On a brisk autumn night more than 60 years ago, a 17-year-old boy walking a girl home from a dance was shot three times in the back of the head as they crossed a wooden bridge at K Street NW and Rock Creek Parkway.
The slaying of Hylan McClaine was the last of five sniper attacks that fall. Four people died and one was wounded, all of them black males who had been stalked at night and shot from behind.
Last month's Washington area sniper shootings sent Johnny Ponds back into his memories to those fearful days of 1940, just weeks after he had arrived here as a Howard University graduate student. Fresh from the Carolinas, he worried about the sniper each night as he hopped off a Northwest Washington streetcar on the way home from his part-time job as an elevator operator.
"Certainly, my great concern was that people were being shot willy-nilly," recalled Ponds, a retired mathematician and Bowie State University professor, now 83. "People were being shot at for no apparent reason."
Those shootings were among at least three series of slayings that traumatized the city decades before last month's attacks.
In 1938, a shooter hunted couples in Rock Creek Park and the lovers' lanes of Montgomery County. Just two years later, the black men were attacked -- apparently by a white ex-convict who had attended George Washington University. And during 16 months in the early 1970s, an attacker or attackers who came to be known as the Freeway Phantom abducted six black girls, strangled them and dumped their bodies alongside roads in the District and Maryland.
Washington was a different city then, more segregated and relatively sleepy, and the early public response to some of the attacks on black residents seemed muted, some people argued. But all the slayings spurred alarm, at least in the areas directly affected, and had other similarities with October's sniper slayings.
In one case, police took bullet fragments from a tree trunk as evidence, just as investigators did in Tacoma, Wash., as they closed in on sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. In another slaying, a cryptic note was left behind. And in another parallel, baffled police appealed for the public's help and got thousands of phone calls in return.
Racism and Revenge On the night of Sept. 1, 1940, two black men were fatally shot outside a Northeast Washington home. Over the next six weeks, two other black men would be killed, another wounded and one more shot at -- but not hit.
About a month after McClaine's Oct. 15 slaying, a waiter named Herbert Ray walked with police into a Pennsylvania Avenue NW cafeteria and fingered a poolroom pal, John Eugene Eklund. Ray told police that the former George Washington University engineering student, then 25, kept press clippings about the shootings and that Eklund had discarded a brown suit that had matched a description by McClaine's girlfriend.
Perhaps the most damning tidbit: Eklund owned a .38-caliber revolver, Ray told police. Another witness later led detectives to dig two slugs from a Northwest tree trunk, which Eklund had used for target practice.
Prosecutors said racism and revenge were Eklund's motives. There were reports that he had faced abuse from black inmates during two Indiana prison sentences for burglary.
Prosecuted only in the McClaine case because it offered the strongest evidence, Eklund was convicted of first-degree murder in June 1941. Later that year, he came within four days of death by electrocution. But he won a new trial because Ray had perjured himself on the stand and police allegedly had eavesdropped, with a Dictaphone, on Eklund's conversations with his attorney.
Before a verdict was announced in the second trial in July 1942, a handcuffed Eklund bolted from a prison van past two U.S. marshals. He eluded police for several days in what The Washington Post described then as "probably the greatest manhunt since John Wilkes Booth escaped the Nation's Capital after the Lincoln assassination."
After two days in the woods by McMillan Reservoir near Howard University, Eklund surfaced in a Northwest delicatessen and was soon in irons again. While being taken to a cell, Eklund yelled that he had fled "to beat a bum rap."
Eklund was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He served in federal prisons including Alcatraz and Leavenworth and died in Florida in 1996, according to public records.
Lonely Lanes Two years before Eklund's rampage, 50 D.C. police and every available Montgomery County officer saturated lonely lanes in and around northern Rock Creek Park in search of another elusive shooter. The capital's "mad sniper" killed two men and wounded a man and a woman within a week in November 1938.
Couples in cars were the target, and both blacks and whites were killed. On Nov. 10, a 23-year-old government worker was hit by three bullets as he sat with a woman in his car in Rock Creek Park in the District. The next night near the same place, a 31-year-old man, in his car with a woman and another couple, was shot to death.
On Nov. 17, Peter Murray, 40, was killed and his companion, Edna L. Brown, was wounded when a man jumped onto the running board of their car as they headed to a dance in Silver Spring. The man demanded Murray's wallet and, "enraged at finding only $5 in it, started shooting," the Evening Star reported.
A Silver Spring branch of the American Legion offered half of a $400 reward for the killer and formed a vigilante force to augment police, according to the Evening Star.
Police traced footprints in a record snowfall that November, collected .32-caliber handgun shells and paraded suspects in front of Brown's hospital bed.
But officials ended the manhunt almost as abruptly as the sniper had attacked. Less than a month later, they declared a belief that the sniper had left the city. The killer stopped shooting and was never captured.
Strangled and Dumped From May 1971 to September 1972, seven black females, ages 10 to 18, vanished from District streets and later were found dead alongside area roads.
The girls disappeared as they undertook simple acts of everyday life: walking to the grocery, heading to a job, riding the bus from a boyfriend's home.
Most were sexually assaulted. Six were strangled. One was shot, but that case later was determined to be unrelated to the others. Oddly enough, three of the strangling victims had the same middle name: Denise.
Carol Denise Spinks, 13, was found May 1, 1971. Darlenia Denise Johnson, 16, was found two months later. They had been left at the bottom of the same embankment near Interstate 295 in Southeast Washington.
Brenda Fay Crockett, 10, managed to phone home twice during her captivity, relatives recalled last month, but she eventually was strangled. Brenda Denise Woodard, 18, was stabbed six times and had a broken bone in her neck. The only note was found alongside her body, but it led police no closer to the killer.
Nenomisha Yates, 12, was snatched as she headed to a Safeway supermarket on Benning Road SE for a bag of sugar. The seventh-grader was raped and choked, according to retired D.C. detective Louis Richardson, who investigated the case. Her body was still warm when it was found Oct. 1, 1971, near the sugar and some coins along Pennsylvania Avenue in Prince George's County. She was the Freeway Phantom's fifth victim.
The first few deaths brought little publicity in the mainstream media.
"There was not the interest that [there is in the recent sniper shootings]. There was very little publicity," said Wilma Harper, aunt of the final Freeway Phantom victim, Diane Williams. In 1983, Harper co-wrote a self-published book, "The Mystery of the Freeway Phantom."
For most of those 16 months, panic was concentrated in Southeast Washington, residents and relatives of the victims recalled. "Our greatest concern was, we couldn't put our hand on anything," said former D.C. council member Sterling Tucker. "We were kind of alone and lonely."
After five girls had been strangled, city officials made an "extraordinary appeal" in November 1971 for the public's help and received thousands of phone calls.
In September 1972, a truck driver found Williams's body near the shoulder of the Anacostia Freeway in Prince George's. She was 18.
"These were young, innocent girls," said Patricia Williams, Diane Williams's younger sister, who is now 45 and a D.C. police lieutenant. "It never dawned on me that something could happen to her."
By the time Williams's body was found, it "was an event in Washington, D.C.," her sister said, recalling that caravans of unmarked police cars cruised through Southeast neighborhoods.
A command center was established for local and federal agencies. Police stopped traffic during rush hours. Investigators inquired about similar homicides from Pennsylvania to Mexico.
But police had hit a wall. To this day, no one has been charged in the killings.
In 1974, a group of men was arrested and indicted in another series of kidnappings and rapes in the District and Prince George's. Some press accounts suggested that the men might be linked to the Freeway Phantom slayings, but prosecutors eventually decided that they did not have enough evidence to charge them in any of those deaths. Richardson said he continues to believe that they were connected to the stranglings. Four of those men were convicted and are still in prison.
Police said files and much of the physical evidence are lost. Still, the victims' families hope the guilty will confess or some other break occurs to end a three-decade mystery.
"You never know if you're going get to closure. You hope and pray that you will," said Brenda Fay's brother, Lewis Crockett Jr., now 44. "You ask God for comfort. You ask God for understanding . . . and then you ask for closure."
Researchers Bobbye Pratt and Mary Lou White contributed to this report.