Between 1971 and 1972 a serial killer stalked Washington DC. Dubbed “The Freeway Phantom” he killed up to seven victims, perhaps more. All were young girls between the ages of 10 and 18; strangled and in one case stabbed, all sexually assaulted. The murders most likely stopped in 1972, but the quest to bring this killer to justice did not stop.
What I like about writing true crime is that I have to learn things. When we dove into the Freeway Phantom case for our book, Tantamount, there were two hurdles I had to jump. One was forensic linguistics – which we were helped by none other hand Jim Fitzgerald, the guy that was behind the apprehension of the Unabomber. The other was geographic profiling.
Geographic profiling can be complicated…mostly because of the math involved. I actually purchased the textbook written by the person that did the profiling for the Freeway Phantom case so that I could become at least fluent when I wrote about it.
It is a fascinating field of study but it is math-based, so I had to reacquaint myself with algebra. See kids, it DOES get used when you are an adult…in my case it simply took five decades.
I prefer to keep things simple. So think of it this way. Most serial killers have anchor points in their lives. These are places where they lure in their victims, where they live, where they work, or where they have a strong and meaningful attachment. Anchor points are important geographic places for a killer.
A “typical” serial killer will not operate (intercept his victims, dump their bodies, etc.) where he is known. That neighborhood is familiar to him, but there’s too high of a risk of him being seen and identified. This creates a zone or bubble where the killer will not conduct his nefarious affairs.
Outside of that is the typical hunting zone. Here the killer has a strong familiarity with the area, but is less likely to be identified. He knows the neighborhood, but is not well-known there. He knows the streets, the escape routes, etc., but doesn’t live there.
Outside of that sphere is where the killer is not familiar with the geography nor is he known there. Chances are he will not operate there. There is too much risk involved for him there.
Geographic profiling crunches in all of the data about a serial killer. In the case of the Freeway Phantom, it looks at where the victims lived, where they were last seen (their abduction areas) and where their bodies are dumped. Then the algebra happens. Traffic patterns, maps, key terrain features, population density are all crunched.
What emerges is the anchor point for the killer – that one special place for them, a place of significance. Often times it is their home, or where they do their heinous acts.
When the geographic profile was prepared for the Freeway Phantom the model came up with the killer’s anchor point – St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in Washington DC.
This was where the killer had a strong connection. He may have been a doctor there, or, more likely, a patient. For him, St. E’s (as it is known locally) was a place he knew well. It was an important part of his life. The Freeway Phantom may have beaten the investigators, but you can’t beat the math. For the killer, St. Elizabeths was a vital part of his life, either before or during the murder spree.
It makes perfect sense when you look at the murders in retrospect. Two of the victims were left along I-295, right at the edge of St. Elizabeths grounds. Another was less than a half mile away from the mental hospital.
Like any profile, you can’t exclude suspects because they don’t fit it, but it does give you a very strong indication of where investigators can focus their efforts. Unfortunately, the profile didn’t exist during the initial investigations, but decades later.
Several suspects had ties to St. E’s, the strongest being Robert Ellwood Askins, who lived there for decades – committed to the hospital for committing murder. Considered one of the prime suspects for these murders, Askins died in prison a few years back. Of all of the key suspects, Askins was the only one that spent years at St. Elizabeths, sent there for murder of young women. More on him in another post.
Today, St. E’s is crumbling one building at a time. Even now, it is eerie, the iron bars on the windows no longer hold occupants. The crises that must have echoed the hallways are now filled with the flutter of pigeons or the scurry of rats. The Department of Homeland Security expressed interest in the land and the rumble of demolition equipment during the daytime hours echoes between the tile-roofed buildings. Chain-link fence surrounds the complex, no longer aimed at keeping patients in, now it is in place to keep homeless people out.
St. E’s as it looks today…still creepy
Want to dive deeper into this serial killing spree? Check out our book, Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer.