The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Six black girls were brutally murdered in the early ’70s. Why was this case never solved?

Retired D.C. police detective Romaine Jenkins with case files in her home. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Retired D.C. police detective Romaine Jenkins doesn’t remember many of the cases she handled during her four years in homicide. It was the late 1960s and early ’70s, and the unit was overwhelmed with murders. She was in her 20s then, and the first woman to make it to homicide. She’d been sent there by the department’s top brass to investigate baby deaths, including abortions, which were illegal at the time. Some of the male detectives, particularly those who were fathers, didn’t particularly like investigating the deaths of children. Such cases hit too close to home. But Jenkins, then single and childless, didn’t mind.

That’s how she encountered the set of cases she will never forget: the slayings of six black girls, ages 10 to 18, snatched from D.C. streets, strangled and discarded near heavily traveled roads. Three of the girls were raped, one was sodomized, and one was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine how she died.

The homicides — believed to be the first serial killings in Washington — began in April 1971 and came to be known as the “Freeway Phantom Murders.” For nearly a half-century, they’ve haunted Jenkins. Retired now for 24 years, she still wakes up in the night thinking about them and occasionally scribbles notes to herself: How did the freshly straightened hair of one of the girls end up drawn and curly? Did her killer wash her to erase evidence before dumping her body? If Jenkins hears a reference to a serial killing on television, she doesn’t hesitate to retrieve one of the case files she keeps in her D.C. home — stored in 10 boxes — to “see if I see something.”

Jenkins spends many of her days tending to her perfectly manicured yard or talking on the phone with her 44-year-old son, Lenard, a police officer just like his mom and his dad (who died in 2012). She looks a decade younger than her 75 years, and her mind is still sharp: She remembers that a button was missing from the black-and-white checkered skirt one of the girls was wearing when her remains were found, and that another donned a green ribbon in her dark brown Afro wig. She even recalls that the tennis shoes missing from a third victim were blue — size 8½ . “I am truly obsessed with this,” she says. “No time ever goes by that I don’t think about it.”

The murders stopped 17 months after they started, and when the years brought no arrests, they largely faded from headlines and memories. Several years ago, while working on another story, I stumbled across a police department news release featuring snapshots of the six victims. Their innocence was haunting. How could the killings of these girls go unsolved? With the exception of Jenkins and another homicide detective, James Trainum, who last investigated the case in 2009, no one other than the victims’ families seemed to care.

Jenkins, then 28, was milling around the homicide unit at police headquarters around 2 p.m. on May 1, 1971, when a call came in. Children playing in a grassy area along Interstate 295 behind St. Elizabeths Hospital had stumbled upon the body of a young girl and flagged down a police officer. Detectives John Moriarty and Roy Lamb went to the scene. A supervisor told Jenkins and two others to follow up by going to the victim’s neighborhood and talking to relatives, neighbors — anyone who might know something.

As they headed out, the district commander demanded to know where they were going. The department was inundated with war protesters and he needed them to patrol the streets, help with prison control and be on standby. “That was unusual,” Jenkins recalls, “because murder, as far as we were concerned, took precedence.”

But she obeyed the commander’s orders while other detectives followed up on the case. The victim, it turned out, was Carol Spinks, a shy seventh-grader at Johnson Junior High School. She was an identical twin whose passions were jumping double Dutch rope, playing jacks with her sisters and showing off her hula-hooping skills. Spinks had been abducted six days earlier after walking four blocks from her family’s apartment on Wahler Place SE to a 7-Eleven. Her older sister, Valerie, 24, who lived across the hall, gave her $5 and coaxed her to go buy TV dinners, bread and soda, even though she knew their mother, Allenteen, had told the younger children not to leave the house while she visited an aunt in Brentwood, Md. They were aware of the consequences of disobeying the strict single parent of eight: a whipping with a switch or a belt or sometimes an extension cord.

Spinks took the risk. Along the way, her mother spotted her, ordered her to go straight home after buying the items, and vowed to give her that whipping when she returned. But the youth, barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, never made it home. Her distraught mother filed a missing-person report that night after she and others scoured the neighborhood for her.

When authorities recovered her body, she had been strangled and sodomized, and had suffered cuts to her face, neck, chest and both hands. Her nose was bloodied. Green synthetic fibers were found on her clothing, and her shoes were missing.

Jenkins has read the police report so many times that she can easily rattle off the specifics: The body was found on a Saturday. She was wearing the same blue gym shorts, red sweater and brown socks as when she had left home nearly a week prior. The medical examiner found citrus fruit in her stomach. Her killer must have fed her, Jenkins surmises, and kept her alive for a few days, because authorities said she had been dead for two to three days when they found her. The 7-Eleven clerk told police he saw Spinks leave with her merchandise. A 14-year-old on the way to the same store with her mother and sister recalled passing Spinks carrying a grocery bag.

Though Moriarty, who died in 2005, and Lamb, who died in 2013, led the investigation, Jenkins familiarized herself with every aspect of the case. She wanted to be able to jump into the mix if they were off duty or tied up on another case. That’s just what good homicide detectives did.

Ten weeks later, the body of a second girl was found by a D.C. Department of Highways and Traffic employee along 295. He had car trouble and pulled off the road. When he got out, he saw a body and called D.C. police. It was the second call police got that morning about the same discovery.

Dispatchers sent officers, who radioed a “10-8” back, meaning that they had found nothing and were moving on. “The officers didn’t get out and look for the remains,” Jenkins says. “They just drove by.”

A week later, on July 19, one of the callers returned to the site and saw that the body was still there, rotting in the sweltering heat. Angry at the inaction by police, the man told his boss, who drove by, saw it and phoned his friend, Charles Baden, a D.C. police sergeant. Baden was off duty that day. “He told me exactly where it was on the freeway opposite 295, just north of Bolling Air Force Base,” Baden, now 77, recalls. “I asked him if he called police and he said, ‘Yeah, but nobody came.’ ” Baden rode there on his motorcycle and drove along the shoulder until he found the corpse.

The body was just 15 feet from where Spinks’s remains had been discovered. The victim this time was Darlenia Johnson, 16, who had been reported missing on July 9, a day after telling her mom, Helen, that she was going to work at the Oxon Run Recreation Center. Johnson said she planned to stay the night at a sleepover the center was having for kids, but she never showed up.

She was found 11 days later — her face and body so badly decomposed that the medical examiner had to cut off her fingers to identify her. (Back then, there was no DNA testing, so authorities used fingerprints.) How she had died couldn’t be determined. “Maybe,” says Jenkins, “if they had located the body sooner, we could have had a cause of death.”

Nine days after the discovery of Johnson, a hitchhiker happened upon a body on Route 50 in Cheverly, just across the District line. The victim was Brenda Faye Crockett, a dimpled 10-year-old girl from Washington who had scads of friends and loved mugging for the camera and attending church.

Prince George’s County homicide detective Hilary Szukalowski, then 27, was the first detective on the scene and remembers the little girl sprawled alongside the road, clad in blue-and-white print shorts and a matching halter top. She had been strangled and raped. Like Spinks, she had green synthetic fibers on her clothing.

“I remember everything vividly,” Szukalowski told me last year by phone from his Kentucky home. He put clear plastic bags on Crockett’s tiny hands to preserve any evidence before placing her 4-foot-6-inch, 75-pound frame in a black plastic body bag for the drive to the Prince George’s Hospital morgue.

Crockett, who left home barefoot and with pink foam hair curlers, had been kidnapped while walking to the Safeway near 14th and U streets in Northwest to buy bread and pet food for the family’s three dogs, Ringo, Rex and Romeo. Her mom, Reatha, sent her out around 8 p.m., as the neighborhood kids were settling in for movie night on their street. Reatha thought her daughter took a friend with her.

When she didn’t return after an hour, her mother went looking for her, while Crockett’s only sister, Bertha, 7, stayed at the house with their mother’s boyfriend. The phone rang at 9:20 p.m. It was Brenda. She told her sister that a white man “snatched” her up and took her somewhere in Virginia but was sending her home in a taxi. She was crying, Bertha recalls.

Brenda called again 25 minutes later and talked to her mother’s boyfriend, who asked if she knew where she was in Virginia, police records show.

“No,” she said. “Did my mother see me?”

“How could your mother see you if you’re in Virginia?”

The boyfriend told her to put the man on the phone. “Well, I’ll see you,” she whispered before the line went dead. Her body was found less than eight hours later. Her bare feet were pristine, like someone had washed them, Jenkins recalls.

Sitting on a blue microfiber love seat in her spacious Northeast D.C. home and surrounded by four of her 35 black baby dolls, which she collects, Jenkins struggles to make sense of the slaying. “What is so appealing about a little 10-year-old that you would snatch her off the street and rape and kill her?” she asks, as if trying to get into the attacker’s head. “Why her?”

She has a theory about the call: Perhaps the killer knew Brenda Crockett’s mother and wanted to find out if she saw him with the little girl. “Why would you let her call home, not once, but twice?” Jenkins asks. “He had to make sure that the mother didn’t see her.”

On Oct. 1, 1971, Nenomoshia Yates, age 12, disappeared. Yates had gone to the Safeway a block from her family’s apartment in the 4900 block of Benning Road SE around 7 p.m. to buy sugar, flour and paper plates. Her stepmother had just had a baby, and Yates’s dad needed to be with his wife and the newborn at the hospital.

She vanished on her way home. A 16-year-old boy found her still-warm 104-pound body two hours later along Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of the District. The Kelly Miller Junior High School sixth-grader had been strangled and raped.

Jenkins was the night supervisor and dispatched two detectives, Otis Fickling, who died in 1988, and Ronald Ervin, who died in 2015. Authorities found green synthetic fibers on Yates’s clothing, as in two of the three other cases.

It was after the discovery of Yates that the media pressed the police about whether the homicides were connected — and began referring to the killer as the Freeway Phantom. Police, too, now thought there might be a serial killer on the loose. “I thought there could be, but we had never had anything like that before,” Jenkins says.

Six weeks later, a fifth victim was found. Brenda Woodard, 18, went missing on Nov. 15 after stopping at Ben’s Chili Bowl with a classmate from Cardozo High School in Northwest, where she attended night classes to hone her typing and shorthand skills. The classmate usually drove her home, but his car was in the shop, so the pair took the bus. Woodard got off at Eighth and H streets NE and transferred to another bus while her classmate continued on.

Cheverly police officer David Norman, then 22, spotted Woodard’s body on Hospital Drive, just south of Route 202 near Prince George’s Hospital, while on patrol shortly before 5 a.m. the next morning. “I shine my flashlight into her eyes to see if there was life,” recalls Norman, now 69 and living in Florida. “She didn’t blink. She didn’t do anything.”

Woodard’s burgundy crushed velvet coat was draped over her. Her black turtleneck was inside out. Buttons were missing from her coat and skirt. She had been raped, strangled and stabbed four times. Defensive wounds on her hands confirmed that she fought her killer, Jenkins says.

A puzzling note written in pencil was stuffed in Woodard’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!” It was signed, “Free-way Phantom!”

Authorities are certain Woodard wrote the note as dictated by the killer, because the FBI matched it to other writings by the teen. And because it was in Woodard’s “normal” handwriting — and with punctuation — Jenkins thinks she knew her killer. “There were no signs that she was nervous when she wrote the note,” Jenkins says. “You don’t think calmly like that if someone has kidnapped and assaulted you.”

Jenkins also thinks someone in Woodard’s tightknit Northeast community “saw something or heard something,” because folks often sat outside or socialized on street corners. Jenkins knows because she grew up there. She and Woodard attended the same high school, Spingarn; she had cousins who knew of Woodard.

Ten months passed, leading Jenkins and other police to believe the Freeway Phantom had left the area or gotten locked up for other crimes. But on Sept. 6, 1972, the body of Diane Williams, 17, was found by a trucker who had pulled off the road. A junior at Ballou Senior High School, Williams had spent the evening with her boyfriend, who walked her to the bus stop for her trip home to Halley Terrace in Southeast. She had been strangled and left along I-295, about 200 yards south of the D.C. line. “DIANE” was written on one of her white sneakers, and $1.26 was in the hip pocket of her jeans.

After the killings stopped, Jenkins became a supervisor in the patrol division. But she continued to think about the freeway murders. And she was pleased when, in 1974, the FBI created a task force to investigate. At one time, it boasted 100 detectives and federal agents from D.C., Prince George’s County, the Maryland State Police and others, she says.

“They ran down every lead,” she recalls. “I have to give them credit.” The task force developed hundreds of suspects, including a four-star general, a St. Elizabeths psychiatrist and a wealthy Prince George’s developer who owned property in Southeast. They questioned a man who owned a teen club where Darlenia Johnson hung out and another who someone allegedly saw in a car with Johnson after she was reported missing. Police used sodium Pentothal on him, the first time the department used the truth serum, Jenkins believes. He was cleared.

The strongest suspect was Robert Askins, a computer technician and former patient at St. Elizabeths who had served time for the 1938 poisoning death of a D.C. prostitute. He was freed in 1958 after his sentence was overturned on a legal technicality. D.C. police detective Lloyd Davis, who died in 2014, interviewed Askins about his involvement in unrelated rapes and learned about his prison time. In March 1977, Davis got a D.C. Superior Court judge to sign a search warrant. Police searched Askins’s rowhouse and found the appellate court’s opinion from his conviction, which used the word “tantamount,” the same word used in the note found in Woodard’s pocket — and an odd word for someone to use, Davis told The Washington Post in 2006. “Askins is known to use the word ... when attempting to stress the importance of matters related to his work,” according to the warrant.

They also found soiled women’s scarves, photos of girls and young women, a knife used in another crime and an essay from a girl. Another warrant was issued a month later, allowing police to search Askins’s vehicle. They found two buttons and a gold earring under his back seat, records show.

But police didn’t have the evidence to tie him to the deaths of any of the six girls. The green fibers found on five of the six victims didn’t match the fibers found in his home or car, and hairs found on them came back negative. Instead, Askins was convicted of kidnapping and raping two women in the District several years after the freeway killings and received a life sentence. He died in prison on April 30, 2010, at age 91.

“Was he capable of doing this?” Jenkins asks. “God, yes. But you’ve got to be able to prove these things.” Indeed, Jenkins doesn’t believe Askins was the Freeway Phantom. And Trainum, the D.C. detective who revisited the case in 2009, says that police “tried to squeeze him into the box they created, and it just wasn’t working.”

Trainum’s theory is that the killer lived in the same neighborhood near Wheeler Road and Southern Avenue as his first two victims, because they were abducted within blocks of each other. He surmises that the killer then went outside the neighborhood because someone might have suspected him of untoward behavior. “The police weren’t paying attention, but the neighborhood was,” Trainum says.

Jenkins believes he may have been in the military or a transient. She wonders whether it was a returning Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or someone who was angry with the police. Both detectives believe that the killer was in his 20s or 30s and black. (Askins was black, but was 52 at the time.)

An FBI crime analysis asserted that the killer had at least a high school education and “average or above-average intelligence,” and was employed. He knew how to start conversations with women but not how to “maintain healthy relationships.” He either lived alone or with an older woman, and knew the neighborhoods where he abducted and disposed of the girls.

In 1979, Jenkins ran across a file as thick as the Yellow Pages. It contained information about the “Green Vega” case, in which two men had been convicted five years earlier of kidnapping and raping young women in the D.C. area — around the time the six girls were abducted and killed. They and three others drove around in a green Chevrolet Vega.

According to the file, a tipster had alleged that the Freeway Phantom was a member of this gang, and law enforcement devoted countless hours to investigating the allegation. D.C. homicide investigator Louis Richardson was certain the men were responsible because they took police to the scene, told them how the girls were killed and provided other details. “How can a man tell you about a crime, the scene, clothing the girls wore, how she was killed, if he wasn’t there?” Richardson, who died in 2016, told The Post in 1980.

“Louie Richardson went to his deathbed believing they were responsible,” Jenkins recalls. But she and Trainum both say that a consensus developed that this couldn’t be right because the information the men provided police came straight from news reports. They also knew nothing about the note found on Woodard and none of the hair samples from the men matched the hairs found on the victims, Trainum says.

The thought that authorities devoted so much manpower to going after the wrong people catapulted Jenkins’s curiosity into obsession. She reopened the case in 1987 while assigned to the U.S. attorney’s office, where she finally had the resources to vigorously investigate it, she recalls. She got cooperation from former investigators who turned over their notebooks, and the FBI opened its files. She visited the crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and talked to the victims’ relatives to see if the real suspect may have been overlooked.

Jenkins requested the missing-person report on Johnson from the police department’s youth division, telling them that she was reopening the case. A young officer, Patricia Williams, brought it to her, along with a bombshell: Her sister, Diane, was one of the victims.

During her reinvestigation, Jenkins learned that Johnson’s mother got odd phone calls during the time her daughter was missing. Williams’s parents also received a call, with the caller saying, “I killed your daughter.” Police determined that Johnson likely was with her boyfriend before she vanished, but his mother refused to let police interview him. “That’s a little-known fact,” Jenkins says.

In 1990, Jenkins saw the hairs, fibers and handwritten note found in Woodard’s pocket, and wanted the forensic evidence tested. DNA testing, which didn’t exist in the 1970s, was now available. But law enforcement had done a poor job preserving all of it, so nothing could be done, she explains. Now, “no one knows where [the evidence] is,” she says, reducing the already slim chances that the cases will be solved.

“Those black girls didn’t mean anything to anybody — I’m talking about on the police department,” says Tommy Musgrove, who joined the D.C. police in 1972 and later headed the homicide unit. “If those girls had been white, they would have put more manpower on it, there’s no doubt about that.”

Musgrove compared it with the case of two white Montgomery County girls who went missing at Wheaton Plaza mall in 1975. The bodies of sisters Katherine and Sheila Lyon have never been found, but authorities pursued the case relentlessly until 2015, when they charged Lloyd Welch, an imprisoned sex offender, with two counts of first-degree murder. He pleaded guilty in September 2017.

Jenkins thinks the murders of these African American girls weren’t enough of a priority, but she is also quick to point out that D.C. police’s mishandling of the case was “not totally guided by race.” For instance, police often misplaced or lost case files when a new administration took over. She recalls opening a storage closet in the homicide unit and seeing “case files thrown all over the place.” (“That’s probably true, to be honest with you,” says Assistant Chief Michael Anzallo, who oversees the Investigative Services Bureau.)

The inability to find the girls’ killer has caused lasting heartache for the families. Carolyn Spinks Morris, Carol’s identical twin, remembers the day three detectives knocked on the door, and the bloodcurdling scream from her mother after learning of Carol’s fate. Carolyn eventually turned to drugs and prostitution. “It was terrible,” Morris, 60, recalls while sitting on an olive-green sofa surrounded by a dozen family members at a relative’s home in Prince George’s County. “I couldn’t get it together. I thought I was losing my mind.”

Valerie Moore, Spinks’s oldest sister, who sent her to the store that fateful evening, carries guilt. After the killing, Moore says, she would walk along Southern Avenue and Wheeler Road in Southeast, the same path Carol took to the store, to see if someone would approach her. “I was afraid, but I just wanted to know who would do this,” says Moore, now 71.

Bertha Crockett, 54, still gets emotional when she remembers her sister, Brenda, calling home asking if their mother saw her. “Why didn’t I go to the store with her?” she asked when I interviewed her, dabbing her moist eyes with a tissue. “Maybe things would have turned out different.”

She describes the day she learned her sister was killed as “the most devastating time in my life.” Growing up, she wasn’t allowed to have boyfriends, and her mother didn’t let her or her two brothers leave the house much, other than to go to school. “She kept a tight noose on us after that,” she says. “I became rebellious, defiant and impossible.”

Crockett started smoking, didn’t go to college and became a single mom a month before her 18th birthday. “If Brenda was living, I would have done things differently,” she says. “I wish I would have grown up with her. We could have encouraged each other to be better women.”

Lewis Crockett, Brenda’s dad, says he has never emotionally recovered from her death. The last time he saw her she handed him a picture of her in her Easter outfit and made him promise not to lose it. Six days later, his ex-wife called with the news. “I think about her all the time,” says Crockett, 82, a retired truck driver who lives in South Carolina. “She was a sweet kid.”

Patricia Williams became less trusting of people. She was 15 at the time of Diane’s death. She later joined the D.C. police and managed the child abuse squad in the youth division. Now 61, retired and living in Florida, she says her sister’s death made her “more cautious about everything.” “I always wished that while I was in the police department that the case could have been solved and I could have played some kind of role in closing it,” says Williams, who later married and had three children, including a girl whose middle name is Diane. Her mother, Margaret Williams, now 83, still lives in the Halley Terrace home. Margaret told me she has never been the same. “It took everything out of me,” she says.

The inability to solve the cases took something out of Jenkins, too. Though she retired in 1994, the girls are still with her. And she declares that she will search for answers as long as her heart continues to beat. "What happens when people like me and the families are gone?" she asks. "This will be forgotten."

Cheryl W. Thompson is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and writes investigative stories for The Washington Post. Alice Crites and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this story.

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