Long Haul

Date Published 11.30.09
Why do so many serial killers work as truckers?  Does the transient, rootless nature of the job stir in some people a latent potential for violence?  Or do the already violent seek out a job that provides the mobility, and soundproof vehicle, to hunt undetected?

The FBI was so alarmed by what they saw as a pattern of long-haul truckers preying on vulnerable victims like prostitutes, hitchhikers, and stranded motorists that they launched the Highway Serial Killings Initiative, a special unit that collects forensics data to track cases and suspects.

Investigators acknowledge that a specialized unit is needed because truck driver/highway murders are especially difficult to solve.  They often involve multiple jurisdictions, isolated crime scenes with few witnesses, and little or no forensic evidence.  Crisscrossing the country, truck drivers have a built-in ability to evade authorities.

One of the obvious, but nevertheless frightening, things about trucker killers is that while they're often caught for just one crime the far-reaching, wide-ranging nature of their routes suggests they're possibly, even likely, responsible for many more.

I was reminded recently of the potential scope of trucker killings when I read about a cold case in Colorado being solved.  Linda Benson, 24, and her 5-year-old daughter Kelley were found dead in their Grand Junction apartment on July 24, 1975.  Each had been stabbed multiple times.  Thirty-four years later, developments in DNA technology allowed investigators to match a drop of blood on a cereal box found at the crime scene with a man named Jerry Nemnich.  Nemnich, 64, had a history of felony rape convictions, though he'd recently been living peacefully with his wife in a tidy house in Longmont.

Longmont police were asked if, in light of Nemnich's recently uncovered violent history, he could be linked to any local unsolved cases.  Longmont Police Cmdr. Tim Lewis said he didn't think so.  Lewis's reason was inadvertently chilling:

Lewis said Nemnich’s job seemed to keep him away most of the time.

Nemnich, it turns out, is a trucker.

One trucker the FBI feels could be responsible for a series of rapes and murders across the United States is Chester Leroy Todd.  Todd, 63, disappeared in 1996 after he became the prime suspect in the murder of Sherri Majors, in Denver.  Majors, 27, disappeared while leaving a pool hall; Todd was seen offering her a ride in his truck.  Her beaten and strangled body was found the next day.

Todd's semi-tractor trailer was later found abandoned in Sioux City, Iowa; evidence inside the truck connected him to Majors' murder, but by this time Todd and his wife, Clara, were gone.  The FBI feels certain that Todd has been active since then and is involved in other cases across the country.  A first-degree murder warrant has been issued for him.

Chester Todd

Todd is on the run, but others have been caught.  A string of vicious murders along I-40 in Oklahoma, revolving around truck stops and prostitutes, caught the attention of law enforcement a few years ago.  The similarities were obvious.  The victims were white prostitutes who worked truck stops.  They were all killed in one location and dumped in another.  And an eerie, troubling clue --- there was never any sign of a struggle.

Enter a boyish, soft-spoken truck driver from Mississippi, John Robert Williams.  Williams had an aw-shucks Southern charm.  He also had a clever accomplice --- his girlfriend, Rachel Cumberland.  Together the two presented a welcoming, non-threatening front, particularly to wary, rough-living prostitutes.  The ruse worked.  Williams and Cumberland, now in jail, are believed to have killed as many as seven victims.

Is it possible that something about driving for long stretches alone, traveling like a hunter travels --- in a singular push forward, scanning the horizon --- awakens in some people a dark impulse?

In the early morning hours of July 10, 1980 David Hardin, 22, and his wife Katie Back, 28, were asleep in a rest area off I-75 near Lenox, Georgia.  Their three children and Hardin's niece were in the back seat of the blue Dodge sedan.  The family was returning home to Kentucky after vacationing in Daytona Beach, Florida. 

Witnesses observed a dark-colored semi pulling a flatbed trailer drive slowly several times through the parking lot.  The driver eventually parked, retrieved something from the cab of the truck, and stood in front of the blue Dodge, staring for several minutes.  Then, without saying anything, the man approached and shot Hardin in the back of the head, then went around to the passenger side and demanded Katie go with him.  When she refused and screamed, he shot her in the head.

William Putman

 Based on witnesses' descriptions, police pulled over William Howard Putman, 37, at another rest stop.  Putman, a truck driver from Alabama, had a blood alcohol level of 0.13%.  They found Hardin's wallet and a .38-caliber revolver under the driver's seat of his truck.  Ballistics tests later confirmed the murders, and that of a schoolteacher, William Hodges, at another rest stop a day before, were committed with Putman's handgun.

Putman was executed by lethal injection on Nov. 13, 2002.

The evidence against Putman was solid, but the root of his violent spree was more mysterious.  Putman didn't have a criminal record.  He wasn't known to be violent or erratic;  according to his attorneys, Putman was known as a peaceful, generous person.  He spent the last two days before his execution meeting with 29 supportive family and friends.

What led Putman to unravel on the road and kill is a mystery.  No so in the case of Adam Leroy Lane.  Lane was a well-known woman-hater with a formidable temper.  He killed indiscriminately and frequently, stalking around checking unlocked doors at homes next to the highway --- being a trucker was the perfect job for him.

Around 2 a.m. on July 13, 2007 Darlene Ewalt stepped outside her home in suburban Harrisburg, Pa. to take a phone call.  As she chatted to a friend, a man appeared out of the darkness and attacked her with a knife, slitting her throat and stabbing her multiple times.  Ewalt lived close to I-81, and it's believed her attacker, Lane, left his rig at a nearby truck stop and went hunting for victims, coming upon Ewalt on her backyard patio.

Two weeks later, in Bloomsbury, New Jersey, Lane walked from a Route 78 truck stop into a residential area, where he began checking for unlocked doors.  Police later found the body of Monica Massaro; she'd been stabbed repeatedly in the head, neck and chest.

Lane's spree came to an end when the parents of a 15-year-old girl in Massachusetts caught him as he stood above her bed, knife in hand.

But before that there had been more victims, all near truck stops and rest areas.  Lane literally used his trucking route as a hunting map.

In fact, in Lane's truck police found a DVD called "Hunting Humans," a movie about a man who chooses victims at random and stalks them.

It must be said that most truck drivers are hardworking, law-abiding citizens, and that unfortunately it's the violent few who make the news and sully the reputation.  There's no evidence that predators seek out trucking job in order to troll for victims, or that trucking culture somehow corrupts.  Instead, what you have is, occasionally, a perfect, terrible marriage --- a violent impulse, and the ideal job to mask the aftermath.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.