The Freeway Phantom Murders

Between April 1971 and September 1972, Washington DC was terrorised by a serial killer who is to this day only known as the Freeway Phantom.  While at large, the Freeway Phantom brutally raped and murdered six girls, between the ages of 10-18, all of whom were African American.

The six victims of the Freeway Phantom. The only individual pictures available of the girls are these.

The six victims of the Freeway Phantom. The only individual pictures available of the girls are these.

This is the first serial killer I’ve covered here and I wanted to go for something a little different, which I knew virtually nothing about. In fact, it doesn’t really appear that anyone knows a lot about this case. Is there a reason for this? A lot of people at the time said that this is because the victims were black and I’m sad to say that I’m pretty sure this was the case. It’s still something that happens regularly now, almost 50 years later.

 

The Victims

The first victim of the Freeway Phantom was Carol Spinks, aged 13, who in April 1971 was abducted on her way to the store. Her body was discovered six days later dumped on the side of the freeway. She had been raped and strangled to death.  

Suitland Parkway, where the body of Carol Spinks was found.

Suitland Parkway, where the body of Carol Spinks was found.

About 6 weeks later, in early July, a second victim was found. It was 16-year-old Darlenia Johnson, who had been on her way to work. She was found very close to the spot where the body of Carol Spinks had been dumped. Investigators were unable to determine a cause of death, however, as the body was too decomposed.

Just over 2 weeks later, the killer struck again. The victim was 10-year-old Brenda Crockett, who had gone to the store on the instruction of her mother. This time it was a little different; Brenda made two calls home while in the company of her killer. Her younger sister answered the first call; Brenda told her she had been picked up by a white man and was on her way home in a cab. Before her sister had to time to answer, however, Brenda said goodbye and hung up. The second call Brenda made was answered by her mother’s boyfriend, whom she told where she was – this time in the white man’s home. When he attempted to question Brenda further, Brenda hung up as she did in her first phone call. That was the last time anyone heard from Brenda. She was discovered just hours later on the side of the freeway. She had been raped and strangled with a scarf.

The African American community of Washington DC were terrified for obvious reasons. The modus operandi of the killer was clear; he abducted young, defenceless black girls, who were usually out doing normal, everyday life things, like going to work or to the store. They were raped, strangled and then dumped at various sites along the side of the freeway.

Then on the 1st of October, the killer struck for a fourth time. This time the victim was 12-year-old Nenomoshia Yates, who was heading home from the grocery store when she went missing. Within hours, her body was discovered on the side of the freeway. She had also been raped and strangled. It was after this murder that the killer became known as the ‘Freeway Phantom’ given his elusiveness and choice of location for leaving the bodies of his victims.

November 15th saw the discovery of another body. Brenda Woodward was the oldest of the victims at 18-years-old. This time it was evening and therefore dark when the killer struck; Brenda had been having dinner with a friend. The last anyone saw of her was on the bus home. Then in the early hours of November 16th, police discovered a body, once again on the side of the freeway. The killer changed his tactic slightly this time; Brenda had been raped and stabbed as well as strangled. Her killer had removed her coat and placed it over her body. In the coat pocket, a note was discovered. It read:

The note taunting police which was discovered in Brenda Woodward’s pocket.

The note taunting police which was discovered in Brenda Woodward’s pocket.

 “This is tantamount to my insensititivity [sic] to people especially women.

 I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!

 Free-way Phantom!”

I love forensic linguistics and find this SO fascinating. There is just so much to analyse in this note. The word ‘tantamount’ is a word you’d consider to be used by a person with a relatively high level of education. However the spelling mistake baffles me; it’s not really a common error someone would make. It seems like a mistake you would make if you were either in a hurry or scared, not really concentrating on what you were writing. On examination of the note, however, FBI investigators came to the conclusion that the note was likely written by Brenda herself and dictated to her by her killer, given how the handwriting matched other samples of Brenda’s handwriting which were examined.

It was thought that perhaps Brenda knew her killer; her handwriting wasn’t shaky and the note was punctuated. I’m not so sure though, I feel like even if she knew her killer she’s probably still be pretty terrified that she had been abducted and made to write such a note. Also I think the spelling mistake could be a result of Brenda fearing whoever it was that made her write the note - perhaps she was being rushed and therefore was more likely to make mistakes. There are so many ways you could look at it. Also the exclamation marks…do they give off the impression that he was having a kind of joke with himself, even having a good time?

Then everything stopped. Investigators thought the killer had moved on or was arrested for another unrelated crime. Lives had to go on.

Just as the fear was beginning to wear off, the killer struck again. Ten months later, in September of 1972, a truck driver found the body of Diane Williams on the side of the freeway. She had spent her last evening with her boyfriend, who had then walked her to her bus stop and went home. Diane had been strangled to death.

 

Investigation and Suspects

In 1974, a task force was set up to investigate the case. The task force was large, and therefore able to interview and interrogate a number of suspects and follow up on tips and leads that they were sent. However, their search came to no solid conclusions.

A green Chevrolet Vega, the inspiration for the name ‘Green Vega Rapists’

A green Chevrolet Vega, the inspiration for the name ‘Green Vega Rapists’

The Green Vega Rapists, a gang who were known for abducting and raping girls and women in the Washington DC/Maryland area became prime suspects, given the area from which they abducted victims – along the side of the freeway. The girls were also similar ages to those who were victim to the Freeway Phantom killings. One of the gang members snitched on another gang member, claiming he had given him some kind of special information about the murders committed by the Freeway Phantom, indicating that his fellow gang member was involved. However, the information given to the police was all mentioned in news reports. When police interviewed the accused gang member, he denied any involvement in the Freeway Phantom murders. He was also able to provide alibis to the police as to wear he was when the girls went missing, meaning he could not be implicated in the murders.

Right around the time of the murders, the police also had other things on their minds. During the span of the killings, the Watergate scandal and subsequent action and investigations were in full swing. As Watergate created national outcry and media attention, the Freeway Phantom murders were forced into the background, attracting little interest from the public outside of the areas the girls had lived.  

 

A Question of Race

Regardless of the fact that investigators worked hard to capture the Freeway Phantom, a question still remains to the families and friends of the victims: ‘If the girls had been white, would they have caught the killer?’

Katherine and Sheila Lyon

Katherine and Sheila Lyon

This question arose when the families of the Freeway Phantom’s victims witnessed the lengths investigators went to solve the murders of girls who were of the same profile in terms of age and where they lived. Except there girls were white. The case that is often referred to is the 1975 abduction and murders of Katherine and Sheila Lyon, who were snatched during a shopping trip in a mall in Wheaton, Maryland. The bodies of Katherine and Sheila were never found, but police worked tirelessly to catch their killer. In 2015, after a cold case investigation team took up the case, they were able to gather the evidence to charge Lloyd Welch with the murder of the two girls. Welch, a convicted sex offender, was already in prison and in 2017 he confessed to the murders.

In 1972, Tommy Musgrove joined the police force in Washington DC. He strongly agreed with the idea that race played an important role in whether or not the case would be solved and was quoted saying:

 “Those black girls didn’t mean anything to anybody — I’m talking about on the police department. If those girls had been white, they would have put more manpower on it, there’s no doubt about that.”

Lost Hope

Today, the likelihood that the Freeway Phantom murders will ever be solved is very low. Record keeping in the police department was not in order and evidence that was preserved at the time has either been lost or stolen, so no kind of forensic tests can be carried out now. The awful truth is that the families will likely never see justice for their daughters, sisters, friends and neighbours. Fifty years later, they are still in the dark, wondering if there was something they could have done differently to prevent their worst nightmare from coming true. 

Retired Washington DC police detective Romaine Jenkins.

Retired Washington DC police detective Romaine Jenkins.

Sources

Six black girls were brutally murdered in the early ’70s. Why was this case never solved? - a really in depth article which looks carefully at each of the victims and the investigation. The subject of the article is Romaine Jenkins (pictured above) who was on the police force in Washington DC working in homicide. She details how even after all these years, the case still affects her deeply.