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.