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

 

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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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.  

 

Tantamount Podcast Episode Three Supplemental Material

Master Map

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! 

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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?

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Where Brenda’s Body was found

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Brenda’s wig, tossed there by the killer

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.

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The note left by the killer on Brenda’s body

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Diane Williams

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Brenda Woodard 

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Teara Ann Bryant – Our research shows that she too was a victim of the Freeway Phantom

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?

If you want to know more, subscribe to our podcast or read our book:  Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer.

Podcast Tantamount Episode Two Supplemental Material – Body Count

 

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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.

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Darlenia Johnson

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.

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Brenda Crockett.  Her two phone calls home were clearly out of fear on the part of the Phantom.

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?

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Young Miss Yates.  

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The road where Nenomoshia Yates was found

For those of you that want to know more, you can buy our book Tantamount or you can follow our podcast on Podbean, Spotify, and iTunes.   Episode 2 – Body Count

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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