Route 40 Killer
The Delaware Serial Murders
Route 40 Killer
In November 1987, 32-year-old Shirley Ellis disappeared whilst hitchhiking along Delaware’s Route 40 highway. Not long after she vanished, two teenagers stumbled across a horrific sight, the brutally tortured body of the young woman, who had been strangled and beaten to death with a hammer. Ellis was a former prostitute who turning her life around and studying to be a nurse, and her murder shocked the residents of New Castle County. Detectives suspected she may had been killed by a trucker using the interstate, and many thought her murder would go unsolved. Around seven months later another young woman was found brutally murdered in much the same circumstances, whilst a third was missing presumed dead. New Castle County detectives conferred with the FBI and realised they were now dealing with a possible serial killer operating along Route 40, and a hastily assembled task-force was formed from local and state police. Forensic officers found blue carpet fibres on the body of one victim and tire tracks from one crime scene were thought to belong to the killer’s vehicle, but it would be the efforts of a female undercover officer that would ensure the capture of Delaware’s only documented serial killer.
It was three days after the holiday had ended, but 23-year-old Shirley Anne Ellis was taking a Thanksgiving platter to Wilmington Hospital for an AIDS patient undergoing treatment. She had left her family home in Newark’s Brookmont Farms development shortly before 6:00pm on November 29, 1987 to make the 14-mile journey. She began walking along Route 40, an area she knew well from her days as a prostitute. But she had left the world of a streetwalker behind, and was attending nursing school. At some point during her walk, she must have decided to catch a ride, and hitchhiked along Route 40, the area just south of Wilmington, which would have been a faster way to get to the city. At around 9:25pm that evening, two teenagers looking for the ideal make-out spot came across a body, that of Shirley Ellis.
When police arrived on the scene they found Ellis’ partly clothed body discarded on the ground with her legs spread apart. The autopsy revealed the full extent of her ordeal at the hands of her killer. She had been bound at the wrists and ankles, tortured and mutilated with what appeared to be work tools, and there was black duct tape, likely used to prevent her from screaming, still attached to stands of her hair. Although there was no evidence of sexual assault, she suffered greatly before her killer wrapped a ligature around her neck and repeatedly struck her over the head with a hammer. Investigators were perplexed by this vicious and senseless murder, and Kathleen Jennings, who would serve as a state prosecutor in the case said, “There was no reason for Shirley Ellis to be killed, no angry boyfriend or anything that would connect a murderer to her death. For a time, people believed it was an interstate trucker.”
Seven months later another body was found, that of 31-year-old divorcee Catherine DiMauro who had been walking along Route 40 at around 11:30pm on June 28, 1988. She had a history of prostitution arrests, but it was not known if she was working the night she vanished after accepting a ride from a stranger driving a blue van. Her body was found at 6:26am the next morning, by workers building the Fox Run apartment complex. DiMauro was found in similar circumstances to Shirley Ellis, with her wrists and ankles bound and black duct tape covering her mouth, except she was completely naked. Once again there was no sign of sexual activity, but she had been tortured sadistically with work tools. The manner of her death was the same too, she had been strangled with a ligature and bludgeoned with a hammer.
New Castle County Police Captain James Hedrick, who would eventually join the task-force to hunt the killer, would later recall, “Everything was consistent with the Ellis case, we felt that the same person was responsible for both murders.” There was a significant difference however, because the killer had left a clue on DiMauro’s body, in the form of blue carpet fibres which covered her from head to toe. A week later the task-force was formed from officers of the Delaware State Police and the New Castle County Police Department, with it’s own headquarters near the New Castle County airport. With roughly 60 members, it was for a time the state’s third largest police department. “We had access to an airplane, helicopters and rental vehicles,” Hendricks recalls, “Money wasn’t an issue. I don’t know anyone who has ever worked for a government agency where money wasn’t an issue. We had an unlimited budget.”
The task-force met with members of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia. It was the conclusion of the Bureau that a Serial Killer was responsbile for the crimes in Delaware, and was using Route 40, the only connection between the two victims, as a means of hunting for victims. The task-force assigned female officers dressed as prostitutes to work the stretch of highway looking for any potential suspects. These undercover officers would engage in flirtatious talk with men who stopped, but they never got inside a vehicle. Other officers worked to identify the unusual fibers found on the body of Catherine DiMauro. On August 22, 1988, another prostitute went missing. Margaret Lynn Finner was working the streets along Route 13, a major junction of Route 40. Witnesses reported seeing her get inside a blue Ford panel van with round headlights driven by a white male. New Castle County police officer Renee Taschner had been one of the female officers working undercover posing as a prostitute.
On September 14, 1988, she had been walking along Route 40 in an attempt to turn up any clues that might solve the case. On that particular day Taschner had been routinely approached by men, as Hendrick remembers, “We had a gamut of people stop for her, Doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers. At one point, there was a line of five or six vehicles with men waiting to talk to her.” One one point a blue Ford panel van with round headlights drove past, then stopped a little further down the road, before turning around. Taschner estimates the van had driven past her no less than seven times in the space of 20 minutes. When she walked to a more secluded spot, the van stopped and a white male opened the side panel.
Taschner immediately noticed the blue carpet lining the van’s interior. She was also aware of the driver’s coldness towards her, “He was different than any other person who stopped for me,” she recalls. “It was hard to get into a conversation. He wasn’t in the moment. He was looking right through me.” Knowing they were looking for a van similar in description and with carpet covering the interior, Taschner took that opportunity to playfully rub her hand along the carpeting on the floor of the van, pulling out the fibres to be tested. When the driver demanded that she get in the van, Taschner refused. She made an excuse about being tired from partying all day and needed sleep. The driver became suspicious and drove off. Whilst Taschner spoke with the occupant of the van, Hendrick ran the plates and found it was registered to Steven Brian Pennell, a Delaware electrician with no criminal record.
The search for the killer intensified in the weeks that followed, and task-force members sent the fibres to a lab for testing and also secured a search warrant to follow Pennell. Meanwhile the killer accelerated his activities too. On September 16, 1988, he struck again. Michelle Gordon, a 22-year-old New Castle resident and known prostitute went missing and was last seen on Route 40, getting into the passenger seat of a blue Ford panel van. This time however, a lone witness saw the abduction who knew and recognised both Gordon and Pennell. She immediately identified the vehicle. Three days later, another Brookmont Farms resident, 26-year-old Kathleen Meyer was last seen alive hitchhiking along Route 40. An off-duty police officer reported seeing Meyer accepting a ride from a stranger in a blue Ford van. Aware of the van’s connection to the murders, the suspicious officer jotted down the license plater number, which was registered to Pennell.
At this stage in the investigation, the task-force was monitoring Pennell’s every move, and Taschner even sat next to him during a stakeout at a Moody Blues concert. She would recall the heart-breaking moment when his daughter approached the undercover officer to ask for a donation to a school fundraiser. “She was a kid, and you never want any child to experience what was happening,” says Taschner. On September 20, 1988, the body of Michelle Gordon washed up on the rocky banks of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Gordon was a cocaine addict and she was the only victim who died whilst being tortured. The medical examiner would later testify that the drugs in her system meant her heart was incapable of withstanding the shock of her beating. A search warrant was approved by Delaware Attorney General Charles Oberly to search Pennell’s van. The suspect had been pulled over during a routine traffic violation and appeared in court to pay his ticket, during an infrequent but legal method for the police to detain a suspect.
Police then used that opportunity to search his vehicle, which provided more evidence than they ever thought they would get. They discovered carpet fibres that matched those on the victims, as well as hair and blood samples, along with the same brand of duct tape used on Ellis and DiMauro. They also found his so-called “torture kit”, which consisted of pliers, handcuffs, a whip, knives, needles and other restraints. Exactly one year after he claimed his first victim, on November 29, 1988, an arrest warrant was issued for Steven Brian Pennell. He was charged with the murders of Shirley Ellis, Catherine DiMauro and Michelle Gordon. In the face of mounting evidence, the suspect exercised his right to remain silent.
During the same month of his arrest, the body of Margaret Lynn Finner was found near the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Her body was in such an advanced state of decay that a cause of death couldn’t be determined. Under questioning Pennell refused to admit his guilt in the murders. Hendricks described him as “your typical, all-American person. He came across as a totally normal married father with no criminal record. No one would ever look at his background and see signs that this could happen. No one would ever suspect him of anything.” Prior to the trial, Pennell’s defence attorney Eugene Maurer attempted to question the validity of the fibre evidence, arguing that Taschner didn’t have the authority to seize the strands. However, Superior Court Judge Richard Gebelein denied Maurer’s claims, concluding that the carpet was in plain view when Pennell opened the door to entice Taschner inside the van.
Oberly would admit, “The fibres led to everything else, if that was ruled inadmissible, everything else would’ve been kept out under the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ legal doctrine. That could’ve been devastating.” Although he would not be charged for the murders of Finner and Meyer, primarily because there was little evidence left in the case of Finner and Meyer’s body has never been found. State prosecutor Kathleen Jennings planned to enter more than blue fibres, her team had DNA evidence. At the time of his trial, there were only two other criminal cases in the United States that had permitted it’s introduction, and the Pennell case would be the first time DNA evidence was used in a criminal trial. Judge Gebelein would admit, “There was a learning curve, there weren’t a lot of experts in that field, and there was no case law to ensure the evidence was introduced correctly. I had to let the scientists testify and then make a decision whether their actions were legally sound.”
Although the prosecution had the fibre evidence and DNA, their strongest case against Steven Pennell was the defendant himself. His attorney Maurer decided to take a gamble and had his client testify how the blood and hair of the victims was found in his van. He told the jury how he picked up DiMauro, paid her “$25 for oral sex”, and then dropped her off, joking how she “gave me $10 back”. The jury were horrified and unnerved by his cold demeanour. Maurer would say of his clients testimony, “It was as fine a piece of testifying as I’ve ever seen, he explained everything. Where he got slaughtered was his demeanour. He had these cold, dark eyes that didn’t move around a lot. I tried to work with him, but people are who they are.” The state prosecutor agreed, “The way he described DiMauro was so cold,” said Jennings. “He talked about her like she was some piece of garbage he could just throw away. I think that hurt him in front of the jury.”
Despite his unlikeable performance on the stand, the jury were still struggling with the three murder charges, and spent eight days reviewing the evidence, which would be the longest deliberation in Delaware legal history. Maurer shared his feelings about the wait, “I was going through anguish each day,” he says. “I thought it was going to be a quick verdict and he’d be convicted in two days. As each day passed, I thought maybe we got something going.” The jury finally reached a verdict on November 23, 1989, Thanksgiving Day. Jennings, Maurer and Peter Letang of the Attorney General’s office abandoned their holiday plans as a terrible snowstorm settled over the region, so they could learn of Pennell’s fate.
As everyone re-entered the courtroom, Judge Gebelein recalled, “It was a little surreal being in the courtroom, the thought was that the jury should’ve been done before Thanksgiving. If they were sequestered any longer, they wouldn’t have been able to go home to their families.” The jury foreman returned a guilty verdict, and Pennell was convicted of murdering Ellis and DiMauro, whilst the jury were deadlocked on the Gordon case. Maurer explained, “In retrospect, it was probably the correct verdict,” he concedes. “There was just too much evidence that he had to explain.” A bouquet of flowers arrived on Jennings’ desk, shortly after the verdict. The card read, “From the women of Route 40. You made us feel like human beings.”
The jury was also deadlocked on the death penalty, and in 1990 Pennell was sentenced to two life terms. A lengthy appeals process followed, with Maurer alleging that the fibre seizure was unconstitutional, amongst other things. Based on the new evidence, the state responded by indicting Pennell for the murder of Meyer and Gordon. Pennell made the unusual request of proceeding without an attorney, a motion which was granted. In a move that shocked the nation, Pennell pled no contest to the two murders and asked the Superior Court to sentence him to death. But he refused to confess. Gebelein said, “I’ve never seen so many twists and turns in one case,” While in prison in 1991, Pennell was subject to a psychiatric evaluation which was submitted to the Delaware Supreme Court. It cleared Pennell of psychosis, depression and paranoia and also described him as “a pleasant, attractive, friendly 33-year-old man who related well to the examiner.”
Maurer also expressed his own opinion of his client, “His acts were unspeakable, but it’s hard to [connect] the Steven Pennell I got to know with the person who committed these horrific crimes. The psychiatric evaluations never diagnosed him with any mental-health issues.” A hearing was held to determine if he should be spared capitol punishment and Pennell delivered a terse and eloquent argument in favour of his own death. In a speech filled with biblical quotes, “The law was developed from one book, and it’s that book I quote from,” he said. “In Numbers, chapter 35, verse 30, ‘Whoever kills a person, the person shall be put to death.’ Also, in Genesis, chapter 9, verse 6, ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood by man, his blood shall be shed.'” He added, “This court has found me guilty on the testimony of witnesses. So I ask that the sentence be death as said by the state’s laws and God’s laws. That’s all I have to say.” In a highly unusual situation, Pennell had refused to admit guilt but demanded to be executed for the crimes.
On Halloween 1991, he was sentenced to death. As was standard legal procedure under Delaware law, all such cases are automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court. On February 11, 1992, he appeared before the five-judge court to request his own execution, but still refused to admit guilt. He remains the only person to represent himself before the state Supreme Court, and the only one to ask for death. Former Supreme Court Justice Andrew Moore who heard Pennell’s argument said, “The most amazing thing was that he spoke about the crimes in the third person, he never once used the first person. It was a strange, strange thing.” In an unusual situation, Pennell assumed the role of prosecutor, as though he was demanding the death penalty for a vicious murderer, “The perpetrator must have sensed a pleasure in the killings,” he told the court. “Since he did not commit just one, but continued in the same depraved manner on the others, this pleasure is evident.”
Representing the state was Deputy Attorney General Richard E. Fairbanks Jr., who personally opposed the death penalty, yet gave an impassioned speech advocating Pennell’s execution. Moore recalls, “Fairbanks became so impassioned that we thought he would burst into tears, all five of us were taken aback by his impassioned statements.” In yet another highly unusual situation, not a single justice asked a question. Moore said he couldn’t recall any other oral argument in the Supreme Court without at least one question. The court unanimously agree that execution was the appropriate punishment for Pennell’s crimes, and a date of March 14, 1992 was set. Pennell appeared satisfied with the outcome, but others were moving to prevent his death. Two separate appeals were filed by two men who Pennell had never met, but both were quickly dismissed for lack of standing.
The convicted murderer’s wife, Katherine Pennell petitioned the American Civil Liberties Union’s Delaware chapter to argue for a stay of execution. Lawrence Hamermesh, a Widener University law professor and a member of the ACLU’s board, agreed to represent the killer’s wife. Although Hamermesh was an expert in the corporate arena, he had never handled a criminal case. “I think I did the best I could,” he said. “I had no death-penalty experience, and the state had pulled out all the stops because of the severity of the crimes.” In an effort to have Pennell declared incompetent to understand the charges and to challenge them himself, Hamermesh challenged a Superior Court psychiatric evaluation. He alleged the review was neither thorough nor comprehensive, and that time was needed for a more complete evaluation. The argument was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court, and Pennell was scheduled for execution.
Shortly before his death, Pennell contacted his attorney from Prison. Maurer had not head from his client in over a year, and was surprised when he agreed to talk with the media before his execution. He requested Maurer sit next to him, “afraid of saying something stupid,” Maurer recalls. “In some ways, he was very much a conformist. He cared very much what people thought of him.” However, Pennell did not use this opportunity before the media to confess his crimes, and the interview revealed nothing more than what Pennell had planned for his last meal. On March 14, 1992, Steven Brian Pennell was the first man executed in Delaware in the last 46 years. He offered no final words, or any explanation for the crimes he committed. “I hoped and prayed that, before Pennell died, he’d tell us where we could find Kathleen Meyer, or at least give us a place to look”, says Hedrick. “That didn’t happen.”
It was just one of many secrets Pennell took with him to the grave, such as why a seemingly normal 31-year-old married father of two decided to embark on a killing spree, and why he refused to admit guilt but demanded to be executed. “Asking for death was his way of admitting it,” Taschner believes. “I was as surprised as anyone else, but I’m glad he spared the victims’ families and his own family years of appeals.” Jennings said, “To this day, I want to know why,” says the former state prosecutor. “All of us involved want to understand it better. Typically, there’s some horrifying event in the life of a serial killer that explains how they became sociopaths. But in the Pennell case, we couldn’t get at it. That’s the lingering mystery: Why?”. She adds, “He never permitted the interviews that got us answers, even the FBI tried to talk to him and get at the heart of what caused him to do this. But he just wouldn’t talk.”