I worked cold cases as a TV producer for America’s Most Wanted, and, like my counterparts in law enforcement, I am haunted by those cases that never got solved. This is the first in a series of cold cases, missing persons, and occasional fugitive cases I’d like to throw out for discussion with the Law Officer Connect member with the hopes of developing new leads for the investigating agency.
In a neighborhood behind the U.S. Capitol, away from crowds of unsuspecting tourists, a serial killer emerged from the shadows of Southeast Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1971. It started on an ordinary Sunday evening, when Carol Spinks, an outgoing 13-year-old, disappeared on her way home from the store. Her body was discovered six days later, lying fully clothed on an embankment near busy Interstate 295. She had been raped and strangled.
Three months later, 16-year old Darlenia Johnson, a high school senior, disappeared on her way to a summer job. She was found dead, a mere 15 feet from where Carol’s body had been discarded. Even though Darlenia’s death bore a strong resemblance to Carol’s, it would take two more victims before police realized they had a sadistic killer in their midst.
For 16 months, Washington, D.C., lived in the grip of fear. By the fall of 1972, six girls, ages 10 to 18, were strangled; their bodies strewn like garbage near busy highways in the District or nearby Maryland. Some had been kept alive for only a few hours, others for a few days. They were all girls of African American heritage, all living in, or near, the S.E. quadrant of Washington. Three lived a short distance from each other, three strangely shared the middle name, Denise, and all six had green synthetic carpet fibers recovered from their bodies. Five had been raped, and semen was recovered. The sixth was too decomposed to provide any viable evidence. All the victims were found fully clothed, and the first three were missing their shoes.
Homicide investigators at the time believed the murders were linked, but the girls chosen at random. All six of the victims were last seen on a public street, going to or coming from the store, their school, their workplace, or the bus stop. Despite being dumped near a heavily trafficked area, not one eyewitness came forward to say they had seen anything out of the ordinary. The media dubbed the killer “The Freeway Phantom,” and by the fall of 1971 the largest manhunt in the nation’s capital was launched for this unknown menace.
With each victim claimed, the killer grew bolder. He left a taunting note for detectives in the coat pocket of 18-year-old Brenda Woodward, victim number five: “I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!” The note was written in Brenda’s handwriting and police believe the killer dictated its contents to her.
The best lead the killer provided police was during the abduction of his third and youngest victim, 10-year old Brenda Crockett. Only hours before she died, the Phantom allowed Brenda to phone home. “I’m with a white man,” Brenda told her 7-year old sister. “I’m in Virginia.”
Police believed Brenda was manipulated into providing false leads to steer police in the wrong direction. For almost 40 years investigators have steadfastly believed the killer is African American. An FBI profile states that a white man would be too visible in a black community, and he would have been noticed. Yet, most of the abductions were at night, and hairs from a Caucasian male were found on the last two victims, which police believed came from an officer at the crime scene.
The police investigation stalled by 1973, overshadowed by more noteworthy crimes—the Watergate burglary for one—and the Freeway Phantom slipped away, unidentified. The case has been revived several times by numerous detectives over the years, but with all physical evidence destroyed, even the paper files gone, and until there is a confession from the killer, it remains in cold storage today.
What do you think? I’ll update this blog with some pertinent information on the victims, the investigation, autopsy findings and such. If you have a specific question, ask me! I’ll be using some of your comments, so others can benefit from your insight. Let’s try and solve this case!