washingtonpost.com
'Freeway Phantom' Slayings Haunt Police, Families
Six Young D.C. Females Vanished in the '70s

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

D.C. police Detective James Trainum leans over a rusty guardrail and stares into a den of weeds, trees and brush that snarls an embankment of Interstate 295 in Southeast Washington.

As cars flash past, Trainum mulls over question after question. Why did the killer toss his first two victims down this hill? Was he pressed for time? Did this spot, across from Bolling Air Force Base and near St. Elizabeths Hospital, mean something to him?

For two years, Trainum has sifted through old police and FBI reports, read faded newspaper clippings, hovered over embankments and interviewed victims' relatives. He is trying to do what has eluded three generations of investigators: crack the most notorious unsolved serial killing cases in District history.

During a 16-month period that began in spring 1971, the Freeway Phantom, as he came to be known, killed six females, ages 10 to 18, three with the middle name Denise. At least three were raped, and every one of them was strangled. Their bodies were found on or near busy roads or highways in the District or Maryland.

A cold case detective who is a fan of intellectual challenges, Trainum has a job made more complicated because most of the police files are incomplete and all of the physical evidence has been lost or destroyed, ruling out today's sophisticated forensic tools.

"I know this is a long shot," Trainum says. "But we live for long shots."

Thirty-five years ago, the Freeway Phantom slayings triggered one of the largest investigations the region has seen. Two dozen detectives were assigned to the hunt initially, and the FBI was called in -- until Watergate diverted the agency's manpower. The failure to solve the homicides continues to haunt families of the victims. And current and former investigators find they can't dislodge the Phantom from their minds.

In reexamining the slayings, The Washington Post reviewed thousands of FBI files and police reports and interviewed dozens of former and current detectives, witnesses and victims' family members. A note recently obtained by The Post and never before published shows how bold and taunting the killer became after abducting his fifth victim. The note, tightly guarded by investigators for many years, was found in the dead teenager's coat pocket.

"This is tantamount to my insensititivity [sic] to people especially women," reads the note, which police determined was dictated by the Phantom and written by his victim. "I will admit the others when you catch me if you can! Free-way Phantom."

The slayings of the victims -- all black and seemingly chosen at random -- came during a time of political and racial tumult in the city. Washington did not yet have home rule. And it was still reeling from the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. More than 70 percent of the District's 757,000 residents were black, and there was widespread distrust of the police department, which was more than 60 percent white.

Although the racial makeup of the police department has changed -- now, the chief and many top commanders are black -- anger lingers among the victims' relatives.

"You better bet that if these had been white girls, the police would have solved the cases," says Evander Spinks, a sister of the Phantom's first victim. "They didn't care about us. All the cases involving white girls still get publicity. But ours have been forgotten."

Starting From Scratch

Trainum, 51, wears rumpled shirts and slacks and has a mass of messy hair. A member of the D.C. police department for 23 years, he has long been intrigued by the Phantom killings. How could it be that the city's most fabled serial killings had gone unsolved?

The Phantom was cunning, former detectives said, so smart that he eluded one of the biggest federal and local police dragnets assembled in the area. But Trainum, an iconoclast who helped solve the 1997 triple slayings inside a District Starbucks, doesn't believe in myths.

"Part of my goal is to separate the fact from the fiction here," he says, sitting in his dusty office, where stacks of files are perched precariously on cabinets. "I think this guy just got lucky."

Because most of the D.C. police reports and all the evidence in the cases had been lost or destroyed, Trainum, who started working the case in late 2004, first had to go outside his department to build a record of the police investigation. He found a trove of FBI reports at the bureau's Washington field office and about 200 pages of scattered Prince George's County police files. But even the reports he obtained were missing pages, including basic notations about whether suspects had been ruled out.

Maya Long, an intern in Trainum's office, organized the reports, news clippings and investigative notes into a dozen blue-and-white binders. She often likens Trainum's efforts to someone trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle -- without the border pieces.

Using the incomplete files as a guide, Trainum went through the cases one by one.

The first girl, Carol Spinks, 13, was abducted April 25, 1971, a typical Sunday for her family on their quiet block of Wahler Place SE. It was a warm evening, and Carol was sent to the store by an older sister to buy TV dinners, bread and sodas.

Carol trekked the half-mile to a 7-Eleven on Wheeler Road, just across the Maryland line in Prince George's County. She paid for her items and left the store. Her body was discovered six days later on a grassy embankment next to the northbound lanes of I-295, about 1,500 feet south of Suitland Parkway.

Darlenia Johnson, who lived a few blocks from Carol, was next. The 16-year-old left her apartment about 10:30 a.m. July 8 for her summer job at a recreation center. Her body was found 11 days later on the side of I-295, 15 feet from where Spinks's body was found. It was too badly decomposed for the coroner to determine a cause of death.

Eight days after Darlenia's body was discovered, 10-year-old Brenda Crockett was sent to the store by her mother. The Crocketts lived in a quiet neighborhood of rowhouses at 12th and W streets in Northwest, about a block from Cardozo High School.

Brenda was very responsible for a 10-year-old, recalls her sister, Bertha, and when she didn't return in an hour, her family got anxious. Bertha, then 7, waited at home as other family members searched the neighborhood.

"Even at that young age," Bertha says, "I knew something was wrong."

Three hours after Brenda had left, the phone rang in the living room. Bertha answered.

Brenda was on the line. She was crying, according to Bertha's recollection and a reconstruction of the conversation contained in police files. "Momma is going looking for you," Bertha told her sister.

"A white man picked me up, and I'm heading home in a cab," Brenda answered, adding that she thought she was in Virginia. "Bye," Brenda said, before hanging up quickly. (Police believe that Brenda was forced to make the call and provide a misleading description of her abductor and location.)

A few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time, the mother's boyfriend answered. Brenda repeated what she had told her sister, that she was alone in a house with a man.

"Tell him to come to the phone and tell me where you're at, and I'll come and get you," the boyfriend said.

"Did my mother see me?" Brenda asked.

"How could she see you when you're in Virginia?" the boyfriend replied. "Tell the man to come to the phone."

The boyfriend then heard heavy footsteps in the background. "I'll see you," Brenda said. The line went dead. A few hours later, Brenda was found by a hitchhiker on Route 50 near I-295 in Prince George's, in a place where she couldn't be missed.

A scarf was tied around her neck and knotted. She had been raped and strangled.

Two months later, on Oct. 1, Nenomoshia "Neno" Yates was snatched off Benning Road in Northeast about 7 p.m. while walking home from a Safeway store. Her body was discovered within a few hours, just off the shoulder of Pennsylvania Avenue in Prince George's. She had been raped and strangled. She was 12.

The exact genesis of the moniker Freeway Phantom remains unknown, but it appears to have first been used in a headline on a story describing Nenomoshia's death in the Daily News, a now-defunct city tabloid.

Brenda Woodard, 18, became the Phantom's eldest victim. On the night of Nov. 15, a Monday, Woodard and a male friend left night school at Cardozo High and went to eat at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW. By 10:25 p.m., they were on a bus heading to Northeast. At Eighth and H streets NE, Woodard got off the bus to catch another to her home on Maryland Avenue NE.

About six hours later, a police officer spotted Woodard's body on the grass by an access ramp to Route 202 from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. A coat was draped over her chest, as if gently placed on a child who fell asleep on the couch. She had been stabbed and strangled. Police found the first evidence that the Phantom wanted to communicate -- the note found in Woodard's coat pocket.

The Phantom struck again Sept. 5, 1972, when Diane Williams, 17, a senior at Ballou High School, became his last known victim. She was found strangled on the side of I-295 just south of the District line, just hours after she had cooked her family dinner and visited her boyfriend's house. She was last seen boarding a bus.

Reviewing the reports, Trainum learned that the investigation started slowly and gained size with each killing. By Woodard's death, the FBI was involved. Thousands of phone calls poured into police tip lines. The tips led nowhere.

Trainum knew he had to think about the killings in a fresh way, so he called on an expert who specializes in narrowing the field of suspects. Kim Rossmo, a former Canadian police officer and a professor at Texas State University, had developed a computer system that plots crime events on a map and helps determine where a suspect's "anchor point" -- home, workplace or other significant location -- might be. Trainum and Rossmo spent weeks looking through reports together. They visited the crime scenes.

Rossmo then developed a geographic profile of the killer's movements -- from abduction sites to where the bodies were found. He believes the Phantom had an anchor point in Congress Heights, just south of St. Elizabeths Hospital. Trainum plans to take an old phone book and reverse directory and plot names onto the geographic profile map.

Police also plan to blanket the area in coming days with fliers announcing a $150,000 reward for witnesses who call Trainum at 202-727-5037 or 202-727-9099 with information.

Coming Close

Former investigators live with the empty feeling of failure, of being unable to arrest a suspect in such a high-profile string of slayings. Some have spent much of their careers chasing this ghost.

Romaine Jenkins, a retired D.C. homicide detective, began to peck away at the killings in the late 1980s. More than a decade into retirement, she still sometimes flips through 15 legal pads of notes, hoping something will click for her.

"I always think of these young ladies," Jenkins says of the victims, posing questions about the Phantom that still race through her mind. "How did he keep these girls? How did he do it without anyone knowing? How did he select them?"

Sgt. Rick Fulginiti, a longtime Prince George's detective, was working in the department's cold case unit several years ago when he was assigned to investigate the Phantom cases. His department received a tip about a potential suspect.

Fulginiti felt he was close to solving the crimes, even flying to Utah to get DNA samples from his suspect's relatives and from an old envelope. He also learned that authorities had located a semen sample at the Maryland medical examiner's office. It had been taken at the autopsy of one of the Phantom's victims. Technicians were unable to extract any comparable DNA from the sample, which was tested in 2002.

"I was on pins and needles waiting for the results," Fulginiti recalls. "It was a real letdown, to come that close."

Over the years, detectives and federal agents combed the rosters of the area's mental health facilities and the employment roles at city recreation centers. They did background checks on substitute teachers who might have known the girls. They developed more than 100 potential suspects, including a real estate developer, an Air Force colonel and dozens of convicted sex offenders. None panned out.

In 1974, FBI agents, who had been sidetracked by the sprawling Watergate investigation, refocused their attention on the slayings. With local police, they concentrated on a gang of men who abducted and raped scores of women on D.C. streets about the same time the Freeway Phantom slayings were occurring. A member of the gang, known as the Green Vega Rapists, claimed to have participated in the killings of the Phantom victims and implicated others in the gang.

In court filings and in comments to reporters, authorities indicated that they felt that the Green Vega Rapists were responsible for the killings. But the cooperating gang member recanted, and no charges were filed. Today, investigators do not believe the Vega rapists were responsible.

In the late 1970s, D.C. homicide detective Lloyd Davis developed his own Phantom suspect. Davis recalls showing up to work at the homicide office one March day in 1977 and being told to question a rape suspect who had just been arrested. The suspect, Robert Askins, had been charged with raping a 24-year-old woman in his house. (Homicide detectives questioned rape suspects routinely then because they were trying to find the Phantom.)

Davis learned that Askins, 58, had been charged three times with homicide. He had spent time in St. Elizabeths Hospital and later had been convicted in the 1938 killing of a prostitute by cyanide poisoning. His sentence had been overturned on a legal technicality concerning the statute of limitations. He was freed in 1958.

When police searched Askins's house in the 1700 block of M Street NE shortly after his arrest in 1977, Davis found the appellate court opinion in a desk drawer.

For Davis, a single word leapt from the page. In a footnote, the judges had used the word "tantamount," the word in the note found in the coat pocket of Phantom victim Brenda Woodard.

It was not an ordinary word, as Davis saw it. Later, he would learn that Askins often used the word at the National Science Foundation, where he worked as a computer technician.

Davis worked the case for nearly three years. He retrieved evidence from crime labs and shipped it to the FBI for further analysis.

For the first time, experts linked five of the six Phantom killings; technicians found the same green synthetic carpet fiber on all but one of the six victims' clothing. Despite getting a search warrant that named Askins as a suspect in the Phantom killings and digging up the man's back yard with a shovel, Davis never recovered any physical evidence of the crimes, and Askins was not charged.

Now 87, Askins is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina federal prison for kidnapping and raping two women in the District in the mid-1970s. Davis retired in 1981.

Like other former investigators, he has been unable to put the Phantom cases behind him. He kept copies of all his notes and reports. They are in boxes stacked in his basement, and he digs through them from time to time. Last year, he suffered a massive heart attack. He worried about dying before the killer would be brought to justice.

"I only had four or five other unsolved homicides in my career," Davis said, describing his frustration at not being able to break the cases. "When I look through these files, I wonder about the stuff I wasn't able to track down. . . . I really wanted to solve the murders, for the families."

And so he had an idea. He wrote Askins a letter a few months ago, asking him to confess. Askins wrote back promptly, denying any role in the killings.

In letters exchanged with a Post reporter last year, Askins also denied being the Phantom, saying he did not have "the depravity of mind required to commit any of the crimes."

But Davis doesn't believe him.

"I know he did it," Davis says. "I just know it."

'Always Looking'

On a cold February night, Trainum drove into Prince George's to meet with the relatives of Carol Spinks to let them know he was digging into the Phantom killings. Sitting across the small living room was Carolyn Morris, Carol Spinks's identical twin.

Even now, 35 years after her sister was slain, Morris's grief is raw.

The killer lurks in her thoughts and dreams. She can feel his presence when she walks down the street. Morris, 48, says the Phantom wrecked her life. She fell into drug addiction and alcoholism and couldn't hold down a job. She consulted a psychic to find the killer.

She overprotected her four children, unable to relax when they were out of her sight. Only recently did she summon the courage to finally tell her kids what had happened to the aunt they never knew.

"I feel like there is something missing in me," Morris says. "That's how I feel. You are always looking for this thing, but you can't find it. It is still very scary."

Like Morris, other relatives remain tormented by the killings. Some have nightmares about what happened to their loved ones. Finding ways to ease the pain has been difficult but therapeutic. One victim's angry sister spent hours on street corners, wearing revealing clothing in the hopes of attracting and catching the Phantom. One victim's aunt wrote a self-published book, "The Mystery of the Freeway Phantom."

In 1982, Patricia Williams joined the D.C. police department. Now a lieutenant in the youth division, Patricia is the younger sister of Diane Williams, the Phantom's last known victim.

Patricia Williams didn't always want to be a police officer. But somehow she felt compelled. In her office is a push-pin map showing the locations of random attacks on juveniles by adults.

"I'm sure, subconsciously, that I know that if I wasn't able to help Diane, then I can help other children," she said.

Williams hasn't gone many days without thinking about catching the killer. She wants to help interrogate him, to learn why he chose her sister. She wants desperately to put a human face on someone who has become almost mythical.

"I think that would help my healing process," she says.

Like Morris and other relatives of Phantom victims, Patricia Williams has vivid dreams about her dead sister, the sister with whom she once shared a bed. In the dreams, she always asks her sister the same question, one that she also would love to pose to the Phantom: " 'Where have you been all these years?' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company