When Brookland resident Wilma Harper first heard the media reports about the recent slayings of five young women in Suitland, she felt compelled to do something.

Harper, a retired social worker and the founder of a District victims' support group known as the Freeway Phantom Organization Inc., began assembling her members and trying to contact the families of the young women whose bodies where found between Dec. 13 and Jan. 12 in a wooded area in Suitland.

For Harper, the recent deaths revived memories of similar headlines 15 years ago about the slayings of her niece and six other young black females, who were victims in the so-called "Freeway Phantom" case. Two former D.C. police officers were convicted in one of the killings. The others remain unsolved.

Details of the "phantom killings" were documented in a book titled The Mystery of the Freeway Phantom, written in 1983 by Harper and Helen B. Collins. Harper said the book was written to document the facts, reactions and impact of the murders on the families and community.

"I can't believe the shocking similarities between these recent killings and the ones that happened in 1971 and {1972}," said Harper. "My first question was, is the Phantom still alive?"

Between April 1971 and September 1972, the bodies of the seven victims, some of whom had been strangled and sexually molested, were found alongside freeways in the District and Prince George's County. Harper's niece, 17-year-old Diane Williams of Southeast, was the final victim. Her body was discovered Sept. 6, 1972 in a grassy area just off I-295 near the Capital Beltway.

"We were devastated," said Harper. "At first it didn't register in my head that she was really dead, but the reality soon hit home." The tragedy of her niece's death prompted her to form The Freeway Phantom Organization, which seeks to provide moral, legal and spiritual support to relatives and friends of murder victims.

Edward Woodard, father of Brenda Denise Woodard, one of the victims in the 1970s killings, said "organizations like this are very worthwhile. I remember many times when we were wondering about what was happening or things were at a standstill, some of the families got together and just talked, which was very encouraging."

"At first, I couldn't talk to anyone or even look at pictures," said Mary Woodard. "People say they know what you're going through but unless you've actually experienced the tragedy, you really don't know. Sharing with someone who's gone through the same thing helped me to deal better."

Harper said the victim's families "are the ones who are hurt the most, because something was wrongfully taken away from them that will never be replaced -- a loved one.

"When these actions happen, families are upset and the trauma is sometimes emotionally overwhelming. Our organization exists to help those family members cope with their loss and share their emotions," she added.

The Freeway Phantom Organization, which now includes eight active members, has begun alerting the public to the seriousness of unsolved murders and suggesting methods of prevention.

The group responds to requests for information and resources, acting as a "preventive outlet through education," said Harper, whose book outlines several safety education and self-defense programs.

"You can never hear enough about safety because when you stop hearing about it, that's when something happens," said Margaret Williams, whose daughter, Diane, was one of the "Freeway Phantom" victims. "There needs to be ongoing programs in schools and throughout the city. Once every 15 years is not enough," she said.

Harper said although organizations such as hers can provide some support, a case cannot be solved without community assistance. "It's a two-way street. The police can't do it all by themselves. Members of the community have to consider it important enough to get involved and see that these murders are put to a stop."