Tantamount – Episode 7 – Profiles of the Freeway Phantom

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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.

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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
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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 – 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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Our next book – Tantamount – The Washington DC Freeway Phantom Serial Killer

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The time has finally come to tell folks what my daughter Victoria Hester and I have been working on.  Our next true crime book is about the Freeway Phantom serial killing spree, 1971-72.  We have been working for over a year and a half on the book, gathering research materials, interviewing investigators, etc.

We have both been heads-down writing and are nearing the completion of the first draft.

For those of you not familiar with the Freeway Phantom, he struck in Washington DC’s Southeast neighborhoods (primarily) in the early 1970’s.  Depending on the list you use, he killed between six and eight young girls, sexually assaulting then strangling them.  On one, he had the victim write a note that was left with her body – taunting the authorities to “Catch me if you can.”  The book title comes from a key word in the note he had his victim write.

Was the murderer cunning and crafty, or damned lucky?  Why did he stop…or did he?  Were there other victims?  Who were the suspects, and why?  We have been able to really pry this case wide open in some areas – providing more facts than the public has known before.

This book will be different than our last book, A Special Kind of Evil, in several ways.  Our last book focused heavily on the victims and their stories.  With Tantamount, we are focusing more on the investigation.  Our efforts to contact the family members have, understandably, been either disregarded or in some cases, outright rejected.  These folks have had nearly fifty years of reporters dredging their painful losses up – and we respect that.  On top of that, the victims were very young, making it difficult to write a great deal about them.

It is a different style of book, as a result…a little grittier, with some real insights as to how and why the case became so cold.

My co-author/daughter Victoria and I have been immersed in this for a while now.  Even how we split the book up is different this time around.  I’m not sure which one of us had the harder job. There are nights when I am done that I feel physically and mentally exhausted. Serial murders are like that.

We are quite excited about the book. For us, it is a chance to thaw some cold cases…bring them to the light of day and expose new information, facts, and details that might bring in new tips for the authorities.  Our books on cold cases have always succeeded in that in the past, and we’re confident this one will as well. Though with this one the solvability gets harder each passing day.

In some instances we have struggled to get information – where in other areas, we almost have too much data.  I’ve corresponded with prisoners, which is interesting and weird at times.  Victoria and I have been all over Washington DC meeting with former detectives who themselves are still on the case.  From a local bar on Pennsylvania Ave to hours at the DC Superior Court, we’ve been finding information in the most interesting of places.

The book will present reams of new data about the cases that has never been made public before.  We have learned a lot about not only the key suspects, but how the case went off the rails and has remained cold all of these decades.  We have been stonewalled by the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department on numerous fronts.  Still, I think we have prevailed and have been successful in crafting a meaningful story out of these murders.

Something else we will be doing differently with Tantamount is that we will be doing a podcast about the Freeway Phantom that will coincide with the book.  We’ll be talking not only about the case, but about writing about the book as well.  It will be an insider’s look into the Freeway Phantom cases and is likely to include some details we couldn’t confirm or include in the book.  Think of this as a companion.  We’re new to producing a podcast, so we ask you to be patient with us.  Our goal is simple – get this right and get it with a high quality.

Don’t worry, we will still be talking to other podcasters out there too.  The true crime community is tight knit.  Several podcasters out there encouraged us to take this step to go out on our own.

Wild Blue Press is going to be the publisher.  We liked what they did with A Special Kind of Evil and you tend to stick with a winning combination.

So there you have it…another serial killing case near our homes and hearts.