Kicking off our True Crime Podcast – Tantamount: Season One, Episode One

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So this is the start of our first season of Tantamount – a true crime podcast about our most recent book on the Washington DC Freeway Phantom serial killer.

Here’s some of the links to get to it:

Podbean

Spotify

Coming soon to iTune Podcasts

Victoria, my daughter and co-author, and I have been wanting to get into podcasting for a while.  It seemed a perfect fit with the new book coming out.  I didn’t want to do a short one-shot podcast, but one that allowed us to go beyond the book and really dive into this serial killing spree.

When we write a book, we focus on the facts.  Our goal is to present information, not shove our opinions on the reader.  The podcast lets us talk about what we think and feel, things that wouldn’t play well in a book.

There were some parameters for this effort we felt were important:

  • The podcast had to stand on its own.  You didn’t have to buy or read the book to follow it.
  • We wanted it to be the first of a series.  So season one is on the Freeway Phantom.  We have plans for future seasons that will dive into other cases…some we’ve written about, some that we just are intrigued with.
  • It had to be as professional as we could produce on our own.
  • We wouldn’t launch it unless we had at least two episodes in the queue.  Episode #2 will pop sometime in the next few days.
  • We wanted some links to this blog where we could post some things we didn’t put in the book directly – some source material for those that wanted to explore more about the episode.
  • This first episode is about why we undertook this book, investing two years of our lives into the case. I would love to tell you there is some magical formula we use to determine if we are digging into a crime, but in reality, a lot of it is gut-check-level stuff.

We also start with the first victim – Carol Spinks.  I’ve included copies of her police report here.  It gives you an idea of what our starting point was for this – which wasn’t much.

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Carol Spinks – The First Victim

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I am not an audio editor or expert in podcasting. I spent more time editing than anything else. It is a great learning curve for both Victoria and me.  Please be gentle with your comments.

For my BattleTech fans, yes, I want to do something in that space and have started scripting out my first episode – on Snord’s Irregulars.  So far the working titles include:  Old Fart’s BattleTech, Ammo Dump, and All Systems Not Nominal.

So, please subscribe and share our podcast and if you want more information, get out book!

Epicenter of Evil – St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington DC – The Freeway Phantom

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My co-author and daughter, Victoria Hester, looking at St. Elizabeths through the fence

Between 1971 and 1972 a serial killer stalked Washington DC.  Dubbed “The Freeway Phantom” he killed up to seven victims, perhaps more.  All were young girls between the ages of 10 and 18; strangled and in one case stabbed, all sexually assaulted.  The murders most likely stopped in 1972, but the quest to bring this killer to justice did not stop.

What I like about writing true crime is that I have to learn things.  When we dove into the Freeway Phantom case for our book, Tantamount, there were two hurdles I had to jump.  One was forensic linguistics – which we were helped by none other hand Jim Fitzgerald, the guy that was behind the apprehension of the Unabomber.  The other was geographic profiling.

Geographic profiling can be complicated…mostly because of the math involved.  I actually purchased the textbook written by the person that did the profiling for the Freeway Phantom case so that I could become at least fluent when I wrote about it.

It is a fascinating field of study but it is math-based, so I had to reacquaint myself with algebra.  See kids, it DOES get used when you are an adult…in my case it simply took five decades.

I prefer to keep things simple.  So think of it this way.  Most serial killers have anchor points in their lives.  These are places where they lure in their victims, where they live, where they work, or where they have a strong and meaningful attachment. Anchor points are important geographic places for a killer.

A “typical” serial killer will not operate (intercept his victims, dump their bodies, etc.) where he is known.  That neighborhood is familiar to him, but there’s too high of a risk of him being seen and identified. This creates a zone or bubble where the killer will not conduct his nefarious affairs.

Outside of that is the typical hunting zone.  Here the killer has a strong familiarity with the area, but is less likely to be identified.  He knows the neighborhood, but is not well-known there.  He knows the streets, the escape routes, etc., but doesn’t live there.

Outside of that sphere is where the killer is not familiar with the geography nor is he known there.  Chances are he will not operate there.  There is too much risk involved for him there.

Geographic profiling crunches in all of the data about a serial killer.  In the case of the Freeway Phantom, it looks at where the victims lived, where they were last seen (their abduction areas) and where their bodies are dumped.  Then the algebra happens.  Traffic patterns, maps, key terrain features, population density are all crunched.

What emerges is the anchor point for the killer – that one special place for them, a place of significance.  Often times it is their home, or where they do their heinous acts.

When the geographic profile was prepared for the Freeway Phantom the model came up with the killer’s anchor point – St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in Washington DC.

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The results of the geographic profile, from a 2006 confidental police report

This was where the killer had a strong connection.  He may have been a doctor there, or, more likely, a patient.  For him, St. E’s (as it is known locally) was a place he knew well.  It was an important part of his life.  The Freeway Phantom may have beaten the investigators, but you can’t beat the math.  For the killer, St. Elizabeths was a vital part of his life, either before or during the murder spree.

It makes perfect sense when you look at the murders in retrospect.  Two of the victims were left along I-295, right at the edge of St. Elizabeths grounds.  Another was less than a half mile away from the mental hospital.

Like any profile, you can’t exclude suspects because they don’t fit it, but it does give you a very strong indication of where investigators can focus their efforts.  Unfortunately, the profile didn’t exist during the initial investigations, but decades later.

Several suspects had ties to St. E’s, the strongest being Robert Ellwood Askins, who lived there for decades – committed to the hospital for committing murder. Considered one of the prime suspects for these murders, Askins died in prison a few years back.  Of all of the key suspects, Askins was the only one that spent years at St. Elizabeths, sent there for murder of young women.  More on him in another post.

Today, St. E’s is crumbling one building at a time. Even now, it is eerie, the iron bars on the windows no longer hold occupants.  The crises that must have echoed the hallways are now filled with the flutter of pigeons or the scurry of rats.  The Department of Homeland Security expressed interest in the land and the rumble of demolition equipment during the daytime hours echoes between the tile-roofed buildings.  Chain-link fence surrounds the complex, no longer aimed at keeping patients in, now it is in place to keep homeless people out.

St. E’s as it looks today…still creepy 

Want to dive deeper into this serial killing spree?  Check out our book, Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer.  

Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer, is now available

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There is a strange sense of relief for an author when a new book is released.  This book is no different.  There will be pundits and critics, there always are.  I’m also fairly sure that the Washington Metropolitan Police and the Prince George’s County Police are not going to be elated.  We are releasing a lot of new information on this string of serial murders.  I anticipate them complaining about the book (if they say anything at all.)  We tried to work with them, to speak with investigators, to confirm sources, to let them know what material we had…but were stonewalled or outright ignored. The Washington MPD and mayor’s office spent more resources telling us why they refused to work with us than it would have taken them to actually cooperate.  They have good reasons to cover things up, which we will present in detail in the book.  There may be cries that this muddies their ability to investigate and prosecute the cases.

To which, I cry, “Bullshit.”

The Freeway Phantom cases have been open since 1971.  Trust me when I say our book does not impede the speedy investigation of these cases.  For almost 600 days the Freeway Phantom struck at the nation’s capital, stalking, kidnapping, raping, and murdering young girls aged between 10 and 18 years old.  He taunted authorities working the cases.  As mysteriously as he started, the Phantom stopped.

Or did he?

There’s some serious questions about other cases that occurred in the same neighborhoods that may be linked to the Freeway Phantom.  It is one of the things we pry open in Tantamount.  Some other items you will find made public for the first time:

  • A detailed exploration of the Green Vega Gang, some of whose members confessed to these crimes.
  • Dissecting key suspects never made public before, including an in-depth investigation of one of the prime suspects, Robert Askins.
  • Details about the crimes that have never been made public before, including a bizarre pattern of how the killer bathed his victims.
  • A listing of other possible related victims – including those that might have gotten away from the killer.
  • The confidential FBI profile of the killer.
  • New analysis by renowned FBI expert on linguistic forensics, Jim Fitzgerald, of Unabomber fame, of the note left by the killer on one of his victims.

We look forward to you joining us on this journey as we delve into the Freeway Phantom crimes.  Who knows, maybe one of you holds the secret to identifying this mysterious killer.

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Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer Available for Pre-Sale

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I write true crime books with my daughter Victoria.  Needless to say, we are not your typical father-daughter in terms of hobbies we share.  It’s complicated and cool both at the same time.

We are pleased to say that our most recent book, Tanatmount, The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer, is available for pre-order in Kindle format.  The paperback will be available around the time the Kindle version releases.  Tantmount Pre-Order

We have been working on this for a year and a half, if not longer.  I want to say that this is the story of the deaths of seven young girls in Washington DC in 1971-72 and the arrest and conviction of the killer.  That isn’t the case.  This serial murder string is unsolved.  If you are looking for a trial and conviction, this isn’t a book for you.  This is about the pursuit of the murderers, following the investigation and where it went both right and horribly wrong.  (Previous Post on Tantamount)

There are a lot of urban myths and legends, some perpetuated by law enforcement, regarding the Freeway Phantom.  My co-author and I tackle these head-on.  We give you the suspects, how they ended up on that list, etc.  We go down the rabbit holes and come back up again. This is a book about horrific crimes and how investigators struggled to balance giving the families closure and making sure they got the right person.

We reveal new facts, new evidence, new details, that have never been made public before about these murders.  Even if you think you know things about this case, we reveal more.  One investigator we interviewed read the draft manuscript and said, “There’s things in here I didn’t know.”  That is the highest praise we can get as investigative journalists/authors.

We encourage you to order the book – and we encourage you to read the information and form your own conclusions about this incredible serial murder spree.  Follow this blog for more information on these crimes…

Review of Mindhunter Season Two on Netflix

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One of the cooler scenes this season 

When we left off in season one, Agent Holden was having a panic/anxiety attack.  It was a compelling cliffhanger, that much was for sure.  What we saw was how much the serial killers he was interviewing had managed to get into his head.

Season two picks up soon thereafter.  The cause of Holden’s second anxiety incident is a stunner that made the entire episode for me. Where the first season focused on Holden, this was more about Agent Tench and the issues he is facing. The shift of character was a good one and artfully executed.  Bill has problems, his son becomes entangled in the murder of a young boy, a crime that tears at his family past the point of breaking.

Things have changed for the entire team.  Their boss was fired and replaced with someone that solidly backs the unit and sees the value of it.  Intertwined in this is their ongoing interviews with serial killers, the BTK case, and the case that makes the unit finally accepted – The Atlanta Child Killer.

The beginning of most of the episodes drops little hints of a serial killer, BTK.  The unit is digging into this case but getting nowhere.  That’s okay, we all know it will take years to bring this one to conclusion.

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We haven’t seen the end of this…

The character that is shorted in this is Dr. Wendy Carr.  We explore her lifestyle and the conflicts she has between what people say and what is real.  Unfortunately the way this season is structured, we miss the chemistry of the three main characters throughout.  While Holden and Tench are working the Atlanta Child Killer cases, she is more or less sidelined.

For me, there were two serial killer interviews that popped.  One was with the Son of Sam, the other was with Charles Manson.  I don’t ruin this for you, but they are not only well written, but excellently cast.  The Berkowitz character comes across as so close to reality, you wonder if they are interviewing the real killer.  Manson comes across as very authentic to interviews I’ve seen.  Kudos to the folks in casting.

There was a lot of accuracy to the entire Atlanta Child Killer case which was both disturbing and compelling. It does not portray the Atlanta PD in a positive light.

What makes this series sizzle for me is the settings and props from the early 1980’s.  As someone who lived in that era, it is pretty dead-on accurate.

I enjoyed this season a great deal, but miss the trio of key characters working together.  Now we have to wait for Netflix to get around to working on season three.  A solid five out of five stars.

Review of The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert Massie

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When I was a kid my mom took me to see the movie Nicholas and Alexandra at the Bijou Theater in Battle Creek, MI.  She knew my love of history and the story fascinated her, especially Rasputin and Anastasia.  At the end of the movie she covered my eyes when the royal family was shot.  For some reason that has always stuck in my head.

Robert Massie is, well, a giant in terms of historical writers.  I actually wore out my copy of Castles of Steel, it is that good. This book falls somewhere between a history book and a true crime saga.  After all, the Romanov family was never tried for crimes, they were brutally murdered.  When I saw this book on my Amazon feed, I knew I had to pick it up.

It starts with the crime itself, which pulls you in.  The strange, if not bizarre treatment of the bodies was compelling as well.  Massie is masterful at giving you the historical context that is do desperately needed to understand the events.

Slowly what emerges is how the bodies were eventually found and recovered, and the impact of the Cold War and petty academics that played a part in identifying the remains.  This was a story that the public knew very little about.

Suddenly the book takes a hard turn into the rumors of the survivors, namely Anastasia.  I was surprised to learn that one woman claiming to be the princess lived out her years near me, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The courtroom battles over her DNA were long, but entirely necessary.  Having read Massie’s other books, I knew that he was taking me as a reader on a long journey – and that parts of it were convoluted.  I was surprised that there were so many members of the Romanov family that were spared the violence of the Red Revolution.

As a true crime book, this is pretty intriguing to read but you may find the parts on “Anastasia” lacking, since it feels her only crime was lying about who she was.  As a history book, it is outstanding.  This book is solidly researched and well worth picking up.  Five out of five stars.

Now I need to go to the Netflix series, The Last Czars.  Curse you Robert Massie – you are making me explore this more.

The 30th Anniversary of the Last of the Colonial Parkway Murders

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The roach clip hanging in Daniel Lauer’s car

As a cold case true crime author you become emotionally invested in your work.  If you are going to do your job right, you have it.  Sometimes that connection is with investigators, other times it is with family members of the victims. You have no control over where those connections are going to come from, in many respects, you are along for the ride.

The first interview we did for the book was with Larry McCann, the Virginia State Police profiler who worked the case.  Victoria and I needed the big picture, a strategic perspective.  Larry was the guy to do that for us.  Larry taught me more about criminal profiling in four hours than I got from three textbooks on the subject.

Next came my interview with the brother and sister of Annamaria Phelps.  It was deeply moving, though I did my best to keep my poker face on.  The love and frustrations they had been forced to endure and lose was incredible.  They felt that the system had failed them…and it had.  The killer of their beloved sister has not been brought to justice yet.  Over the years they have been emotionally jerked around by investigators who flip-flopped on whether their sister’s case was tied to the Colonial Parkway Murders or not.  Despite tantalizing leads, there has not been an arrest.  For them, it tore them apart internally and brought them together spiritually.

If you think I didn’t get in the car after our interview and break down…you would be wrong.

The case is baffling and more complicated than it appears on the surface.  Labor Day weekend, 1989, Daniel Lauer went to visit his brother Clinton and Clinton’s girlfriend, Annamaria Phelps, at Virginia Beach.  He brought along three passengers, Joe Godsey, his wife, and their young daughter.  It promised to be a weekend of partying.  Unfortunately, it got out of hand – resulting in a large scale riot.

At the end of the weekend, Daniel had decided to move in with his brother and Annamaria.  The plan on that Sunday night was to drive back to their home in Amelia County, Virginia.  He would drop off the Godsey’s, grab his stuff, get paid by his father, then drive back.  Annamaria decided to come along.  Daniel would drop her off with her parents while he packed, then would pick her up and together they would drive back to join Clinton.

Everything seemed to go as planned. Annamaria saw her folks and Daniel picked her up for the drive back.  The last place they were seen by witnesses was in the east-bound rest area on I-64 in New Kent County.

The next morning, Daniel’s car was found in the west-bound rest area on the merge ramp, abandoned.  The glove box was opened and a roach clip hung from the driver’s side window which was partially lowered.  The keys were in the vehicle, as if someone was staging the car for theft.

Authorities mounted a search but found nothing.  It would be six weeks later when their bodies were found by turkey hunters just a mile from where Daniel’s car had been found.  It would take experts from the Smithsonian to help the Virginia State Police to try and piece together what happened.  All they could say for sure is that Annamaria had been cut by a knife on one of her fingers.  There was no way to ascertain the cause of death.  All we know for sure is that Annamaria fought with her killer that night.

I’ve been to the site a few times and it remains pretty much as it looked back then.  Visiting the Crime Scene In talking with investigators that were on the scene at the time, we are convinced of one thing – the killer had stalked the site out in advance, or at least had familiarity with it.  Otherwise getting back there and out again would have been a challenge.

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The logging road.  The victims were found just off it, just around the bend to the left. 

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of their deaths.  When you write true crime, the key dates stick with you.  I cringe in August because it marks the bombing/murder in Marshall I wrote about and the murder of Maggie Hume in Battle Creek, MI.  January always makes me think of Daisy Zick and her death.  Labor Day, that is reserved for Annamaria and Daniel.  In my mind I replay everything.  How did their car end up on the other side of the highway? Why did the killer target them?  What happened in those dark woods?  What clues were lost because the police did not do an effective search?  Why did the killer stop after this pair of victims?  How did the killer get control of them?  Why didn’t someone see something on that holiday weekend?

We have new techniques and technologies that can help crack the cases…but is time running out?  No.  I don’t believe that, not for an instant.  The moment you go down that road, you only find despair.

Even today, when I drive to Williamsburg I make myself stop at the refurbished rest area – the last place they were seen.  I take a minute or two and look around and think of what happened thirty years ago at that site.  A great deal has changed, but not the mystery, and not the sense that more could and should have been done at the time.

It’s the 50th Anniversary of Manson’s Start of Helter Skelter

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Pure evil

It is hard to believe that five decades have come and gone.  It was on August 9, 1969 that Sharon Tate and her guests were brutally killed.  These were not the first murders done by Charles Manson’s “Family,” nor would they be the last.  In many respects, we are still grappling with these crimes.

In a summer filled with turmoil in our nation, these horrific killings stood out.  The hippie culture of love and peace which had brought protests to many college campuses had taken a dark turn.  The media, for the first time in the TV era, had a true crime unfold that captivated the world.  The excellent book, Helter Skelter, hooked myself and millions of others into this emerging genre.  The television coverage of the Manson trial laid the foundation for OJ Simpson, ID Discovery, and Oxygen to follow.

Going over these crimes is pointless – we all know the terrible details.  We saw what twisted insanity looks like in the guise of Manson and his girls.  Together, they killed the hippie-era.  Gone was the thin veneer that we would somehow emerge from the 1960’s with our innocence intact. The killings in Los Angeles made the entire nation fearful.

The surviving murderers are old women now.  Every now and then one is up for parole and each time it is pushed back.  I fully support this.  I don’t care that these women have been model prisoners or have found God, or anything else.  Nothing can bring the family members back their loved ones.  Their trial put the survivors through a televised living hell and America was shown a true face of evil in Charles Manson and his Family.  The brutality of their crimes, whether it was under the influence of a madman or drugs, has no excuse.  I realize that comes across as harsh, but when you write true crime you tend to have seen the darker side of humanity and do not wish for evil to be free.  Let them die in prison, never again experiencing the freedom their victims had torn from them.

 

 

Review of the True Crime Podcast – Man in the Window

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I am not a huge podcast follower when it comes to true crime.  When I do listen, I put one on in the background when I write.  There is a lot of people competing in the true crime space for podcast time.  Some don’t resonate with me well.  I don’t like the ones that joke a great deal.  I get it, you want to stand out and lighten the mood.  To me, it feels disrespectful.  Same for the drinking and true crime podcasts.  I never got into the concept you could pair a wine with a crime…but that is a matter of personal preference on my part.

We drove to Michigan this week to visit family and my wife asked me to play some true crime podcasts on the trip.  This was high on my list and I was not let down.

Man in the Window is gripping.  One, it was done by a writer for the LA Times who has dived deep into the Golden State Killer case.  This podcast really grabs you with a mix of interview snippets and a compelling story.  It is professionally produced, top-notch stuff.  At the same time, the most gripping part is not the production – it is that it provides us all with an in-depth view of the Joseph DeAngelo, the accused Golden State Killer.

Accused is a light word here, a formality.  It is hard to dodge multiple DNA hits.  He totally did it.  But what we have never gotten is “why.”  This podcast gets us much closer to that answer, delving into his background.  The interview with his former girlfriend is creepy, and weird, and the kind of stuff you can’t pause.

This is good investigative journalism colliding with social media to produce a wonderful and sufficiently eerie experience.   I highly recommend this podcast to any true crime aficionado.  An easy five out of five stars.