, noted a possible pattern of slayings along I-40 through Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Blue and red highway lines on roadmaps, the veins and arteries of our nation, our life’s blood just under the skin, so vulnerable.
As the body count climbed along the I-40 corridor, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) became involved through their Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), which led to the creation of the FBI’s Highway Serial Killings Initiative (HSKI). At the beginning of the research, ViCAP found more than 250 homicides linked to I-40 from Mississippi through Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. After questioning hundreds of potential suspects, authorities knew they were dealing with multiple killers. Many of the victims were prostitutes who hung out at truck stops and gas stations. Transients were also easy prey. The poor and downtrodden who hitch rides, like the people you see holding cardboard signs near on-ramps, are easy victims.
A young woman who was neither a prostitute nor a transient may have fallen victim to a highway serial killer while she was selling magazines at a gas station just off I-40 near Galloway. Nineteen-year-old Tracy Jones was last seen alive on November 16, 2006. Twenty days later, her body was found on a roadside in Memphis.
On August 26, 2000, Ronald J. Ward raped and repeatedly stabbed Kristin Laurite, a motorist who pulled into a rest stop just off I-40 near Morrilton. Laurite was traveling cross country with her two dogs. Ward was linked to the homicide through DNA evidence and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Laurite’s death came less than four years after that of Arthur Joe Cotton, 71, a Sheridan truck driver, who was found shot to death at the same Morrilton rest stop. Two half-brothers from West Virginia were convicted in the Cotton case. The rest stop has since been closed.
One of the I-40 killers was Robert Charles Browne. He was eventually caught and imprisoned in Colorado where he confessed to 48 slayings, including the strangulation death of Lisa Lowe in West Memphis in 1991. Lowe was a 21-year-old mother of four from Forrest City, which is also on I-40. He dumped her body into the St. Francis River where a fisherman found her two weeks after she went missing. Browne had been killing people from 1970 until his arrest in 1995. Along the way, he used a variety of weapons: ice pick, butcher knife, screwdriver, gun and his own hands. In all, Browne said he murdered five people in Arkansas, but he couldn’t remember their names.
A commonality between Browne and other highway killers was the fact that he had worked as a long-haul truck driver. As of 2009, analysts had identified more than 500 victims nationwide, and 200 of the suspects arrested were mostly long-haul truck drivers.
FBI Analyst Christie Palazzolo may have rankled truckers when she reported, “We have an inordinate number of victims and offenders from this specific population pool.”
According to Ginger Strand’s book, Killer on the Road, in its first year of operation, the HSKI helped clear 25 murders committed by three truckers.
According to analyst Turner, “The vast majority of truck drivers are good, hard-working people and without them, our nation would come to a screeching halt. But there are a very few who have found that this particular job is very suited to this particular type of crime.”
A highway serial killer can pick up a victim in one state, kill him or her in another state and dump the body in a third state.
The “redhead murders” were between six and 11 slayings attributed to the Bible Belt Strangler, who seemed to be attracted to women with red, auburn and strawberry-blonde hair. He dumped his victims alongside interstates in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. Lisa Nichols, believed to be Victim #2, was found near West Memphis. The killer was active during the 1980s and was never apprehended.
A postal employee discovered the body of 47-year-old Margaret Gardner beside an entrance ramp to I-40 in West Memphis on July 11, 2003.
Just as dangerous as drivers who kill are hitchhikers who kill. Laws regarding hitchhiking vary from state to state. Thumbing rides became commonplace during the Great Depression and World War II when people didn’t have the money to buy bus or train tickets. It was during that era that James Waybern “Red” Hall made a name for himself as the “Hitchhiker Killer from Arkansas.” In Arkansas from January 1945 until his capture two months later, he robbed and murdered three people who gave him rides. His motive was always money, although the most he ever gained from an individual was $129. When he led detectives on a tour of crime sites, he instructed them in his hitching technique.
“It’s not the way you wiggle your thumb or the gesture you make. It’s all in the look you give the driver.”
Most people would agree that all serial killers are disturbed, but some are more disturbed than others. Patrick Kearny, one of the three Freeway Killers, was into necrophilia. Robert Ben Rhoades converted his truck cab into a torture chamber. Sadists indulge in such aberrant behavior as to make a person wonder how they function in everyday life without anyone seeing the monster inside. Often after a killer has been revealed, his neighbors will say to reporters, “He was so quiet,” or “He was such a nice guy.” They seem so normal. Dahmer, who was Hannibal Lecter without the charm, once said, “I should have gone to college and gone into real estate and got myself an aquarium; that’s what I should have done.”
Red Hall’s handsomeness camouflaged his true nature, beguiling his victims who associated well-favored features with virtue. He claimed he had killed as many as 24 people around the country. Though he never gave the names of his out-of-state victims, he was suspected in the double homicide of Dr. Merrill E. Lambert and Corporal Charles W. Nipper III in Kansas in October 1944. Those two slayings prompted the editor of the Wichita Daily Beacon to lament lax hitchhiking laws.
The tragic, untimely and unnecessary deaths of the doctor and the soldier were due to the non-enforcement of the Kansas law against hitchhiking… There have been numerous cold-blooded murders by persons given free rides by Kansas motorists [and yet] in the face of the accumulation of brutal murders, nobody is prosecuted.
Hitchhiking is against the law in Arkansas, but so is jaywalking, and who’s not guilty of cutting across the street now and then?
Self-driving trucks and other technologically advanced delivery methods could bring an end to the highway murders and the jobs of 3.5 million American truckers. On the other hand, the unemployed drivers will have a lot more time to kill.