Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Murder along America’s Highways

At 10:37 a.m on July 14, 2009, John Fautenberry became the thirty-first man to die by execution in Ohio since the death penalty was reinstated in 1999. In the early 1990’s Fautenberry killed five people in four states including Joseph Daren, Jr. outside of Cincinnati. In a curious case with similar circumstances, Keith Hunter Jasper killed eight people in Nebraska, California, Florida, Washington, Oregon and New York. He is still alive but serving three life sentences in an Oregon prison. Then there is Bruce Mendenhall, currently awaiting trial in Tennessee for the 2007 murder of a woman in Nashville. He has also confessed to murders in Alabama, Georgia and Indiana.

According to the FBI, Fautenberry, Jasper and Mendenhall are serial killers. All three also share a second common trait—they each worked as long-haul truck drivers. Their common occupation is not a coincidence.

Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI suspects long-haul truck drivers are responsible for the murder of hundreds of women whose bodies have been dumped near highways across the country. This spring the FBI revealed a five year old project known as the Highway Serial Killings Initiative. The Initiative links murder victims that have some connection to highways and suspects who are involved in long-haul trucking.

Information has been collected on more than 500 female victims of murder, some of whom were discovered along major interstates in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. According to the Times, most of the victims were discovered at truck stops, nearby motels and along popular trucking routes crisscrossing the country.

What is the correlation between long-haul trucking and serial murder? Long-haul trucking lends itself to predators who want to circulate among strangers in strange places with the maniacal intent to kill and with ample opportunity to evade detection. An investigator told the Los Angeles Times, “You’ve got a mobile crime scene . . . you can pick a girl up on the east coast, kill her two states away and them dump her three states after that.’’ FBI special agent Ann Todd told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “The mobile nature of the offenders, the high-risk lifestyle of the victims, the significant distances and involvement of multiple jurisdictions, the lack of witnesses and forensic evidence combine to make these cases almost impossible to solve using conventional investigative techniques.”

This is not to suggest that the truck driving profession is filled with diabolical killers. Most truckers are hard working law-abiding citizens who do many more good deeds than bad as they navigate America’s highways.

The FBI also admits that 500 homicides targeted by the Initiative may only be the tip of the iceberg. According to the Washington Post, there may be as many as 40,000 unidentified human remains known to exist nationwide.

The purpose of the Initiative was to help local law enforcement agencies connect the dots between local slayings and similar murders across the country. Originally, the Initiative’s work was only available to law enforcement entities. The FBI revealed the project this spring with the hope that public disclosure might generate additional leads.

Agent Todd told the Times Free Press that the Initiative has had some moderate success assisting in the arrest of at least eight killers suspected of more than 30 murders. Bruce Mendenhall, the alleged serial killer awaiting trial in Tennessee, was arrested as the result of information provided by the Initiative and good police work by a Nashville detective. In fact, the police work was so good, Mendenhall tried to solicit a cell mate to kill the detective.

Nationwide, thousands of murders remain unsolved. The FBI recently disclosed to the Associated Press that homicide clearance rates, the percentage of murder cases that are solved, has dropped from 91-percent in 1963 to 61-percent in 2007. As the number of unsolved murders increases, hundreds, even thousands, of killers move anonymously about society. The Highway Serial Killings Initiative may not drive up the homicide clearance rate, but it appears to have at least shed some light on a dark, mysterious and dangerous world unknown to many, and unfathomable to most.

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