American Crime Story – Impeachment  A Mid-Season Review

Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp

One of the things I love about this series on FX is that it covers events that I lived through, like their kickoff season on OJ Simpson.  It is amazing how much you forget the little details of such events and I strongly suspect that is part of the success of the series.  The other aspect that stands out is the casting that the series does…which is brilliant. 

This season is the impeachment of Bill Clinton, at least that is the overarching premise.  In reality, up through episode 5 (which is where we are at as of the time of this writing) the focus is not on the President as much as it is on Linda Tripp and to a lesser extent, Monica Lewinsky. 

You might think this is a weird angle to approach this from, but it is brilliant.  Sarah Paulson plays Tripp who is a weird character that I think the writers and actress have captured perfectly.  She’s not cut and dry like the media often portrays her.  At times, she seems to be a genuine friend of Monica Lewinsky.  At other times, she is a victim, and at other times, she is a conniving person attempting to profit from her activities.  It is because she is not a simple character that this focus works so well in the series. 

The Beanie Feldstein portrayal of Monica Lewinsky is far from gracious.  She comes across as a love-struck 16 year old that does not seem to have a grasp of the story she is being sucked into.  Perhaps that is true to life, but somehow you still feel sorry for her which is a credit to the actress playing her.  She is being manipulated by everyone with conflicting agendas, which is probably close to how things actually played out. This is a crime where you find yourself wondering who the victim is and the one name that seems to fill that slot is Monica Lewinsky.   

The portrayal of President Clinton is deep and dark. Paula Jones comes across as a naive fool, manipulated by those around her. The first few episodes exist to put the pieces on the game board.  By episode five you start to see how these are converging for what will be a brutal confrontation. 

The series has done well to step back from the partisan aspect of the politics and focus on the characters, which was exactly where it needed to play. 

I enjoy the series so far and encourage you to give it a shot, at least through the first three episodes. 

Review of the True Crime Series Manhunt Season 2 Deadly Games

Eric Rudolph from Manhunt Season 2

As a true crime author, I have a trust of law enforcement.  It’s not a blind trust, but one borne out of experience.  When I saw the film, Richard Jewell, that trust as far as the FBI was shaken.  

So when I saw season two of Manhunt – Deadly Games was about Eric Rudolph, the actual Olympic  Centennial Park bomber, I was intrigued. 

Apparently both works were filmed at around the same time, which is wild given that some of their sets and scenes are eerily similar.  The acting is different and many scenes play out quite a bit different in the TV series, but this is a complex story that goes far beyond Richard Jewell. 

Eric Rudolph set off a number of bombs, including the Centennial Park bombing, before he was driven to ground in the forests of North Carolina.  He survived off the land and with help of locals for a long time before law enforcement finally apprehended him. 

There’s some creative licensing that has been done with this season of the show, much like the Unabomber one.  Some aspects, such as the timelines of the key events have been fudged for the series, but that makes it a little more engaging. After the Richard Jewell film, there was an uproar about the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the reporter who broke the story of Jewell.  Her portrayal in this series is more compelling, but far less complimentary.

Rudolph is a completely unlikable character.  Unlike the first season, we don’t get much about his background to make him at all relatable.  In that aspect, it likely mirrors real life.  Ted Kaczynski, who could generate some sympathy as to how he became the Unabomber – Rudolph comes across as merely a sociopath with no moral compass. 

Still, the series of worth watching.  I liked the film version much more than this, but the series goes far beyond the events of the movie which really does manage to hold your attention and pull you in.  It is on Netflix and I recommend you give it a chance to grow on you.    

Answering Some Questions About Writing

I get questions from readers from time-to-time about the writing process. I thought it might be worth putting some of these out for people who are contemplating being authors, fiction or non-fiction. These are not hard and fast responses carved in stone, but simply my responses based on experience. Don’t accept these as gospel, they are merely my responses.  Other authors I’m sure have completely different answers that may be just as right – for them. 

Here’s the most common ones I receive from readers/would-be authors:

Do you write out a detailed outline to work off of for a book? 

Generally I do.  Some authors don’t.  Some of my chapter summaries are little more and a two of three sentence summary.  For fiction, it helps me estimate how big the book is going to be.  My chapters tend to be between 2.5 and 5k words in fiction, so knowing how many chapters I have allows me to estimate the project’s length.  Also for fiction, it helps me see obvious issues, like a character not getting mentioned or on-screen for too long of a gap. It also helps me see where pacing might be a problem. On a new project, after I created the outline, I realized that I had no real action taking place for two chapters – just people talking.  That drove me to a change. 

For non-fiction I find the chapter breakdowns are a must.  They help organize your research materials which is critical when writing military history or true crime. 

I am not locked into the outline.  If I come up with something that warrants a change, or a new chapter, I do it on the fly. 

I’ve checked the math – it’s true.

Where do you start?

For me, it either begins with a great character idea or I mentally get a scene in my head that pops (to me) and from there, the rest of the story gets flowed out. Example:  I have a novel coming out where I came up with one scene with two characters that I thought was cool.  It tells you everything you need to know about this character and the strategy involved.  From that one scene, the rest of the book was easy to craft.  That scene happens now, but in the middle of the novel. 

Sometimes it is the character. I have one coming up where I wanted a character based on Jack Churchill of WWII fame.  I want a character like him.  Now it is the matter of figuring out how he would fit into a broader plot that has been suggested.  Oddly, understanding this character’s ins and outs compels situations where he will fit in. 

What are the hardest parts to write?

I have tried to narrow my response to three things I find challenging to write. 

The opening of the book.  I like stories to start with an event – be that a battle or in the case of true crime, it can be the discovery of a body or a murder. In one case, my daughter and I began with something different, meeting a profiler and getting his perspective.  You have to start off with a compelling reason for readers to want to read more.  Some may bail if you start out poorly. 

The end of the book. Ultimately you want and ending that leaves the reader satisfied.  You don’t have to wrap up every loose end – sometimes that is done intentionally.  It gets a little tricky when writing true crime books on cold cases, because the crimes remain unsolved.  That doesn’t mean that you can ignore giving the reader some degree of closure in the form of summary as to where the cases remain. 

For fiction, I try and put in a twist of some sort.  Sometimes it is big, sometimes it is nothing more than a small revelation.  It is as much about bringing closure for the reader as it is for the characters of the story.  It is a fine balancing act between the two. 

Changes in the character arcs.  Characters grow, they evolve, their perspectives change.  If they don’t, they are dull.  I work on arcs for my characters as much as I do the outline for the story. Each character has to grow in some way, or devolve.  Writing the scenes where a character’s path changes is tricky.  If you don’t do it right, the reader feels that you are not being true to the character. 

In fairness, some readers never can wrap their hands around changes in character arcs no matter how you justify and explain it.  They are so invested in their perspective of the character, they refuse to accept change in any form.  It is both a compliment and a struggle – but such is the nature of fan bases.

If you have questions, feel free to submit them in the comments. I will do another post in the future.

Review of Crimes Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (Netflix)

We are in a quasi-spoiler zone here.  Read on at your own risk.

I’m going to use the word ‘refreshing’ here in that this is not your typical true crime drama.  It is less about crime and more about the dangers of people on the internet who consider themselves sleuths.  As a true crime author, I know all about treading carefully.  I have outted suspects before in my books, and I do so by presenting hard facts – not conspiracy theories. I attempt to engage the individuals I am writing about, to let them express their side of the story. If nothing else, this series on Netflix makes you see the dangers of people at their computers, assigning blame based on their own half-assed investigating. 

The Cecil Hotel is creepy, and a lot of bad things have happened there over the years.  Every city has a Cecil or two lurking in the shadows.  In many respects, the hotel is a character in this drama as it unfolds – which is interesting.  Elisa Lam, a Canadian, disappeared while staying there.  The police could not find her at first, and a number of self-proclaimed investigators start tearing into the bizarre elevator video taken of Ms. Lam prior to her disappearing.  They find a creepy song-writer who stayed there once and begin to label him as a suspect.  There are claims that the hotel staff and the police are involved in a conspiracy to cover up the crime.  You are drawn in, wondering where this true crime drama is going to take you. 

If there was an award for best character in a true crime documentary, it would be her.

Then it hangs a hard left in Albuquerque (Bugs Bunny fans will get the reference) 

Without ruining this series, it masterfully draws you in, then gut punches you.  I enjoyed it because it was different, because it showed the dangers of people using their podcasts or digital forums irresponsibly.  

The truth about Elisa Lam is sad and tragic.  It is something that was not preventable, unfortunately.  The real crime was what happened after she disappeared, and the producers get you there abruptly, almost without warning.  It is a cautionary tale, and one well worth watching. It ends, not as you want it to, but with a cold dose of reality.    

New Mini-Series on the Colonial Parkway Murders on Oxygen – The Lovers’ Lane Murders

Where Keith Call’s car was found abandoned on the Colonial Parkway

We just learned of the release date for two-night series on Oxygen dealing with the Colonial Parkway Murders starting Thursday, February 11.

To be clear, my daughter and I have not been involved with this production at all, but we fully support any effort to get the story of the Colonial Parkway Murders out there and hopefully generate new tips or actionable leads for investigators.  We remain in contact with some of the family members and endorse anything that can help the survivors get some closure. 

Victoria and I wrote the definitive book on these crimes several years ago, A Special Kind of Evil.  We have had people criticize us for writing true crime books, claiming that it is all about making money.  In reality, given the two years we spent doing the research and conducting interviews – it was NEVER about the money.  You get emotionally attached to cases and the victim’s families. 

With cold cases, you are putting yourself out there, knowing full well that the killer is still on the loose.  There were many times when we have gone to libraries and spoken when we have scanned the crowd wondering if the killer is sitting right in front of us. That is one of the reasons we have taken photos at the larger gatherings. 

I have received death threats because of the books we write, so we take this seriously. It is chilling to think that the killer may have picked up your book to try and glean what law enforcement knows about the case.  With one book we wrote, a suspect that we outed actually showed up to one of our book signings.  I take a certain amount of pride knowing that I piss off serial killers or other murderers.  The risks are real. So, if you think this is about profit, you are wrong.  Our level of commitment to resolving cases like the Colonial Parkway Murders or the Freeway Phantom crimes is very real and honest.   

When you write about true crime cold cases, you immediately become a focal point for some people to contact you with their tips and leads. Individuals are sometimes more comfortable calling or contacting an author rather than law enforcement with their ideas as to who may be behind these crimes.  Messages come in via email or over the phone, at all hours of the day or night.  We pass on any and all tips to the authorities to take action on. Victoria and I don’t have any illusions that we will solve this case, that will be done by the authorities.   

The logging trail off of I-64 where the last two victims were killed and their bodies left until hunters found them weeks later.

Going over my notes, I see that our efforts in writing A Special Kind of Evil has thus far generated over 20 tips for authorities.  Who knows, maybe one of these will eventually bring about some resolution to these heinous crimes?  We have had people give us tips about former school teachers, police officers, family members, store owners…you name it.  Many have come in regarding one or two suspects in particular…which is no real surprise. 

So we will be watching for this series to be released in anticipation that it may finally bring these cases to closure…and we encourage you to do the same. 

Addendum: Because of a request we received after this posting – here are links to the book if you want to get up to speed prior to or after the TV show:

Review of the Netflix Documentary – Operation Odessa

Would you buy a used Soviet submarine from these three guys?

I stumbled across this true crime documentary on Netflix and started watching it on a lark. It is…well…unique.

I remember bits and pieces of the news reports about this. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, a Columbian drug cartel tried to purchase a Soviet submarine to smuggle drugs. No, I’m not making this up. Like many news stories, it disappeared off the headlines and faded away. Well, this series covers what happened.

Part of this series came across to me as almost like a comedy. I mean seriously, purchasing a submarine to smuggle drugs? And the cast of characters are so ‘quirky’ that you cannot imagine them actually getting together to try and pull this stunt off. Remarkably, however, it is a true story.

This series has elements of the Russian mob, crooked (if not crazy) cartel members (I mean, one guy stole $10 million from the cartel and is still on the run), corrupt Soviet officers (“Would you like to purchase some nuclear material?”) and more. If I were writing this as a piece of fiction, no one would believe the individuals involved, let alone the thought that they might very well have pulled it off.

This is not your typical true crime fare – it isn’t about murders or serial killers. I couldn’t bring myself to shut it off, it is entertaining enough to hold onto you. It’s only a single documentary episode, so you don’t have to commit to a series.

It’s worth it for the helicopter landing in the city square to get directions alone.

I am giving it five out of five stars simply because it made me chuckle and wince at the same time. Enjoy!

Review of the Netflix Series – The Ripper

The Netflix series about the Yorkshire Ripper was, with one exception, a very well-done documentary on the 1970’s murders commited by Peter Sutcliffe. As a true crime author myself, I was familiar with the killings, but did not know them in detail. I thought that the producers did an admirable job of laying out the crimes and giving viewers some of the social context that was useful in understanding the culture and the region during the period. I always respect that approach, expecially with older murders such as these.

I found the police investigation to be flawed…there’s no way around that. They had spoke with Sutcliffe on multiple occassions and found him suspicious. Further, he looked exactly like the artist’s sketch of the Ripper. Still, it was sheer luck that they stumbled into and finally apprehended them.

The only thing I didn’t like was in one episode which focused on this being misrepresentations of women and an issue of a male patriarchy. One individual got a summery of the Ripper report from the FBI and lauded that the authorities had painted the Ripper victims as prostitutes. I’ve seen such summary reports, they often do not contain the hours of interviews done to compile them. Their experts contended that many of the victims were not prostitutes and that, in some way, made the investigation flawed. They offered no real evidence to support this however, which left me puzzled.

They went on to explain that this serial killer was a product of a patriarchy and that the Ripper was suppressing their rights as female. I have done a lot of research on serial killers, with actual experts, and this just came acrossed as an unsupported and political-driven arguement. It would have been great to have experts on serial killers in the documentary talking about Sutcliffe or the crimes – but for some reason, the producers decided not to, which struck me as weird. Then again, my perspective could be entirely wrong…I leave that up to you to decide.

Regardless, most of my issues were contained in one episode and doesn’t take away from the overall high-quality production that went into this series. I give it four out of five stars — well worth your time and consideration.

Transcript of our podcast, Tantamount – Episode 8 – The Phantom of St. E’s

Episode 8

St. Elizabeths – 2019

The following is the transcript of our latest episode on the Freeway Phantom

Hello, this is Blaine Pardoe.  Welcome back to our podcast.  I’m joined, as usual, with my daughter and co-author, Victoria Hester.

Welcome back everyone.  We hope you are all enjoying the Tantamount Podcast.  We certainly are having fun pulling them together.  With this episode is an important one for this case.  We call it the Phantom of St. E’s, but the real meat of what we are going to cover is around the topic of geographic profiling. 

I have to admit, when we started working on the book about the Freeway Phantom, I really only had a bit of surface knowledge about geographic profiling.  I’m not an expert now, but I have read a fantastic textbook on the subject. 

We really didn’t have a choice.  One of our confidential police informants gave us a copy of the geographic profile done of the murders in 2005.  That forced the issue because it was very revealing about potential suspects. Geography plays a key role in these murders.  The killer operated in a relatively small number of neighborhoods.  The roads were important to him and that was where he dumped the remains of his victims. If you analyze the geography, it can really focus on what was important to him, what was his tie to the communities.  And in this case, the geographic profile puts you right on ground zero. 

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.  Let’s talk about how geographic profiling works. When I started this I thought it was a matter of drawing circles around the crime scenes and seeing where they interlock.  There is a lot more to it than that.  This is some pretty serious math in play here.  Geographic profiling looks at where the victims resided, where they were last seen – which is where they had contact with their killer, and where their bodies get dumped.  These then factor in along with a variety of other factors including road systems, traffic patterns and volumes at the time of day.  They look at things like the time travel to the crime scene and other criminal theories such as rational choice. 

Geographic profiling is not intended to tell you where the killer lives or works – but that can be a result.  What it does is zero in on what are called Anchor Points. These are places where the serial killer has a special connection of some sort.  Now, in some cases, that can be their home.  Likewise it may be where they work. Many times it is neither.  An Anchor Point is merely a place where the murderer has a high degree of familiarity.  They frequent these spots.  These are often the places where they are most comfortable being. It may not even be where they have ties now, but where they had a strong connection in the past. 

The person that did the Freeway Phantom geographic profile was D. Kim Rossmo, out of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation, at the Texas State University. He was invited to pull it together by Detective Jim Trainum of the Washington DC Metropolitan Police.  It was a technique that was not available to the original investigators in the 1970’s and Trainum hoped that the use of this tool might help him as he reopened the Freeway Phantom murders.

Geospatial intelligence originated out of the research done at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology in British Columbia, Canada, in 1989.  Dr. Rossmo is a pioneer in this field.  It has helped investigators narrow their search for killers in active investigations.  What I found interesting is that they really refined the formula and the techniques by looking at serial killings that had already been solved.  In the case of the Night Stalker in California, they were able to retro-fit the analysis and it showed the very block that Richard Ramirez lived at when he had been committing the crimes.  Rossmo has also applied this to a number of cold cases. 

I liked the analysis done of Jack the Ripper’s murders. It is so cool to see a technique like this applied to these high-profile unsolved cases. 

I agree!  That was pretty neat.

What is also interesting is that Geographic profiling can’t be used in every case.  You really need a string of connected murders for it to be effective.  Also, you need a certain kind of serial killer.  You need a killer who is not a rover.  If you have a serial killer that, for example, travels the country and kills in a wide spread of geographies over time, the tool’s effectiveness diminishes because that kind of killer does not have relevant anchor point. 

Well, in the case of the Freeway Phantom, we know he operated in a fairly tight area, concentrated on the southeast neighborhoods of DC and just inside Prince George’s County, Maryland. 

True.  I found Dr. Rossmo’s textbook on profiling fascinating to me.  A lot more interesting than the textbooks I read in college.  Not so much the math, but the thinking behind how serial killers operate.

Why don’t you go into that for a minute?  I’m sure the listeners would like it.

Sure.  A serial killer is often a hunter.  There are multiple varieties of how they hunt.  Some lure their victims to their place and kill them there. 

Like Jeffrey Dahlmer. 

Exactly.  Other killers stalk their prey and kill them either where they make contact with them, or take them somewhere else after gaining control of them, then kill them there. 

Then they must dispose of their victims.  Some do that locally, burying them at their house.  Most try and put some distance between the victims and where they were slain.  As you know, some killers use dump sites to dispose of multiple victims, while others spread out where they leave their victims. 

Well, that’s the Freeway Phantom.  We know he took seized his victims, took them somewhere, most likely his house, killed them, then drove their bodies to where he left them.  He started doing a dump site initially.  Carol Spinks and Darlenia Johnson were found in a very small area, less than 15 feet apart.  His other victims were left all Southeast DC and Maryland. 

Right.  Now some of the theories that I found in Dr. Rossmo’s book was that there are zones where a serial killer will and won’t operate.  Think of these as concentric rings and imagine his home or place of work in the center.  The neighborhood around that anchor point is well known to the killer.  He knows the roads, the side streets, traffic, everything.  The problem is he is known there too.  So if he tries to pick up a victim, the people in that center ring may very well know who he is and make him easier to capture.  So a killer is less likely, in most cases, to operate in that center ring around their anchor point. 

The next ring out is where the real hunting for victims takes place.  These are neighborhoods and streets that the serial killer knows very well.  At the same time, he is not known there.  For the most part he’s as stranger there. 

The familiarity with the streets is pretty important.  The killer has to be able to navigate with the victim to wherever he intends to kill them.  To me, it feels like these are the areas where he has spent a lot of time looking for potential victims.  He’s probably even made some trial runs from there back to where he kills them.  If he’s smart, he knows something about the police patrols there too. 

Exactly.  The final outermost circle is huge.  This represents geography were the killer is not likely to operate.  He isn’t familiar with the area, there isn’t that comfort he has.  It’s not his turf.  This area is where the killer is uncomfortable that he can pull off his crime and not get caught. 

I like to think of these as hunting zones.  They factor into the calculations for geographic profiling as well. So as you can see, it’s not as easy as pulling up Google Maps and drawing circles on it.  There’s a lot you have to consider with this kind of profiling. 

For me, as an author, going to some of these neighborhoods some 40 plus years later, it is surreal.  You can cruise the same streets, see the same thing that the killer did.  Sure the cars are smaller and the apartments and homes are different, some better, some worse…but you get a vibe of what it was like for the Phantom roaming, looking for prey. 

Detective Trainum didn’t mess around when he wanted his geographic profiling done.  He had Dr. Rossmo do it.  And while it was done in 2005, the results still should stand as valid.  

I would like to point out that the geographic profile done for the Freeway Phantom cases did NOT include Teara Ann Bryant.  We know that the FBI considered her as part of the Freeway Phantom killings because she is part of their profile of the killer.  When the Washington MPD asked for their geographic profile, they didn’t include her.  Even so, I doubt it would have affected the results greatly.  The location where she disappeared and where her body was found is, as I like to call it, ‘in the zone’ of where the Phantom operated. 

By now you probably want us to cut to the chase, so I will.  Where did the geographic profile say the anchor point for this serial killer was?  St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. 

St. Elizabeth, or St. E’s as a lot of locals call it, is not your typical psychiatric facility in the 1970’s.  It was built around the time of the Civil War. It was huge, a campus really, consisting of many buildings, gardens, etc. Even today, as they tear it down for new homes, it has a creepy-factor about it.  The windows all are barred, the doors and stairs have industrial screening. For decades, this hospital was where the government sent their criminals and citizens that suffered the worst mental conditions. They used shock treatments and experimental medications there.  Those bars on the windows, they are not to keep people out, but keep patients in. 

When we were down there, I have to admit, it gave me an ooky feeling.  I mean this was an anchor point for the killer, a place that he had a special connection to.  When you looked through the chain link fencing that now surrounds the site, it is easy to picture patients peering out of the windows.  Every door has flat faded green mesh or bars.  It was like a prison, but far worse. I would hate to be there at night.  Not because of any fear in the neighborhood, but you can stand there and imagine the sounds that came from those buildings, the muffled screams from padded cells – the cries of the mad in the night.  It really is a place right out of a Hollywood horror film.  

Remember, the first two victims, Spinks and Johnson, they were left on I-295 on the shoulder.  Some 20 feet away was the perimeter fence for St. E’s.  That’s how much this facility was tied to the killer.  You have to wonder, did he wander the grounds there at some point and scope out where he was going to leave his victims years later? 

For me – this profile brings us back to looking at the suspects.  From what we were able to gather through our research and reviewing court records, none of the Green Vega Gang had a significant tie to St. Elizabeths prior to their arrests.  One was sent there after he was arrested for an evaluation, but before, none of them worked there or had been patients there.  That doesn’t rule them out entirely. But the profile essentially is telling us that whoever the killer is, he had a tight bond with that location – and these guys just don’t show that. 

That makes me turn to my favorite suspect, Robert Askins. 

I knew you were going to go there! 

Duh.  The guy spent decades in St. E’s as a patient. That was where he was sentenced after his first murder conviction. Look, there’s a number of suspects that the police looked at, but only one had any connection to St. Elizabeths, and that was Robert Ellwood Askins.    

I felt the same thing when I read the report. However, being impartial, I have to point out that there were thousands of patients that had been in and out of St. E’s.  It is entirely possible that it was a doctor or a worker there.  Remember, that hospital is an anchor point for the killer.  He has some connection there.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that he was a patient.  It could be he had a relative that was a patient and spent a lot of time there visiting.  There’s a lot of scenarios that can be concocted that could link people to St. E’s.

But what do you think?

To me, it’s another nail in the Robert Askins coffin.  It points to him.  However, we are looking at it from the lens of the police and who they had as suspects.  If that is your sample, then it is Askins.  If, however, it was someone that the police didn’t have as a suspect, well, it means it could be thousands of potential individuals. 

Our book presented the information on the geographic profile to the public for the first time. It is an important bit of information.  I only wish the police had released this information earlier themselves.  It may have generated some tips, got people thinking about friends or relatives that had links to St. E’s. 

It still can.  Remember, this is a cold case.  There’s information at the end of each episode if you have any information that might assist authorities in closing these cases.  This little nugget of information might just trigger a thought or memory that can close these cases.

In the next episode of Tantamount – serial killers rarely contact the authorities.  The Freeway Phantom did.  He had one of his victims write a note, a grizzly message that he left on her body.  The note is important because it is the killer speaking directly to the public, and to the authorities.  Please join us for Episode 9, The Voice of the Killer.

Tantamount – Episode 7 – Profiles of the Freeway Phantom

Victimology FP

To further support our podcast Tantamount: Season One, the Washington DC Serial Killer the Freeway Phantom, I had a friend suggest I post the transcript of the episode up.  Obviously I encourage you to give us a listen.  We’re on most of the Podcast providers.

Link to Podbean Episode on Profiles of the Freeway Phantom

Here’s the transcript of the Episode:

Hello, this is Blaine Pardoe

And this is Victoria Hester –co-author to my dad and a bestselling true crime author too.  Sorry it has taken so long for another episode but I am a Director of Nursing and this whole pandemic-thing has really eaten into my free time.

I’m glad we are able to get back to putting out some content.  .

Me too. It’s great to talk about something other than this damned spicy virus.  Okay then, welcome to Episode 7 of Tantamount Season One – Profiles of the Freeway Phantom.  Up to this point we have covered the crimes of the Phantom in 1971 and 72.  We talked about how these victims are connected.  We explored the, and I am quoting here, ‘confessions’ of the Green Vega Gang.  We also dug into Robert Askins as a suspect.  This episode we are stepping back a bit and looking at the criminal profiles the authorities have used on these cases.  If you are a fan of the Netflix series Mindhunter, you’ll get a kick out of this one.

For me, I think it is important to frame the early profiles in terms of the years the crimes took place.  Remember, profiling really didn’t emerge until the early 1980’s.  So there was no model for it, no established precedent for investigators.  There weren’t any true experts, though some were starting to emerge in the early 1970’s.

So where does that leave the police?  With a lot of guesswork by local psychiatrists and mental health experts.  The authorities went to local psychiatric hospitals, not so much to get a profile, but to see if any of the doctors had patients that could be the killer.

You couldn’t do that today, not with the HIPPA rules.

Boy that’s true.  And none of these doctors seemed to have the kind of training, such as studying past serial killers, that could help them frame their thinking.  So what you get is little fragments of their best guesses.

Let me go through some and you’ll see what I mean.

One doctor said the killer should be, “considered quite clever.”  He was likely to have  a “sociopathic personality disorder,” and was likely able to function in society without attracting much attention to himself.

Another doctor at the Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville, Maryland, said that killer was “extremely dangerous…bordering on psychopathic extremes in behavior.”  Such a person would exhibit paranoid delusions, possibly triggered by phonetic sounds. His belief that sounds may trigger an explosion of violence was tied to the name “Denise.”

So, what he’s saying is that the name ‘Denise’ is what triggered the behavior?

Apparently.

I see what you mean about these being best guesses.

He wasn’t alone with the whole Denise-connection – a number of doctors interviewed by the Washington DC newspapers called out that name and said that the killer had an obsession with girls that had that name.  Of course, none of them could explain the real question – how would the killer know that the girls had that as middle names?  I mean this is an age before the internet and social media – so how could he have known?  They went to different schools, lived in different parts of the city…so how could that possibly be a connection?

It can’t.

I agree.

Anyway, A doctor Radauskas of the Perkins State Hospital in Jessup, Maryland,said the killer “likely functioned very well in society.”  He suggested it was a “personality quirk” that manifested him to opt for strangulation as the means to kill his young victims.  Calling what the Freeway Phantom did as a ‘quirk’ seems a bit disingenuous to me.

It does make me wonder just how much information the authorities shared with these doctors?  If they didn’t tell them much, then their responses might be pretty vague.

That’s a part of the problem.  The records we were able to obtain from our confidential sources really don’t go into that much depth.

One that stood out for me was Dr. Regis Riesenman, a forensic physician from Arlington Virginia.  He suggested that the suspect felt inadequate and/or insecure, and that this is likely stemming from having a weak or absent male or father figure and a dominant or strong mother. He said that this would have led to him demonstrating, “cowardly traits.”

I think I know where you are going here.

Yup – this sounds like Robert Askins.

In his analysis, the suspect is paranoid and schizoid…a likely sadist since he appears to obtain sexual thrills from the use of physical violence. Dr. Reisenman did not rule out that the suspect practiced necrophilia.  That is interesting because it doesn’t seem to fit the pattern of the Freeway Phantom – that we know of.

The doctor believed that the suspect may be under the influence of drugs, and he is possibly a megalomaniac, braggart, who labors under a strong compulsion to kill. In his thinking, the likely suspect is clever, with above-average intelligence.

I think the best one they got early on was from a former FBI agent named Walter McLaughlin.  He was old school FBI, but was a pioneer in criminal sexual classification and what would become known as profiling.  He was years ahead of the others in this field.

He believed that the unsub was a young Negro male. In his words, “This is mostly substantiated with his free and undetected movement in the close-knit neighborhoods. He may have a job or even live in those areas.”  In other words he definitely has familiarity with the streets he hunted on.

“The unsub demonstrated a degree of higher learning, with at least one or two years of college education. The killer had ready access to an automobile. Based on the note left on Brenda Woodard and his actions – he harbors a hatred towards women.”

McLaughlin further theorized that the unsub sought out victims who appealed to him in a personal manner, possibly linked to his mother, wife, or girlfriend. He didn’t see the victims as children at all – simply as females. The name Denise meant nothing; it was simply coincidental that some of his victims shared this name. He believed that the killer had previous brushes with the law, likely being minor incidents.

His suggestion to the investigators was to contact the high school English teachers in the area to determine whether any students they have had in the past used or misused the word, “tantamount.”

What adds credibility to this is that he says that the name Denise is coincidental.

It does.  Another interesting opinion was offered by Dr. Oscar Prado, the Director of Forensic Psychiatry at the Springfield State Hospital.  In his interview with investigators he said that he believed that the killer was akin to a man, “going on a hunt,” choosing an area to operate were he would find a “pool” of potential victims who met his mental criteria. In his mind, this was a white male, based mostly on the fact that his victims were black. Interestingly, he said if all the victims were white, he would have thought it was a black suspect. He said that the killer was likely a “leg man,” because all the victims were in skirts or shorts.

The potential suspect would be “typical” looking in appearance, be in his late twenties in terms of age, extremely clever with above-average intelligence. He would likely be an unreliable employee, most likely working in some sort of blue-collar capacity. The murderer had likely not been hospitalized, but if he had, it would have been for a crime related to violence rather than sex.

Dr. Prado suggested that the person they should be looking for was potentially suffering from a “superman complex,” with grandiose delusions. He was complex and consumed with a severe hatred of women.

Prado was the only person authorities consulted with that suggested that the Phantom was a white man.  He said that if the victims had been white, he would have suggested the killer was a black man.

It is interesting and says something about the times and the race tensions.

He said that the killer was likely a “leg man,” because all the victims were in skirts or shorts.

These were young kids in some cases…I call bullshit on the theory that he chose his victims based on their legs.  Clearly these folks were just taking stabs in the dark.  What I found the most compelling was the FBI profile that had been done in the 1990’s.  We were able to obtain it from a confidential police informant.  What makes it stand out is that it was done two decades later, when profiling was a tool for investigators.

The first thing that stands out is that Teara Ann Bryant was included in the profile.  The Washington DC and Prince George’s County had always excluded her.  For reasons we covered earlier in these podcasts, we think she is a part of the Freeway Phantom crimes and clearly the FBI did as well.

From a victimology perspective, the FBI highlights that the victims were essentially at low risk of being the targets of violent crimes. What may have made them more susceptible was their age and naiveté. Combined with being alone at night and outdoors increased their risk factors.

Their common denominator was being adolescent, black females, alone at the time of initial contact with their killer in highly populated areas. The FBI concluded that their killer was not someone they knew but a stranger.

The FBI determined that the nature by which the victims were killed, the depositing of the bodies and the fact they had no relation to their attacker, all point to, and I quote here, “…our conclusion that these homicides were perpetrated by the same assailant.”

“The offender offset his risk somewhat by approaching the older victims later at night.” His approach to his prey was to not apply immediate physical force. The lack of defensive wounds, other that Brenda Woodard, “seem to suggest that at least for a time the victims were willing to be in the company of the offender. Either they did not perceive him to be an immediate threat or he was able to gain complete control of his victims by fear and the threat of immediate and serious bodily harm. More likely, it is suggested that the offender used a combination of the two. His approach to the victims may not even have been perceived by them as an immediate threat. Yet, once he had the victims alone, he was able to dominate and control them by the display and threat of a weapon (possibly a knife). With younger victims, the display of the weapon may not have been necessary as they could have been intimidated by the offender’s age, size, and/or verbal threats.”

The FBI hit on other key points that stand out to me.  They said the Phantom’s contact with his victims was “opportunistic.” The victims were out alone, at night, walking…not necessarily following a standard pattern. Some were known to accept rides from strangers. The killer had to have used an automobile to abduct his victims. He may have simply used his car and an offer of a ride as part of his initial contact with them. “This does not preclude the possibility that he was driving around looking for potential victims,” the profile highlights.

Another key piece they surfaced in their profile was, “the offender reduced his risk of having the bodies connected to him. If confronted near the disposal areas, he could have the same ‘alibi” as thousands of other travelers, ‘I was just driving down the road.’ This procedure also offset the offender’s risk of being seen in the short amount of time it took him to ‘dump’ the bodies.”  They added, “He, essentially, removed any chance of being identified by killing the only witnesses he believed to exist, the victims.”

The Bureau believed that investigators are dealing with a black male suspect. This is substantiated by the finding of Negroid head hair on many of the victims and the racial make-up of the neighborhoods where the victims were first approached and abducted.

The killer was likely to be between 27 and 32 years of age. This was arrived at by examining the ages of the victims, the degree of trauma inflicted, the amount of control the killer had to use over his victims and, to a lesser degree, the willingness of the victims to initially be in the presence of their killer during their first contact. The FBI admits though that the age of the killer was difficult to access. It proved difficult for them to compare the chronological and emotional age of the Freeway Phantom. “This estimate relates to a suspected chronological age, however, no suspect should be eliminated based on age alone.”

The murderer was smart – possessing a high school education and likely a higher education such as college.

The killer most likely held down a full-time job. All his victims were confronted after what would be considered normal working hours. Their bodies were all disposed of late at night or early in the morning. The killer never demonstrated a desire to rob his victims, everyone he picked was too young to have any money of consequence on them. The FBI believed he could be working as a delivery man, postal worker, medical assistant, a role in security, the military or possibly in recreation.

The Freeway Phantom is able to have relationships with people, even women but likely does not have the skills to maintain “healthy” relationships. The FBI believes he is single and either lives alone or with an older, significant female.  He follows his crimes in the media – hence having Brenda Woodard write a note found on her body.

The FBI acknowledged that the killer owned his own vehicle – a late model car and kept it well maintained.

The Freeway Phantom was not a drinker or drug user, at least during the times of his crimes. His control obsession would not have allowed it. The use of such substances would have lowered his inhibitions and possibly ruined the experience he felt.

As an investigator and author, when I read that profile, it was pretty chilling to me.  You get a mental picture of the killer.  Almost all of the profiles, even the quirky ones early on, all point to one thing – this is a person that is smart. According to the FBI profile, he is able to blend in well in the community.  This guy is all about control – of his victims – of himself.

I remember reading in the profile we obtained, that the Phantom was most likely intimidated by women his own age or older. That was why he chose younger women as targets. They were easier to control and allowed him to act on his disdain for the opposite sex.

They went onto say that if the murderer did have an arrest record, it would probably include, “…vice-related offenses, such as solicitation for prostitution or assault on women.”  So for me, this was another arrow pointing squarely at Robert Askins.

I have to agree with you on that.  He also had no father figure – he was raised by his mother and aunt.

Listen to this from the report, “The offender feels no remorse or guilt, as to him killing the victims had no consequence. His only concern was that he may have been seen with the victims. Once he became assured he was not a suspect, he would have felt safe.”

The FBI explored his deposition of victims too.  When done with the murders and disposing of his victims, he went home or to another “safe place.” There was little on him physically in the way of evidence that linked him to the crimes.

They had an interesting section on why there was such a long period between Brenda Woodard and Dianne Williams.  There were two possibilities for the gap according to the FBI. One, after the resistance he experienced with Brenda Woodard, he may have had, “some difficulty and retreated into his fantasies of past killings,” rather than return to his hunting patterns. Her fighting back against him ruined the experience for him or even scared him that he could not maintain control.

The other possibility was that he had moved on, been institutionalized/jailed, or left the area. When he was trolling for Dianne Williams, he returned to the same area where Spinks and Johnson had lived – returning to his old stalking grounds.

What stand out to me is that this is probably the most up-to-date victim-based profile out there on the killer.  It’s certainly the first one that was done with knowledge of how serial killers operated.  Even so, from the 1990’s, it is slightly dated.  I remember reading one portion, worth repeating here:

Consideration must be given as to why this series of murders has stopped. Based upon research conducted by the NCAVC (National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime), this type of offender does not just stop because he wants to. The offender has either died, been incarcerated in an institution of some kind, or has moved from the area. If the offender has moved, it is likely that the new jurisdiction has experienced similar murders of similar victims.”

Of course when this was written, we didn’t have information on the Green River Killer or BTK where there were instances where serial killers stopped.

True.  At the time, the thought was that he was dead, moved on, or in jail.  Now we know more about the minds of serial killers.  They can stop – due to a change in their lives or a dangerous brush with law enforcement.

It is also important to note that the profile doesn’t solve the case on its own.  It is a framework that helps you narrow potential suspects.  The FBI profilers were clear to the investigators, ‘don’t rule out a suspect just because he doesn’t 100% fit the profile.’

And in this case, the profile still has not generated the desired outcome – and arrest.

For me, this makes me settle on a few things.  First, this is a smart killer, smarter than average. Second, he is black.  These are not racially motivated crimes.  Third, the killer has some deep-rooted mommy issues…that’s where his issues with women comes into play

I don’t disagree.  He also has a very good knowledge of the areas where he is picking up his victims and where he is dumping their bodies.  All of which leads us to take a look at the geography of these sites.  We can probably get closer to who the killer is with an in-depth look at geographic profiling…narrowing the search even more.  I was toying with jumping into it here, but it really deserves a full episode all on its own.

I agree.

In the next episode of Tantamount – We dive into the intriguing area of geographic profiling that was done on the case in 2006, and where that leads us.  Join us for Episode 8, The Phantom of St. E’s

 

Review of HBO’s: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered

The Atlanta Child Murders were an American tragedy.  Anytime a serial killer targets small children it is horrific.  What the authorities did after Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the 29 murders was gut-wrenching.  They closed all of the murders – slamming the door on the victim’s families.  If you watched Netflix’s Mindhunter, it isn’t too far off from the reality. 

This short series cracks open the case files as the City of Atlanta starts looking into the cases anew.  I came into it hopeful to get a well-rounded documentary series that would give me a solid sense of the crimes, evidence, and witnesses.  My expectations were not met – despite the stunning production quality. 

It is clear that this series is focused on Wayne William’s being innocent of these crimes, almost the point where they gloss over and downplay the evidence against him.  The producers throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it sticks with the viewers.  We get everything from Klan informers to pressures allegedly from the White House to smother the investigation because it was bad for Atlanta’s public image.  The producers quickly mention that many of the accounts and alleged killers were cleared by alibi and polygraph, but instead drill in on a web of speculative intrigue that is hard to contemplate.

I wanted something that was balanced, but what I got was something crafted to try and manipulate me.  As a true crime author, I know that pushing an agenda is dangerous. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I strongly doubt that Williams was responsible for all of these murders. That isn’t the same as being innocent.  Three of the witnesses against him admitted that they lied, but there were other witnesses, including family members, who saw Williams with some of his victims. 

The claim that the fiber evidence was tainted by the FBI overlooks the fact that the GBI did their own analysis and could map fibers and hairs from William’s environment to 23 of the victims.  Remember as well that Williams was first on their radar when he was caught on a bridge when a splash was heard in the river, and a body was found a mile downriver days later.  He lied about his reason for being out at 2am on that bridge, just as he lied about his music promotion business being a viable entity.     

Much of this series is William’s defense team making the pitch that he is innocent.  Rather than admit they didn’t do a good job, they point of a vast conspiracy by the prosecution against them and their client.  I get it, that’s their job.  Again, evidence contrary to their theories is disregarded or ignored by the producers. 

Williams revels in the role of victim.  He accepts zero responsibility for any of his crimes.  That is maddening and sick.  Did he kill all 29 victims though?  No.  I doubt it. 

Some of the misdirection presented was obvious.  A person claimed a Klan member said he killed one of the victims who had run into his car with a go-cart.  In reality the victim was at a shopping center with a family member at the time of his abduction, left alone for only a few minutes.  There was no go-cart. No witnesses saw a go-cart.  Rather than point that out the producers chose to ignore the inconsistency to plant the seed that this alleged confession was valid.

Material presented said that another victim had been seen with a known pedophile who was named at or near the time of his disappearance.  That is useful information, but we don’t know why that individual was excluded at the time.  I have spent hundreds of hours of my life reading police reports from that era.  Often times in a murder you will get a half-dozen different witnesses who will point out completely different suspects. Investigators run those things down – they want to solve crimes.  We don’t know why investigators cleared this individual – either the case files were incomplete or the producers simply didn’t say. 

In the middle of all of this is the surviving family members.  Some believe Williams is guilty of some of the murders, others believe he is innocent.  They have been told so many things over the years, sometimes by those in authority, some appear unsure what to believe.  One thing they all share however is the anger and frustration that the authorities arbitrarily closed their cases. 

Reopening the cases is good public relations and long overdue with the family members – but it is unlikely to result in new charges or change anyone’s mind in the end.  The seeds of doubt were planted decades ago and even compelling evidence for or against Williams is going to change most people’s minds.

Having said that, this was a good and compelling documentary series.  You are torn emotionally by the stories and the terrible way that the community and victims’ relatives were treated during all of this.  At the same time you get a sense of frustration on the part of the investigators interviewed because most are quite sure they caught the right man.  As much as I have taken shots at the approach of the series, I still recommend it.