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:
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:
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.
This material augments the information provided in the podcast Tantamount about Washington DC’s serial killer, The Freeway Phantom. Obviously we encourage you to listen to the episode. Here’s a link to this episode: Tantamount Catch me if you can!
The Freeway Phantom finishes his murder spree with the deaths of Brenda Woodard, Diane Williams, and, we learn, Teara Ann Bryant. The FBI and some officers who worked the case believe Teara was part of the Freeway Phantom’s list of victims, while the Washington MPD and Prince George’s County Police do not. If not, the question remains, who killed Teara Ann Bryant?
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the final killings was the note left on the body of Brenda Woodard. Written in her own hand, at the order of his killer, the Freeway Phantom used the note to taunt authorities.
The murders stop with the death of Ms. Bryant…leaving us all to wonder why? Was the killer jailed, dead, or had he moved on?
In our podcast on the Washington DC serial killer, the Freeway Phantom, we dive into the victims. I wanted to provide listeners with some additional material to augment the podcast.
One of the more disturbing mishandlings of cases is that of Darlenia Johnson. Her remains spotted by a motorist along I-295, just 15 feet from where Carol Spinks had been found, but the police didn’t recover her for over a week. Officers were dispatched, but they drove by, not seeing her, rather than get out of their car. She remained unattended in the hot July sun for days.
Brenda Faye Crockett stands out because the Phantom allowed her to call home while she was his prisoner…twice. Both times she claimed that a white man had driven her to Virginia and would send her home in a taxi. On the second call, she asked if her mother saw her. This is important. Was the Phantom worried that he had been seen with her in his vehicle? Did personally know Mrs. Crockett and was afraid that she was sending police after him?
Clearly the references to a “white man” and “Virginia” were deception. No serial killer would allow his victim to give out actual useful clues to the family and authorities. If anything, this should have helped investigators narrow their search to not include white suspects or residents in Virginia. But at the time, the concept of a serial killer was unknown. You had repeat offenders, but the phrase “serial killer” was years away from these crimes.
Nenomoshia Yates was only 12 years old when she was abducted, raped, and strangled by the killer. She was found the day after her abduction on Route 50 in Prince George’s County Maryland. She was just 3/10’s of a mile over the border from the District of Columbia. So had the killer put here there to muddy the investigation by bringing in another agency? Why not leave her along I-295 as he had his other victims? What was so different with her or the road that night that compelled him to leave her elsewhere?
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.
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!
Between 1971 and 1972 a serial killer stalked Washington DC. Dubbed “The Freeway Phantom” he killed up to seven victims, perhaps more. All were young girls between the ages of 10 and 18; strangled and in one case stabbed, all sexually assaulted. The murders most likely stopped in 1972, but the quest to bring this killer to justice did not stop.
What I like about writing true crime is that I have to learn things. When we dove into the Freeway Phantom case for our book, Tantamount, there were two hurdles I had to jump. One was forensic linguistics – which we were helped by none other hand Jim Fitzgerald, the guy that was behind the apprehension of the Unabomber. The other was geographic profiling.
Geographic profiling can be complicated…mostly because of the math involved. I actually purchased the textbook written by the person that did the profiling for the Freeway Phantom case so that I could become at least fluent when I wrote about it.
It is a fascinating field of study but it is math-based, so I had to reacquaint myself with algebra. See kids, it DOES get used when you are an adult…in my case it simply took five decades.
I prefer to keep things simple. So think of it this way. Most serial killers have anchor points in their lives. These are places where they lure in their victims, where they live, where they work, or where they have a strong and meaningful attachment. Anchor points are important geographic places for a killer.
A “typical” serial killer will not operate (intercept his victims, dump their bodies, etc.) where he is known. That neighborhood is familiar to him, but there’s too high of a risk of him being seen and identified. This creates a zone or bubble where the killer will not conduct his nefarious affairs.
Outside of that is the typical hunting zone. Here the killer has a strong familiarity with the area, but is less likely to be identified. He knows the neighborhood, but is not well-known there. He knows the streets, the escape routes, etc., but doesn’t live there.
Outside of that sphere is where the killer is not familiar with the geography nor is he known there. Chances are he will not operate there. There is too much risk involved for him there.
Geographic profiling crunches in all of the data about a serial killer. In the case of the Freeway Phantom, it looks at where the victims lived, where they were last seen (their abduction areas) and where their bodies are dumped. Then the algebra happens. Traffic patterns, maps, key terrain features, population density are all crunched.
What emerges is the anchor point for the killer – that one special place for them, a place of significance. Often times it is their home, or where they do their heinous acts.
When the geographic profile was prepared for the Freeway Phantom the model came up with the killer’s anchor point – St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in Washington DC.
This was where the killer had a strong connection. He may have been a doctor there, or, more likely, a patient. For him, St. E’s (as it is known locally) was a place he knew well. It was an important part of his life. The Freeway Phantom may have beaten the investigators, but you can’t beat the math. For the killer, St. Elizabeths was a vital part of his life, either before or during the murder spree.
It makes perfect sense when you look at the murders in retrospect. Two of the victims were left along I-295, right at the edge of St. Elizabeths grounds. Another was less than a half mile away from the mental hospital.
Like any profile, you can’t exclude suspects because they don’t fit it, but it does give you a very strong indication of where investigators can focus their efforts. Unfortunately, the profile didn’t exist during the initial investigations, but decades later.
Several suspects had ties to St. E’s, the strongest being Robert Ellwood Askins, who lived there for decades – committed to the hospital for committing murder. Considered one of the prime suspects for these murders, Askins died in prison a few years back. Of all of the key suspects, Askins was the only one that spent years at St. Elizabeths, sent there for murder of young women. More on him in another post.
Today, St. E’s is crumbling one building at a time. Even now, it is eerie, the iron bars on the windows no longer hold occupants. The crises that must have echoed the hallways are now filled with the flutter of pigeons or the scurry of rats. The Department of Homeland Security expressed interest in the land and the rumble of demolition equipment during the daytime hours echoes between the tile-roofed buildings. Chain-link fence surrounds the complex, no longer aimed at keeping patients in, now it is in place to keep homeless people out.
Victoria and I spent today with two different TV stations in Washington DC discussing the 1971/72 Freeway Phantom serial killer. We appreciate any and all coverage that local media can bring to the case.
We also spent some time with WUSA 9 today…more on that piece in the next couple of weeks.