As she lay in her hospital bed recovering from an illness recently, Mary Woodard, mother of six -- one dead -- pulled the bouquet of white carnations close to her nose to smell them. Each flower held a comforting special significance: It came from the Freeway Phantom Committee.
Reatha Mae Crockett, mother of four -- one dead -- says there are times, usually unexpected and painfully sudden, when she hears a word that triggers memories or sees a child that reminds her of her own -- Brenda Faye -- killed July 26, 1971. Crockett is reduced to tears, and often, she turns to the committee for solace.
Nearly a decade after a grisly series of murders in 1971 and 1972 snatched away seven young Washington girls, the parents and relatives of the dead children remain an unusually cohesive group, melded together by common losses during the "Freeway Phantom" killings. Four of the families are activiely involved in the committee.
The committee is the embodiment of the common bond that has developed among these families in the aftermath of the murders, only one of which has been solved.
It was there in the early hours following some of the deaths, when those who lost daughters earlier came to the homes of the most recent victims with shoulders to cry on and words of encouragement.
It has been there through the years to help explain the twisted lives left by the killings and to try collectively to fill the void for seven families who want others to remember. And it has been there in the push to help answer the questions that remain for the families in their common grief.
"Let me tell you something," said Crockett, a stout, seemingly humorless woman with a large Afro who chainsmokes Carlton cigarettes. "They've taken my baby. People have said to me, 'I know how you must feel,' But they really don't know. They didn't lose a child like that. If mine is dead and yours is dead, then we can understand each other. It's as simple as that."
The killings were bizarre and gruesome.
Seven black girls -- Carol Denise Spinks, 13, Angela Denise Barnes, 14, Darlenia Denise Johnson, 16, Brenda Faye Crockett, 10, Nenomoshia Yates, 12, Brenda Denise Woodard, 18, and Dane Williams, 17 -- were killed within 17 months. Five of them lived in the same general area of southeast Washington. Four were named Denise. Six of the bodies were found along freeways in Prince George's County less than five miles from the girls' homes.
Five had been strangled. Five had been sexually molested. One body was so decomposed that police could not determine the exact cause of death. One body was still warm when it was discovered. All were last seen alive walking along the streets.
Two former D.C. policemen were convicted of one of the killings -- that of Angela Denise Barnes. But police said the Barnes case was unrelated to the others. Law enforcement officials involved with the cases believe that four men -- involved in hundreds of brutal rapes in the city from 1969 to 1973 -- were implicated in the child-murders, but the men were not convicted.
Some law enforcement officials suggest that government bungling of the cases prevented them from being solved.
While police from four jurisdictions scrambled for clues, the families of the girls formed bonds of support immediately after the murders.
Mary Woodard, whose daughter, Brenda, was a victim, arrived at Leon and Margaret Williams' home hours after she heard of the slaying.
"It was sad when we arrived," Woodard said. "The family sat around the living room almost in a daze. I introduced myself and I put my arms around Mrs. Williams and I don't remember either of us saying anything for a few seconds."
"She told us about the night before her daughter Diane had been killed, what they had said to her, and as she was telling me, I thought about my night before with Brenda," Woodard said. "There were so many similarities." n
Williams remembers, "I was crying and the hug was comfort without words. I had been going through the motions of doing things without anything really sinking in. But Mrs. Woodard reassured me, let me know I wasn't the only one."
The agony, muted by years and events, continued for parents and other relatives, especially the surviving children.
"My sister's death destroyed my whole impression of Washington and it affected the whole family psychologically," said a bitter Cassandra Williams, who was 12 when her big sister Diane, 17, was found strangled in a grassy area off I-295 near their Anacostia home.
"It messed up my schooling for three years," she said. "People kept asking me, 'Are you Diane Williams' sister' and the whole thing would flash again in my head. I began to hate Washington and to regret that we ever moved here from El Paso."
Debra Woodard, sister of victim Brenda Denise Woodard, who was found dead along the Baltimore Washington Parkway in Cheverly, said, "For a long time, I wouldn't go anywhere alone, I wouldn't do anything. I was afraid to go to the mailbox, to go to school. I still have nightmares. Still today, I really don't trust people. I don't trust men at all.
"When one of us has a date, my brother always meets him and when he leaves, he writes down the license number," Woodard said.
Raising other children in the aftermath of the killings is one of the common problems that the parents discuss. But they seldom discuss the more personal feelings they maintain for the family member they have lost. Each family has a different way of dealing with those feelings.
Many keep albums of press clippings, baby pictures, sample school compositions and funeral snapshots of daughters lying peacefully in a coffin. Edward Woodard showed a visitor his daughter Brenda's black minidress with colorful trim and a single tiny white sandal that he pulled from its storage place beneath a livingroom end table.
Others don't want to be reminded.
Annette Canady would rather forget the events surrounding the 1971 death of her daughter Angela Denise Barnes, found with a bullet hole in the back of the head beside Maryland Rte. 228.
Yet, even though Canady said she would rather forget, Angela's green-colored bedroom walls still bear the lovers' hearts with arrows through them that she painted with red magic markers against her mother's wishes. Beneath the hearts are the words: "love, Angela," and the names of several of her friends.
"The month of July always brings back those events, and I get moody, depressed," said Canady, who has another daughter, now 14. Canady admits to smothering, overprotecting the only child she now has, mostly out of fear. The daughter does all the things that Angela used to do -- giggle on the telephone, play the radio and the television at the same time -- constant reminders, Canady said, that the 14-year-old daughter who has grown to look a lot like Angela is the same age that Angela was when she died.
"I tell people I have only one child, it makes it easier," Canady said. "To have to explain that one died brings back too many memories that I want to put aside."
Sometimes, Canady said, she calls a committee member.
Although the families stay in touch, they do not have organized monthly meetings. They do gather for specific occasions.
"When one of the parents remarried, we were represented at the wedding by a member," said Wilma Harper, aunt of Diane Williams and consultant to the committee. "When Woodard's son graduated from high school this past June, members called home to congratulate him. We've been on talk shows, have hosted school-safety programs with police, and have been involved in a host of other activities."
It is difficult for the families to come to grips with the fact that eight or nine years later, the deaths have not been solved.
Leon Williams, Diane Williams' father is still bitter. "If it was a white girl, the police would have found the person. I don't believe the police followed the leads they had. Why do they think the person was black? Why don't they investigate whites as well?"
Former Freeway Phantom Committee president James D. Tyms, a professor of theological studies at Howard, said that years ago when the murders occurred, the black community was outraged, believing that when it came to the murder of black people, the police "do not seem to have the same degree of success" in solving cases.
"There was considerable mistrust of the police at that time," said Tyms, who served as the committee's first president even though he was not related to any of the girls.
The conviction of two former D.C. police officers in the 1971 slaying of Angela Barnes intensified distrust of the police in the black community. Oftentimes, the issue of police brutality, especially in the police force during that time (with few blacks in responsible positions) helped form the mistrust of the police.
"At given points, police rightfully complained that the citizens did not come forward with information that they might have had," Tyms said. "But part of that was based on a mistrust of the police as well as the attitude among citizens not to be involved. It's time now for the investigations to be reopened."
Police say they have explored every lead. And, today, they still believe the culprit or culprits were black, even though police and government prosecutors do not agree on who are the most likely suspects.
Despite what police say was the largest manhunt in the city that any can remember, only one of the murder cases was ever closed with a conviction. And that conviction, according to police, had nothing to do with the other cases.
Thousands of dollars, thousands of overtime hours, thousands of phone calls from concerned citizens, numerous radio and television talk shows, angry impromptu community meetings in Southeast Washington and frequent newspaper articles -- all netted virtually nothing that resulted in solid evidence to convict the killers.
Some police and attorneys who sought unsuccessfully to close the cases with neat convictions, believe that the phantom killers are safely behind bars, serving time for other crimes, including rapes.
Retired D.C. police Sgt. Louis Richardson, a homicide detective with a record of about a 90 percent case-closure rate, headed the District's special "Phantom" investigation team several years ago.
Richardson believes that four men, commonly associated with the "Green Vega" gang, were involved in six of the seven murders. "No question in my mind: these are the guys," says Richardson.
"I don't give a damn what anybody says, I know that they showed us when they took us to the scenes," said Richardson. "What [evidence] we had we couldn't take it to a jury and prove they did it without a reasonable doubt," he said. "But how can a man tell you about a crime, the scene, clothing the girls wore, how she was killed, if he wasn't there?"
According to prison officials, one of those four is eligible for parole next year and the others between 1988 and 2019. Three of them were convicted on multiple rapes in other cases, and the fourth was charged with sodomy.
During the investigation of the rape cases, two of those convicted, Nathaniel Davis and Morris J. Warren, and others gave police information about rapes that they or others in the group committed that matched other information police had gathered in the "Freeway Phantom" cases.
For law enforcement officials, who had searched in vain for details to solve the "Phantom" cases for more than two years, the 1974-75 statement of Warren, Davis, and another named Melvin Gray, who was never convicted or charged with rape, appeared to be the first real breakthrough.
According to D.C. homicide files on the Yates investigation: "Gray was then displayed a photograph of Nenomoshia Yates, a girl who was known to have disappeared from a Safeway store in the Benning Road area and had been one of the 'Freeway Phantom killings.' Gray positively identified her as being the girl they picked up on Benning Road . . ."
Another paragraph from homicide files on the Yates case read: "Melvin Gray was then displayed a photograph of Carol Denise Spinks, the first known victim in the 'Freeway Phantom killings.' Gray positively identified her as being the little girl who was in . . . (their) company both times they were at his apartment . . .
Gray later withdrew his statements, to the dismay of government prosecutors.
According to D.C. Superior Court and other documents that had been withheld from the public at the time, the strategy that law enforcement officials used was to get each suspect to tell what he knew about the others in exchange for charges of lesser offenses in connection with the freeway slayings.
Warren, apparently, was the linchpin in the investigation which had been hampered from the start because police could not find or positively identify scenes where the crimes occurred.
According to a 1975 memorandum order by D.C. Superior Court Judge Fred B. Ugast "On May 16th, Mr. Warren began to direct the government agents to the locations he had described to them regarding two Freeway deaths. a
"On May 16th, he took them to the areas where Brenda Woodard, a homicide victim, had allegedly been kidnaped, raped and murdered," Judge Ugasts order read."On May 17th, he showed them the alleged locations dealing with Darlenia Johnson, although while showing them where her body was abandoned, he took them to the place where Brenda Crockett's body was found. Both Ms. Johnson and Ms. Crockett were victims of the so-called Freeway Phantom homicides."
According to an investigative source who asked not to be identified: "Warren had been convinced that the others implicated had begun talking and he wanted to be the first."
Shortly thereafter, according to the source, when police were about to get Warren's written statement to tell all before a grand jury, Warren heard a broadcast on the U.S. marshal's car radio on the way to make his statement. In the broadcast, then Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall, running that year for reelection, said that "new and credible" evidence had just been obtained in the Phantom case. Warren stopped talking. Marshall denied jeopardizing the case despite public criticism from Prince George's County police.
Richardson said Warren then realized he was the only one talking, and later told the FBI that everything he had said was a lie and an elaborate hoax. Some of the information Warren gave later proved either false or misleading. But, Richardson and others said, Warren knew too much not to be involved.
Superior Court transcripts show that Warren also revoked his agreement to cooperate fully after federal prosecutors in the District refused to agree with an offer of total immunity from prosecution made by Prince George's County prosecutors who were also involved.
"They wanted immunity, which we could not give them for something as serious as murder," said Raymond Banoun, assistant U.S. Attorney in the District.
Morris Thomas, a former D.C. homicide detective who left the force about four years ago, said, "There were all sorts of bargains being made and things got fouled up. The big problem was everybody, the four jurisdictions, trying to interview and talk to the informants . . . We all had the same objective in mind, but there was glory-seeking and getting some press. There may have also been some political implications."
Det. Lloyd Davis, now the lone investigator in a case that eight years ago consumed the full-time efforts of about 40 D.C., Prince George's County and Park police and FBI special agents, said he thinks Banoun, Richardson and others are barking up the wrong tree.
"The murders were conducted by a lone black individual about 50 years old at the time, someone that no one would pay any special attention to," Davis said, searching through yellow folders on each of the homicides. "The man's been convicted of sexual offenses before, and is now in custody, I won't say where, and he's been a former mental patient. I have proof that links all of the cases together . . . I just don't have enough physical evidence."
As they looked at the snapshots of their daughter Diane, dressed in a pale blue lace dress and lying in a casket, and the yellowing picture of Margaret Williams washing baby Diane's hair by the side of the tub, Leon Williams told a visitor, "Remind people that some of the parents of the 'Freeway Phantom' victims feel that the cases are not solved, even though so many years have passed," he said.
His wife said quietly, "It's not over with. It's not solved. I want people to remember, and not forget."