Tantamount – Episode 7 – Profiles of the Freeway Phantom

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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. 

A Live PD Bingo Game For Your Quarantine Fun (Some True Crime Fun!)

Being a true crime author I am a huge fan of A&E’s LivePD  Things I learned watching Live PD  I figured since everyone is forced to sit and watch TV this weekend, I would provide you a fun little game to add to your viewing pleasure.

Just like regular Bingo, you want to get five across.  The first one that does, wins.  I’m providing four game boards, but you can easily make your own.  You can come up with your own prizes, be it shots or cookies — whatever floats your boat.  Simply print and cut these out, use pennies, beans, pickles, or whatever to mark your progress.  Good luck!

Feel free to share this and have some fun watching Live PD while stuck in your house!

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True Crime Series Review – HBO’s McMillion$

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Dipped in awesome sauce!

Okay, this isn’t your typical true crime series – there is only one dead body.  This is about the greatest scam in modern times.  It covers the crimes tied to McDonalds’ Monopoly game and that for years, the game was 100% rigged.

You didn’t know?  I remember bits and pieces of this story, but I never knew the entire story.  A friend turned me onto this HBO series and my wife and I got hooked.  The FBI agent who started the ball rolling made it for me.  I wish everyone in the FBI was a gung ho as this guy.  The undercover sting videos were wonderful!

The series begins with a simple tip – that the McDonald’s games are all rigged by someone called “Uncle Jerry.”  It turns out to be much bigger than that.  The mob is involved, as well as multiple Jerry’s.  There’s a questionable death, shady characters, and some remarkably bizarre twists. The spider web of winners and middlemen in all of this is incredible.

You are left, until the last episode, not knowing just how the pieces got stolen and switched out – or who the informant was.  We were shocked on the last episode, which means the producers did it right.

Some of the winners try desperately to paint themselves as victims which I disliked.  All but one, in my opinion, knew exactly what they were doing as part of this criminal conspiracy.  They paid money to middlemen for the winning tickets.  They knew the game was rigged and were cheating not just McDonalds but everyone who played and thought they had a chance of winning.

We were riveted to each episode, so the pacing is good.  I think if you tune into this you will not be disappointed.  It is a top-notch true crime production.  You’re stuck in the house anyway, so use your social distancing time appropriately and watch this series.

Tantamount Podcast Episode Six – The Mysterious Case of Robert Askins – Supplemental Material

Of all of the suspects in the Washington DC serial killings attributed to the Freeway Phantom, none stand out more than Robert Ellwood Askins.  Episode six is dedicated to him and can be accessed via iTune (search for Tantamount) or via the link below:

Tantamount – Episode 6

Obviously I encourage you to follow our podcast and to share it with your friends.

It was hard to find a photograph of Askins after all of these years.  We did track down a lineup photo of him:

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That’s Robert Ellwood Askins, in the middle.  He would later claim he was identified because he was the only one in the lineup that had a shirt tucked in.  In reality, he was one of four that had their shirts that way.  

Askins was involved with multiple murders in his life, but only convicted of one – and that one, the poisoning of Ruth McDonald, was overturned on a technicality.  He spent most of his early life locked up at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC.  That is important in a future episode of the podcast.

Askins died in prison, but we were able to get copies of most of his prison records via a FOIA request.  It includes his psychiatric evaluations.  I have included a few for those of you who want to dive into the nitty-gritty work of a true crime author.

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Review of the True Crime Book – Blood & Money: The Classic True Story of Murder, Passion, and Power by Thomas Thompson

Blood-Money
This is not a book, it is a journey

Okay, this is an older book but I just got around to reading it.  Thomas Thompson did a masterful job of taking me down roads with so many twists and turns that I was unsure of where I was going to end up.  Just when I thought I was on top of what was happening, I was blindsided with a surprise twist.

Set in the 1960’s, this begins with the murder of Joan Robinson Hill.  Adopted child of a rich Houston oil and land tycoon, you are drawn into the story of Ash Robinson, her father, and of her husband, Dr. John Hill.  Honestly, I can’t tell you much more beyond this without ruining the book.  Suffice it to say, halfway through the book, I was stunned with a twist that Hollywood could not have conceived.

Thompson takes us into the lives of unsavory assassins, prostitutes, the rich, and the demented. It is an American story of power, justice, justice-denied, and startling bravery.  I came away drained, knowing more about Houston of the 1960’s than I could have imagined – a mix of Peyton Place and the TV show Dallas.

This book has easily become one of my favorite true crime books and sets a bar in terms of investigative journalism.  I was enthralled with the book, but it took a long time to get there.  This book is a journey and one that is well-worth the trip.  Easily five-out-of-five stars for me.

Tips – One of the Chief Reasons I Write True Crime

Scooby
I am not a police officer nor do I play one on TV.

People ask why I write about cold cases.  The last few weeks brought the issue to the forefront and I thought I’d share.

In the last few weeks I have had two tips come in on two different serial murder cases I have written about.  I get tips at least monthly, if not more often.  They seem to come in batches, which begs some sort of scientific study.  When I get tips I pass them onto the authorities.  I do this because I’m not one of the Scooby Doo Gang out solving mysteries.  The crimes get solved and go to trial when the authorities do their job and investigate.

I don’t share names or even what the tips are with the public so please, don’t ask.  Again, that’s for the investigators to do. You have to remember that with some of these tips, people feel their lives might be in danger. They may be right, it is difficult to say.  While most of the cases my daughter and I write about are old, that doesn’t mean that the killer(s) want it resolved. I protect my sources, but at the same time, if you call me, I will pass on the info to the police.

One tip, I finally heard from, was a dead end.  It is pretty rare that the authorities tell me if it is a good tip or a dud.  It was very nice that they followed up with me.   I think for the person that reached out to me, and her family, it was welcome news.

The other person with a tip not only contacted me but the authorities and it sounded promising…very promising.  Time will tell.

Someone asked if I ever felt I was putting my life at risk.  The short answer is yes.  I am sure that most murderers don’t want attention drawn to their cases…and that’s what we do as writers.  My daughter/co-author and I do take photos of the crowds at our speaking events because there’s a chance that the killer is sitting in the audience.  I’ve even shared some with law enforcement, because you never know…   I have had one person we outted as a suspect show up at a book signing once, though he didn’t have the nerve to come up to us and confront us.  I recently had someone threaten me over the phone.

Remember though, we tend to write about crimes from the 1960’s-1980’s.  That means that a 25+ year old killer then would be in his 60’s now.  So while there are times I am reminded that I could be in danger, I am picturing someone trying to chase me down driving a Rascal or with a walker.

There have been times when cars have parked in front of our house for hours at a time, only to speed off when I approach them.  There have also been some plain white-panel vans with government plates that have parked out there…so I presume the good guys are nearby.

People that cover true crime; authors, podcasters, bloggers, reporters, we all take a calculated risk when we start poking into cases.  It’s not glamorous by a long shot.  Still, we do it because we can help the authorities with new tips and leads that might lead to a conviction.

Review of Netflix’s: The Confession Killer

Lucas
Liar, liar, pants on fire…

This is one of those stories that resonated with me as a true crime writer because I’ve seen it with my own eyes on a case.  More on that later.

The Confession Killer is the story of Henry Lee Lucas, a man that confessed to upwards of 300 (or more) murders in the 1980’s.  He was a killer.  He had murdered his mother and spent time in prison for that crime. Early on in his confessions, he led authorities to the remains of two victims…only their killer could have done that.

The local sheriff and the Texas Rangers had a person in Lucas who was willing to confess to countless crimes, all for a strawberry shake and some cigarettes.  He provided details that only the killers could know, or so it seemed.  Police from all over the country lined up for 20 minute sessions with Lucas where he would confess to crimes in their jurisdictions and allow them to close the cases.  It gave dozens of families closure finally.

Lucas loved the attention and the limelight.  He basked in it. For one time in his life, he had importance.

Then a dogged reporter started actually digging into Lucas and discovered proof that with many of his confessions, Lucas was not able to have committed the crimes – he was in other parts of the country.  The local sheriff and the Rangers ignored the evidence.  I have to say, at first, I thought that the reporter was the real hero of this true crime saga.

If this had been the crux of the story, it would have been a very good documentary.  But wait, there’s more!

A young and determined Waco prosecutor spotted the same errors and opened a grand jury investigation into the Lucas task force.  The Rangers, the FBI, and the IRS were brought to bear on him, framing him for bribery.  Lucas’s information disappeared from law enforcement computers.  A massive cover-up was eventually exposed, complete with law enforcement manipulating the media to go after the prosecutor.

So how did he do it?  Officers fed him information, led him to crime scenes, gave him photographs of crime scenes and pictures of the victims.  Lucas had an uncanny ability to read his audience and give them what they wanted, confessions.  They were able to overlook errors he made, or they even corrected him when he made mistakes.

Henry Lee Lucas played them like a cheap fiddle.

As a sidebar:  My daughter and I witnessed this ourselves when writing The Murder of Maggie Hume. Michael Ronning had confessed to her murder but it was, most likely a false confession.  We watched videos of them taking Ronning to crime scenes and it was eerily similar to what Lucas did.  When officers took him out to another murder site that he claimed credit for (Patricia Rosansky) along the river, Ronning didn’t point out the area where they should turn off.  One officer we heard on the tape said, “Michael, doesn’t that area over there look familiar to you?” as he pointed to it. Another officer off camera can be heard saying, “Damn it Denny, why don’t you just get out and show him where the body was?”

There are officers that swear to this day that Ronning’s confessions were solid, despite errors that cannot be overlooked.  Why?  Because they want Ronning to be a serial killer, they wanted to be the officers that closed cases involving such a murderer. That notoriety, of being involved with a serial killer is like winning the Super Bowl for law enforcement.

Which is how Henry Lee Lucas played authorities.

I really enjoyed this short series by Netflix.  A solid five out of five stars, perfect for your winter binge watching needs.

Review of The Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez on Netflix

hernandez

I know this will stun some folks but I don’t watch football.  It’s just not my thing.  What I knew about this case was limited.  New England Patriot’s player Aaron Hernandez, a man at the top of his game professionally, had been convicted of murder then had hanged himself.  That was what I knew going into this mini-series on Netflix.

The series is very good and well produced.  There’s some hopping around that takes place but they make great use of a timeline to help you keep track of what is happening.  What emerges is a very complex story.  It is a strange cocktail of sorts to watch.  Hernandez apparently, from what was shown, was gay, which may have led to some emotional conflict in his life.  He had a drug problem in that he vigorously chain-smoked marijuana.  Anyone saying that pot smoking is harmless needs to see it in the context of the person doing the smoking – and in this case, Hernandez lived his later years high.  He is portrayed as a young man that had a strained relationship with his mother.  Hernandez surrounded himself with horrible people which led to not just one murder, but several.  His family members covered up for him, which in the end, only made matters worse.

You get a story that is purely American with some almost neo-gothic twists.  The New England Patriots tried to fill a void in his life in terms of discipline, but failed miserably.  They knew he was emotionally immature, but he became immersed in a lifestyle that allowed him whatever he wanted.  There were no boundaries with him, and that led to a spectacular downfall.

Was he the victim of repeated concussions?  Certainly that case is made at the end of the series, but you realize that even with his head trauma, there was something else at play…a lack of moral compass or control. When I was done watching it I felt that his downfall was inevitable and was destined to be spectacular.  Hernandez is an American tragedy and one we have not learned from.  You are left wondering how many others are out there just like him.

It is notable that his wife and family didn’t take part in the series, nor did the Patriots.  So you are left wondering if there was even more to this story that we have yet to see.

Overall, I give this four out of five stars.  Good true crime.  I’m sure football fans will rate it much higher.

 

Tantamount Podcast Episode Five -The Green Vega Gang – Supplemental Material

This material supplements episode 5 of our podcast on the Washington DC serial killer, the Freeway Phantom.  Please follow us on Spotify, Podbean, iTunes, etc.

Podbean – Tantamount – Episode 5

The focus of the Freeway Phantom investigators shifted to the members of a serial-rape gang in Washington DC.  The gang operated in the same neighborhoods as the Freeway Phantom at the same time.

Gray
Melvin Gray.  Postal worker and member of the Green Vega Gang, he confessed to two of the Freeway Phantom murders but his confession was a work of fiction

Brooks
Paul Brooks, member of the Green Vega Gang – responsible for possibly hundreds of gang rapes in the District of Columbia

 

Warren
Morris “Fatsy” Warren.  His confessions into the involvement of the Green Vega Gang in the Freeway Phantom murders spurred the largest criminal task force in the city’s history up to that point.  Later he recanted all involvement with the crimes.