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:
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had heard of these crimes but only became truly aware when the serial killer Richard Speck died and a video of him in prison was released. His callous behavior and the fact that he was seemingly enjoying life behind bars appalled me. I read about his heinous crimes, killing eight young nurses in Chicago in 1966, and I was even more appalled.
When this book came up on my feed on Amazon as a suggested read, I picked it up. I wanted to read a definitive account of the crimes and the conviction and was hoping this would provide that. I wanted all of the nuts and bolts detail of what happened that one macabre night when Speck slaughtered eight women, but ignorantly left one alive – one that would, in the end, take him down. There was almost an Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) story there.
I didn’t want to read the older book, Born to Raise Hell, because I had heard that it was one that seemed to favor the perspective of the criminal. As a true crime author, I don’t like the criminals being the focus of true crime books. I know some readers like those…I do not. I wanted not a shred of sorrow for this brutal murderer as I read about the crimes.
This book did not disappoint.
The authors have provided a well-balanced and comprehensive account of the killer, the victims, and a crime that shocked the nation. This is not a light read, which I embraced. I have nothing but respect for these authors. In the pages of Crime of Century, they have recreated the seedy, dingy neighborhoods and characters of 1966 Chicago. They put you back there as the police stalked a spree-killer through grungy bars and flop-houses. They masterfully take you on the journey of the surviving nurse, Corazon Amurao, to eventually take the stand against the man that killed her friends and roommates.
Recreating such an old crime is never easy, but the authors have clearly done their homework. This is one of the better true crime books I have read in recent years and I highly recommend it. Add this one on your Kindle for your late-summer reading. Five stars and kudos to Martin and Kunkle!
This is my fourth in a series of blog posts designed to take readers to the crime scenes related to the Colonial Parkway Murders (1986-1989). Our book, A Special Kind of Evil, covers these serial killings in detail. This material augments what is in the book with my personal observations and experiences in visiting these sites…a glimpse into the journey a true crime author goes on. I ask your indulgence as you join us as authors on these trips.
I made three visits to New Kent County to explore the crime scene where Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer met their untimely fates. Out of all of the crime scenes, this was one that I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding of. Some of it was personal. Some was that so many newspaper accounts seem to think of this pair of murders as separate from the others.
For background: On Labor Day weekend, 1989, the pair were on their way back from a short visit to Amelia County. Daniel and Annamaria were not a couple – they were friends connected by Daniel’s brother. Daniel was moving in with his brother Clinton and Annamaria was Clinton’s girlfriend. She had come back with Daniel to visit her family while he hastily packed. They set off back to Virginia Beach where Clinton and Annamaria lived, heading eastbound on I-64.
The next day Daniel’s Chevy Nova was found in the westbound rest area, parked with the driver’s side window half-down, keys easily accessible and a roach clip with feathers dangling from the window. There was no sign of the couple.
A search was made of the area by the Virginia State Police (VSP) and New Kent County Sheriff’s office, but no trace was found of the pair. The families held out hope that the couple would be found but it would be six weeks later before a group of turkey hunters came across their remains in the woods under an electric blanket that Daniel had packed in the car. They were just over a mile from where the car had been found, a testimony as to how badly the search had been conducted.
Once the bodies had been found the VSP did an outstanding job of processing the crime scene, but a long time had passed. Several clues were found that were important. One was a knife wound on one of Annamaria’s finger bones, proof that this fireball of a young woman put up a fight with her killer. Sadly it was a losing battle. In my mind I always hoped that she inflicted some pain on her assailant before she died. The second important clue, some 50 feet or so from the bodies, Annamaria’s locket with photos of her nephews was found.
While the crime scene was the farthest from the Colonial Parkway, it was a relatively short drive to reach the other crime scenes. Because of the distance from that Parkway, people always question whether it is tied to the others. I don’t. The criminal behavioral specialists from the FBI and the Virginia State Police didn’t either. This killing easily fit the pattern of the others, well, as easily as any of them fit together.
My first visit to the area, I explored the grounds between the rest area (which has been dramatically upgraded since 1989) and where the logging trail still exists where the couple had been found. Even looking at photos of the time, it was pretty evident that they had not been marched out to this spot in the middle of the night. Whoever murdered these two drove them from the eastbound rest area to the first exit, hung a left, drove them to the logging trail and back into the woods. Walking in the darkness that distance through that terrain would have represented a loss of control the killer needed over his victims.
My second visit was after I had stopped in at the West Point, VA, Tidewater newspaper. Their editors kindly allowed me access to their bound archives. I asked the editor there about the sheriff at that time of the murders. Her comment was, “If you want to contact him, swing by the New Kent Sheriff’s office and ask them.” Always trust your small town newspaper editors.
I arrived there and met with the Sheriff in the lobby. It was an awkward meeting, me popping in out of the blue. I told him I was writing a book on the Colonial Parkway Murders. He told me he had been a deputy at the time and had been a first responder at the crime scene. He also declined commenting on the case but agreed to pass on my contact information to the previous Sheriff. I was a little surprised. It’s been 30 years. I know the case is still open, but my questions were not about suspects, but about the crime scene itself. He was very professional, but to the point. I had to remind myself I dropped in on him unannounced.
The sheriff asked if I had been out the crime scene. “No, I was going to swing by there, after I leave here.” He gave me appropriate warning. “Well, that’s private property.” I told him I understood.
When I arrived at the logging road (fully intending to trespass) there was a deputy’s car parked some 50 yards further up the road, lights on. The deputy was standing outside the car and nodded in my direction as I parked along the road. The message was pretty clear to me. One, any venturing in the woods was not happening today. Two, this was a sheriff that knew this county and was pretty protective of his turf. Welcome to small town Virginia. I had been put in my place and I knew it. Message received kemo-sabe.
Then again, it could have been just a coincidence…
I went back with Victoria (my daughter and co-author) a few weeks later, two weeks off from Labor Day, so we could see the trail as it was at that time of the year. We went back into the woods (trespassing – for which we are sorry). We got back about 100 feet or so and Victoria let out of a “whoop!” The sound disappeared into the woods. “This place just absorbs the noise. Even if they called for help, no one would have heard them,” she said. She’s brilliant that way, using all of her senses to take in a crime scene. I like to think I raised her well, despite the fact we were technically breaking the law.
Chief Danny Plott, formerly of the Virginia State Police (now Chief of Police at Colonial Beach) gave me directions to follow during my interview with him. We passed two trail cameras and waved, what else could we do? We reached the spot where the crime scene was. Danny’s and Larry McCann’s interviews with us were incredible helpful since both had been there during the investigation. It was eerie being back this far on unfamiliar ground, surrounded by woods.
Very little had changed here over time. The logging road was a muddy trail leading back into the woods. Turning around would have been very difficult, you had to know where the wide spots were to attempt it and you risked getting stuck if you didn’t have four-wheel drive. When you stand on the logging trail and look back it is striking how similar it is to the Colonial Parkway. Isolated – a tunnel through the trees. Nature blocks avenues of escape. I cannot help but wonder, did the killer(s) pick this spot because it psychologically reminded them of the Parkway? Maybe he or they were trying to recreate their previous experiences.
We stood there a long few minutes and it became pretty clear that the killer knew the ground. This site had been chosen for a reason, not at random. It was isolated and provided natural control. This meant that whoever killed them knew the terrain, knew the area, and had scouted out this particular piece of ground or knew it from experience.
We walked out and at the entrance to the logging trail – on the correct side of the no trespassing signs, we pondered how this crime had unfolded. Testing of Daniel’s car tires didn’t show the dirt that he would have picked up on the logging trail, so the Nova was never out there. That meant that murderer drove them in his vehicle to the scene. The electric blanket was Daniels…so he either brought it with the victims, or as the VSP surmised, he went back for it to cover the bodies. At some point, the killer drove Daniel’s car from the east bound rest area, exiting and re-entering I-64 to abandon it in the west bound area. Then the killer had to get back his own vehicle in order to leave the area.
He left Daniel’s car staged for theft – just like he had with David Knobling’s truck and Keith Call’s Celica. The hanging of the roach clip on the window…the founder of the VSP’s Behavioral Science unit Larry McCann told us that was a taunt to authorities. He was rubbing the VSP’s nose in virtual poo.
This was Labor Day weekend and the highway would have been busy, even late night, between Richmond and Virginia Beach. How is it that no one saw all of this activity? Someone did. They just didn’t realize what they were witnessing at the time…that is the only logical answer.
I wondered about Annamaria’s locket. Danny Plott had told me they surmised that it had been cut off when she had been attacked, but the necklace itself had not been found. Danny’s theory made sense. At the same time I wondered…did the killer leave it there on the trail, perhaps out of guilt? Or did Annamaria deliberately leave it as a breadcrumb so that someone might find them? That locket bothers me to this day. It was separate from the bodies by some 50 feet or so. How it got there and why has awaken me several times from a deep sleep. What does it mean – if anything?
“You know,” Victoria said as we stood there looking back into the forest, “If the police had found those bodies that day, they would have had a lot of evidence. They would have known for sure what killed the pair, they would have had trace evidence – fibers, etc. I mean it was only a mile away. What kind of search did they do?”
“Not a good one,” was all I could reply. I thought back to Rosanna Phelps Martin Sedivy, Annamaria’s sister, one of the first family members I interviewed for the book. She told me how it had rained so hard during that six weeks while her sister’s fate was unknown and how the rain still depressed her to this day. All the while her sister’s remains were a mere mile or so from where Daniel’s car had been found. Rosanna really got to me that day.
Her anguish and pain pushed me through that moment at the foot of the logging trail in New Kent. “The bastard that did this needs to be brought down.”
“And hard,” she added, unconsciously patting the holster of her own CCP (conceal carry permit) sidearm.