The freeways of 1970's America were a dangerous place for hitchhiker's, with some young girls hitching a ride only never to be heard from again. However, these were not the victims of choice for one such sexual predator, who used the Washington Freeways as his dumping grounds. The serial killer known as the Freeway Phantom would abduct his young African-American victims from residential areas, usually near convenience stores and then dump their remains along the freeway. By November 1972, the killer had claimed the lives of six young women and girls, who had all been viciously strangled, in one case stabbed and all raped. Despite a strong police investigation, no suspects were ever charged with the murders and the case would remain unsolved.
13-year-old Carol Denise Spinks would be the first victim of the serial murderer who haunted the Freeways of Washington D.C. Spinks was in the seventh grade at Johnson Junior High School and spent much of her time outside of school playing with her identical twin and older sister Valerie. On the evening of 25 April 1971, Carol had been asked by 24-year-old Valerie if she would go get groceries for her at the 7-Eleven which was only four blocks from the family home of Wahler Place SE. Her older sister lived across the hall and gave Carol $5 for a TV dinner, soda and bread, which the young girl eventually agreed to. She knew she should not go out after 8:00pm as their mother Allenteen still hadn't returned from visiting her sister in Brentwood.
The single parent had imposed a strict curfew on her eight children, who would suffer a whipping with an extension cord or belt if they disobeyed. Against her better judgement Carol went anyway and was spotted by her mother along the way, who ordered her to get home after going to to store. Allenteen promised to give her the punishment once she made it home. When she returned, she found Carol had not made it home. She went straight to the police and filed a missing persons report, describing Carol as 5ft tall and weighing 100 pounds. That same night family and friends searched the neighbourhood for the young girl, but no trace of her was found.
Six days later Carol Spinks body was found dumped on the side of a grassy embankment of the freeway next to the northbound lanes of the I-295, she had been sodomised and strangled. When her body was recovered, she was wearing the same clothes she had on when she went missing, blue gym shorts, a red sweater and brown socks. The medical examiner noted she had suffered cuts on her face, neck, chest, both hands and her nose was bloodied indicating she had put up a struggle with her killer. Citrus fruit was found in her stomach, which police believe was given to her by her abductor who must have fed her because she had been dead for only two or three days indicating she had been kept alive for sometime.
There was also some forensic evidence recovered, such as green synthetic fibres found on her clothing, whilst her shoes were missing and never recovered. There were no witnesses to her abduction, with the clerk at the 7-Eleven remembering her as she left with her groceries and a mother walking with her 14-year-old son passing her in the street, who were possibly the last to see her alive as she carried her grocery bag. Police surmised she had been picked up on her walk home by her killer, but without any solid evidence or witnesses they were unable to come up with any suitable suspects.
Around ten weeks later another victim was found along the freeway. The police dispatch received a call from a D.C. Department of Highways and Traffic employee who had found the body of a young woman along the I-295. When he pulled off the road with car trouble he saw the body and called police, who sent officers to scene. It was the second call that morning concerning the discovery of the dead body, however the officers could find nothing and continued their patrol. On 14 July 1971, the body of 14-year-old Angela Denise Barnes was found just off the shoulder of the freeway in Charles County, Maryland.
Barnes had died from a bullet wound to the back of the head. Investigators had doubts that this murder was committed by the same individual or individuals, but without solid evidence they were unable to discount it either. One of the callers returned to the site along the I-295 a week later on 19 July and saw that the body was still there, decomposing in the summer sun. The police were called again and D.C. police sergeant Charles Baden was contacted whilst off duty and proceeded to drive to the freeway on his motorcycle, where he found the young woman's corpse opposite I-295 just nothing of Bolling Air Force Base.
The body was identified as that of 16-year-old Darlenia Denise Johnson who had been reported missing on 09 July by her mother Helen, who had last seen her the previous day when she told her she was going to the Oxon Run Recreation Center where she worked. The centre had arranged a sleepover for kids and Darlenia had planned to stay the night, but she never arrived. Eleven days later her body was found just 15 feet from where Carol Spinks body was found. Because of the amount of time it had taken to locate her, the body had decomposed to such an extend that the medical examiner could not determine the cause of death and had to cut off her fingers to match the fingerprints. It was believed that had the body been found sooner, then the cause of death might have been known.
Brenda Faye Crockett's mother had sent to the nearby Safeway store to collect some bread and pet food for the family dogs on 27 July 1971, but failed to return. Her mother Rhea had sent her on the errand at around 8:00pm and believed her daughter had gone accompanied by a friend. After an hour her mother went looking for her, whilst her boyfriend stayed at home with her youngest child Bertha. At around 9:20pm, the phone rang and 7-year-old Bertha answered and spoke to Brenda who told her sister that a white man had picked her up and she was in Virginia but would soon be on her way home in a taxi cab. She recalled Brenda was crying as she spoke and hung up. After 25 minutes Brenda called back again and this time her mother's boyfriend answered and began asking her questions. He asked if she knew where in Virginia she was, but she replied she didn't and asked if her mother had seen her. Rhea's boyfriend asked how her mother could have seen her if she was in Virginia at which point she said "Well, I'll see you", before the line went dead.
Just nine days after the discovery of Darlenia Johnson's body but a mere eight hours after her kidnapping, a hitchhiker stumbled across the remains of Brenda Crockett on Route 50, which was just across the district line in Cheverly, just off the shoulder of Pennsylvania Avenue in Prince George's County, Maryland. She had left the house barefoot wearing pink foam haircurlers and was found dressed in the same clothes as when she left, blue and white print shorts and a matching halter top. Like the previous victims she had been raped and strangled with a scarf. Detectives noticed her feet were clean and suspected the killer had washed them after her death. Like Carol Spinks, Brenda had green synthetic fibres on her clothing, which clearly linked the murders to the same perpetrator.
The investigation into the murders had reached a dead end and the African-American community in Washington D.C. was outraged that little was being done to protect their young daughters from the clutches of a vicious serial killer. The police had little evidence to work with, except the green fibres found on some of the victims clothing. The killer's MO was clear however, and it was known that most of the girls had been running errands at the local stores when they were kidnapped. This proved to be the case once more when on 01 October 1971, 12-year-old Nenomoshia Yates disappeared on her way to the Safeway store which was located a block away from her father's apartment in the 4900 block of Benning Road SE.
She was a sixth-grader at the Kelly Miller Junior High School and had gone out at around 7pm to buy flour, sugar and paper plates for her father because he needed to be at the hospital where Nenomoshia's step-mother had just given birth. On her way home she had vanished and her body was found hours later by a 16-year-old boy along Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of the District. She had been raped and strangled. The medical examiner found the same green synthetic fibres on Yates's clothing, meaning she was murdered by the same person who killed Spinks and Crockett.
After this latest murder, the newspapers began to refer to the unidentified killer as the "Freeway Phantom", because of his ability to remain elusive despite hunting for his victims within the city and his choice of dumping the bodies on the Washington Freeway. The police were not quick to connect all the murders to a single offender and did not want to admit the presence of a serial murderer loose in the city. Only six weeks later another victim was found. 18-year-old Brenda Woodard had gone missing on 15 November after attending night classes in typing at Cardozo High School in Northwest.
She had left with a classmate who usually drove her home, but on this occasion his car was being repaired so the pair caught a bus after stopping at Ben's Chili Bowl. Woodard left her friend and caught another bus at Eighth and H streets NE. This was the last time her classmate saw her alive. At 5am the following morning, Cheverly police officer David Norman came across Woodard's body whilst on patrol in a grassy area near Hospital Drive, which was just south of Route 202 near Prince George's Hospital, and shone his flashlight and could see she was dead.
Woodard had been raped, strangled and stabbed four times. It appeared she had struggled with her killer because she had defensive wounds to her hands and several buttons were missing from her coat and skirt. Her black turtleneck was inside out and her burgundy crushed velvet coat was placed over her body. Inside one of the pockets, police found a handwritten note in pencil which read;
"This is tantamount to my insensititivity [sic] to people especially women.
I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!
"This is tantamount to my insensititivity [sic] to people especially women.
I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!
Investigators surmised the handwriting was Brenda's and that she had written it under dictation from her killer, sometime before she was attacked. The writing was not that of a person under duress, leading some to believe she possibly knew her killer. At 18-years-old, Brenda Woodard was the oldest of the victims so far and the killer had changed him MO slightly by stabbing her several times. With her death the Freeway Phantom murders abruptly stopped, and detectives believed the killer had moved to another hunting ground to avoid detection or had been locked up for another unrelated crime. It would be almost a year before another body was found.
On 05 September 1972, the body of 17-year-old Diane Williams was found by a trucker off the I-295, about 200 yards south from the D.C. lines. Williams was a junior at Ballou Senior High School and had spend the evening of her murder with her boyfriend who had walked her to the bus stop, but she never made it back to her home in Halley Terrace in Southeast. She was found strangled to death, still wearing the same clothes she had on when she went missing and the hip pocket of her jeans still contained the $1.26 she had hidden there. Police now followed every lead they could to catch the killer.
In 1973 a group of African-American men were arrested for a series of rapes committed in Washington D.C. and Maryland from 1969 to 1973. The gang, which included Morris J. Warren, John N. Davis, Nathaniel Davis and Melvin Gray were known as the Green Vega Rapists and they would target young women waiting at bus stops or attempting to hail a cab and lured them into their green Chevrolet Vega. Once inside the men raped the women and then released them alive. These men were believed to be responsible for hundreds of rapes and went on trial in 1973 and found guilty. The gang members were later interviewed individually by homicide detectives concerning the Freeway Phantom case.
Under questioning, one gang member implicated another and said the man had told him he was involved in one of the beltway murders. The inmate was currently serving a sentence at Lorton Prison for the Green Vega rapes and agreed to provide details but requested anonymity. When this was agreed he provided investigators with details of the date, location and signature detail of the crime which was withheld from the public. This key piece of information was known only to detectives and the killer. The information proved correct, and the man's own alibi for murder was checked and verified. However this lead soon went cold when a candidate in a local Maryland election declared a break in the case, and the inmate refused any further co-operation, denied making previous statements to police and declined any further interviews.
Early in the investigation, detectives had doubts that the murder of 14-year-old Angela Denise Barnes on 14 July 1971 was linked to the other murders committed by the Freeway Phantom.It was their understanding that because the MO differed considerably, Barnes was shot in the back of the head and that no sexual assault had occurred, that she was the victim of another killer. This would later prove to be correct when two former Washington policemen, 30-year-old Edward Sellman and 26-year-old Tommie Simmons who both resigned from the patrol division of the Metropolitan police back in 1971, were arrested in connection with her murder.
Acting on information, police arrested Sollman on Friday 29 March 1974 at the Nyman Realty Co. where he worked. His arrest was kept under wraps because detectives wanted to question another person in connection with the case and did not want to alert Simmons should he attempt to evade capture. Simmons was arrested the following day on 30 March by police at his home. He had been employed at the Thrift Loan Co. in Silver Springs. Sollman had been a policeman for only eight months back in 1971 and Simmons had resigned in February 1971, just months before the murder of Barnes. Both men were charged with the murder and detectives later concluded they had no connection with the Freeway Phantom killings and discounted them from the investigation.
One man considered as strong suspect by detectives was Robert Askins, a former patient at St. Elizabeths who worked as a computer technician. Askins had served time in prison for the 1938 poisoning death of a D.C. prostitute. He was later freed in 1958 when his sentence was overturned on a legal technicality. In March 1977, police investigators focused their attention on Askins, who in African-American and was 52-years-old at the time of the Freeway Phantom murders, when they learned of his involvement in a series of unrelated rapes and his prison sentence.
A D.C. superior Court Judge signed a search warrant for officers to enter and search his rowhouse. Inside they found photos of young women and girls, soiled women's scarves, a knife which was found to have been used in another crime and an essay from a girl. They also located a document relating to his conviction from the appellate court in which Askins had used the word "tantamout", the same word used in the handwritten note found with victim Brenda Woodard. Detectives would later comment that, "Askins is known to use the word... when attempting to stress the importance of matters related to his work".
Police obtained a second warrant a month later to search Askin's vehicle, in which they found a gold earring and two buttons under his back seat. However with only circumstantial evidence connecting him to the Phantom crimes, and no link to the strongest forensic evidence, that of the green fibres found on some of the victims clothing, they were unable to charge him with any of the murders. But they were able to convict him on unrelated charges of the kidnapping and rape of two women in the district several years after the serial murders ended. For these crimes Akins' was sentenced to life imprisonment and later died in prison aged 91 on 30 April 2010. Despite several strong suspects, the Freeway Phantom crimes remain unsolved.
Written by Nucleus
Written by Nucleus