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|Number of victims||6|
|State(s)||District of Columbia|
"Freeway Phantom" was the name given to an unidentified serial killer known to have abducted, raped and strangled six female youths in Washington, D.C. from April 1971 through September 1972. The victims were all African-American girls between the ages of 10 and 18.
On the evening of April 25, 1971, 13-year old Carol Spinks was sent by an older sister to buy groceries at a 7-Eleven located a half-mile away from her home, just across the border in Maryland. On her way home from the store, Carol was abducted; her body was found six days later on a grassy embankment next to the northbound lanes of I-295, about 1,500 feet south of Suitland Parkway.
Over a month later, on July 8, 1971, Darlenia Johnson, 16, was abducted while en route to her summer job at a recreation center. Eleven days later, her body was discovered a mere 15 feet from where Spinks was found.
On July 27, 1971, 10-year old Brenda Crockett failed to return home after having been sent to the store by her mother. Three hours after Brenda was last seen, the phone rang and was answered by her 7-year old sister, who had waited at home while her family searched the neighborhood. Brenda was on the other line, crying.
"A white man picked me up, and I'm heading home in a cab," Brenda told her sister, adding that she believed she was in Virginia before abruptly saying "Bye" and hanging up.
A short time later, the phone rang again and was this time answered by the boyfriend of Brenda's mother. It was Brenda again, and she merely repeated what she'd said in the last telephone call, indicating she was alone in a house with a white male. The boyfriend asked Brenda to have the man come to the phone. Heavy footsteps were heard in the background. Brenda said "I'll see you" and hung up. A few hours later, a hitchhiker discovered Brenda's body in a conspicuous location on Route 50, near I-295 in Prince George's County, Maryland. She had been raped and strangled, and a scarf was knotted around her neck.
Authorities quickly concluded that Brenda likely called her home at the behest of the killer, who fed her inaccurate information in order to buy the necessary time to perpetrate the crime, and to hamper investigation. Furthermore, one witness reported having seen one of the victims, Ms. Johnson, in an old black car, driven by an African-American male, shortly after her abduction.
12-year old Nenomoshia Yates was walking home from a Safeway store in Northeast Washington, D.C. on October 1, 1971, when she was kidnapped, raped, and strangled. Her body was found within a few hours of her abduction, just off the shoulder of Pennsylvania Avenue in Prince George's County, Maryland. It is after this murder that the "Freeway Phantom" moniker was first used in city tabloid article describing the murders.
After having dinner with a high school classmate on November 15, 1971, Brenda Woodward, 18, boarded a city bus to return to her Maryland Avenue home. Approximately six hours later, a police officer discovered her body, stabbed and strangled, in a grassy area near an access ramp to Route 202 from the Baltimore–Washington Parkway. A coat had been placed over her chest, and one of its pockets contained a note from the killer:
This is tantamount to my insensititivity [sic] to people especially women.
I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!
Authorities surmised that the note, written on paper cut from the victim's school notebook, was dictated to and handwritten by her.
The Phantom's final victim was claimed almost a year later, on September 5, 1972. 17-year old Ballou High School senior Diane Williams cooked dinner for her family and then visited her boyfriend's house. She was last seen alive boarding a bus. A short time later, her strangled body was discovered dumped alongside I-295, just south of the District line.
Investigation and Evidence
The Freeway Phantom case has seen numerous investigators and interest over the years. Numerous investigative tips came from the general public by a telephone hot line operated by the Metropolitan Police Department, and the U.S. Mail, and all leads were investigated to their logical conclusion. Some leads were easily proven not to be viable, and others required substantial investigation. The investigation was conducted by a law enforcement task force that included Detectives from the Metropolitan Police Department Homicide and Sex Squads, investigators from Prince Georges County and Montgomery County, MD, Maryland State Police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Among those individuals investigated, members of a gang known as the Green Vega Rapists were considered. Those gang members were collectively responsible for numerous Washington D.C. and surrounding Maryland vicinity rapes and abductions that occurred near the Washington Beltway. Logical investigation and intimate knowledge of the modus operandi of the Green Vega Gang brought them forefront. The Green Vega Gang members were individually interviewed by M.P.D.C. Homicide Detectives Fickling, Irving, and Richardson, at Lorton Prison, Lorton, VA, where the gang members were serving sentences in conjunction with successful prosecutions of those crimes in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. During the interviews of the Green Vega Gang members, one gang member initially implicated another gang member, who he said told him he was involved and gave information as to a beltway homicide. The implicated inmate was also serving a sentence at Lorton for the Green Vega convictions. The inmate stipulated that he would provide the information only if he could remain unidentified, which was agreed. He identified the inmate who gave him the information, the date and location of the crime, and signature detail which was not provided to the public, but which was known to the perpetrator, and to detectives. That signature information was correct. The inmate who provided the information said he was not involved in the Homicide, and provided an alibi which was found to be true. During this period, an election was being held in Maryland, and one of the candidates publicly announced to the press, that a break had occurred in the Freeway Phantom investigation, and provided that an inmate at Lorton Prison had given the information. After that announcement, the inmate who provided the information declined any further interviews, and denied that he had ever provided any information.
Unfortunately, common practice at the time was that case files at Metropolitan Police Department Detective Divisions were retained in files maintained by the Detectives assigned to the case. As a result, the Freeway Phantom case files have been lost, along with the associated notes, and all investigators assigned as primary or task force have either long retired, or are deceased.
Ultimately, no investigative lead produced sufficient evidence for prosecution. However, interest in these serial killings has never faded, and this case is open as a cold case in the Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Division.
In March, 1977, a 58-year old computer technician, Robert Elwood Askins, was charged with abducting and raping a 24-year old woman inside his Washington, D.C. home. Homicide detective Lloyd Davis proceeded to question Askins and learned that he had been charged with murder on several previous occasions.
On December 28, 1938, Askins—then a 19-year old student and member of the science club at Miner Teachers College—served cyanide-laced whiskey to five prostitutes at a brothel, resulting in the death of 31-year old Ruth McDonald. On December 30, only two days later, he stabbed to death another prostitute, 26-year old Elizabeth Johnson, at the same location. Upon his arrest, Askins declared to police that he was a "woman hater" and was placed under mental observation at Washington, D.C.'s Gallinger Hospital. While there, he broke free of his restraints and assaulted three orderlies with a chair before being subdued. During his trial, it was revealed that he'd been a police informant, aiding law enforcement in the arrests of prostitutes. In April 1939, Askins was found criminally insane and committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Five months after being released in April, 1952, Askins strangled 42-year old Laura Cook to death. He was indicted for this murder in 1954, accused of several other assaults of similar circumstance, and re-tried for the 1938 murder, it having been determined that he was indeed sane upon committing the act. Despite claiming he intended the cyanide for himself, planning suicide, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty years to life. This conviction was overturned in 1958.
After the 1978 rape charge, Askins' home was searched by police in connection with the Freeway Phantom murders. Court documents were found in a desk drawer in which a judge had used the word "tantamount," an uncommon word that had appeared in the note dictated by the killer of Brenda Woodward. Furthermore, colleagues at the National Science Foundation where Askins was employed reported that "tantamount" was a word that frequently cropped up in his speech.
A search warrant was eventually obtained, and investigators dug through Askins' backyard. No physical evidence was obtained and Askins was not charged in connection with the Freeway Phantom killings.
Askins, who died at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland at the age of 91, remained in prison for two D.C.-area abductions and rapes in the mid-70s, and had been contacted by both Davis and press regarding the Freeway Phantom slayings. He denied any role in them, adding that he did not have "the depravity of mind required to commit any of the crimes."
- Wilber, Del Quentin (26 June 2006). "'Freeway Phantom' Slayings Haunt Police, Families". The Washington Post.
- "Cold Case: Freeway Phantom". WUSA9.com. 9 May 2008.
- "(Wanted Poster) Up to $150,000 Reward 'Freeway Phantom' Murders" (PDF). Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Retrieved 16 April 2012.
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