|Number of victims:||6|
|Span of killings:||April 25, 1971 – September 5, 1972|
|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, 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.
The Freeway Phantom case has seen numerous investigators and resurgences in interest over the years. At the time, more than 100 potential suspects were developed. Background checks were performed on teachers, convicted sex offenders, and persons of interest as disparate as an Air Force colonel and a real estate developer. All leads were ultimately fruitless.
The Watergate scandal sidetracked manpower and it wasn't until 1974 that investigators were able to resume focus. At this time, they scrutinized a gang known as the Green Vega Rapists, whose members were collectively responsible for a multitude of D.C.-area rapes and abductions. While both legal filings and media attention brought the Green Vega Rapists to the forefront of the investigation at the time, interest quickly faded and it is no longer believed that anyone associated with the gang was responsible.
A key piece of evidence consisted of green synthetic carpet fibers, which were found on the bodies of all but one of the victims. Additionally, DNA was extracted in 2006 from a semen sample recovered from the autopsy of one of the victims. However, a comparable profile could not be obtained.
In March, 1977, a 58-year old computer technician, Robert E. 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 three previous occasions, and was convicted in the 1958 killing of a prostitute whom he poisoned with cyanide. In 1958, the sentence was overturned on a legal technicality and Askins was released.
Askins' home was searched by police and 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 remains uncharged in connection with the Freeway Phantom killings.
Askins, now in his nineties and serving a life sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland for two D.C.-area abductions and rapes in the mid-70s, has been contacted by both Davis and press regarding the Freeway Phantom slayings. He has denied any role in them, adding that he does not have "the depravity of mind required to commit any of the crimes."