In February 10, 2010, a passerby found a decapitated head wrapped in two plastic bags and was kept inside a backpack in Barstow, Calif. Neither victim nor her killer was already identified by the authorities, but the conditions points in one direction.
Barstow police say, the teenage girl had been slayed days earlier. Her severed head was found a few hundred yards from a truck stop just off Interstate 15, quite near from I-40. To authorities the adjacency to the truck stop and the interstates implies that the killing might have been the work of a single type of criminal: a serial killer working along the country's highways.
FBI statistics shows, at least 459 people may have suffered in the hands of highway serial killers during the past forty years. Investigators have no idea, yet, how many people are involved in the killings, but at least one such case has been accounted for in 48 states, along roads as far as Alaska and as far south as Key West. Investigators deduced that the killers hunt their victims and dispose of the bodies along highways, sometimes nearby quiet roadside rest areas or at busy truck stops.
Most of the time, the victims are prostitutes, kidnapped or picked up in one state and disposed in another. Authorities say they have 200 suspected killers; almost all are long-haul truck drivers. According to the FBI, they were able to assist local authorities apprehend at least 10 suspects presumed to be involved in more than 30 of the highway slayings.
Hundreds of killings are still left unsolved, though, and it continuous to pile up. Their hope: that the analysts can offer leads or discover connections to other slayings that may have occurred years ago or several states away. Some of the slayings currently added to the Highway Serial Killings database date back several years. Some, such as the one in Barstow, are quite new.
"We seem to have one a week that comes in," says Michael Harrigan, the special agent who oversaw the FBI's effort for the past three years. "It could be a killing that's 30 years old. It could be one that happened a week ago." Whether the oldest and coldest cases can be solved, Harrigan is uncertain. But he's hopeful.
Harrigan together with other law enforcement authorities believe serial killers still work along some of the most well-traveled roads in the country. "They're out there," he says.
Harrigan says the bureau's hands are tied by its pledge to local law enforcement not to divulge any details of the slayings Ãƒ‚Ã¢€” even basic information that is public record, albeit President Obama's promise of a more transparent government. The FBI makes such a pledge so that local agencies will continue to share details of the crimes with the bureau, Harrigan says.
According to Harrigan, a typical motorist isn't in danger. The fact is, at least 234 victims were prostitutes. He says stranded motorists picture "a very, very small" number of the homicide cases. But Harrigan will not reveal how many, and he affirms that investigators know "nothing" about 130 of the victims. In connection with the mysteries are more than 80 cases Ãƒ‚Ã¢€” as well as the February case in Barstow Ãƒ‚Ã¢€” in which authorities couldn't label the remains or retrieved only body parts.
"It's creepy," says Keith Libby, the police detective in Barstow, Calif., who is handling the severed-head case. Libby reveals the victim seems to have been white or Hispanic, and police have published an image/sketch of how they think the victim looked. Other than that, Libby says, investigators are waiting for help Ãƒ‚Ã¢€” from the FBI and even the public. "We have nothing," he says. "Nothing."
The FBI launched the serial killer initiative in 2004, still violence along the nation's highways is hardly new. However, it is still hard to stop crime at the thousands of rest areas, truck stops, and travel plazas. Partly, that's because the responsibility for policing rest areas differs from state to state. That often means no consistent records are kept about the rate of crimes, and not one agency takes ownership for fighting it.
Crimes also are hard to stop due to the location of the rest areas Ãƒ‚Ã¢€” along major roadways. That makes escape very easy; just jump onto an interstate and speed off. At some locales, private security guards do their best to keep watch or police cruise through. In other places, cameras monitor the area. Neither of those methods give any assurances.
Sophisticated criminals sometimes set up the crimes at these stops along the highways. It may be about drugs or sex. Like tired travelers, some dangerous criminals also stop and rest to these kind of facilities. The Beltway Snipers feared at Washington, D.C., were caught after they pulled into a rest area to take a shut eye.
Crime at rest areas and truck stops are quite disturbing because this is a place where motorists count on getting some rests, food, and take relief.
"It used to be the place to go. It used to be the safe haven," says Sgt. Pat Postiglione, a detective with the Metro Nashville (Tenn.) Police Department. "But now, I think the opposite is occurring."
The FBI's efforts has been proven useful in the search for connecting between crimes. Analysts continue to create timelines for each of the 200 suspects, trying to discover whether their whereabouts is connected to any of the unsolved killings.
Technology if responsible for making the effort easier Ãƒ‚Ã¢€” at least in terms of the most current slayings and any probable links to truckers. For instance many trucking companies track their drivers using GPS. And when a trucker utilizes a toll road, systems such as E-ZPass log it. Credit card records and surveillance tapes also help identify who is at the truck stop around the time when a prostitute there disappeared.
The timelines are "tedious," FBI agent Harrigan says. "We want to look back and try to figure out, were there any other killings where they were?"
Harrigan says analysts might encounter nearly five cases a week. They appear to fit the profile, but further investigation reveals crime is not connected to a serial killer. No matter, Harrigan believes acquiring data from local law enforcement is crucial. As of now, the FBI has heard from law enforcement in 340 jurisdictions. Some of those cases turn out to be unrelated to the serial killing inquiries, others do, and those that do might be critical in cracking the killings hundreds of miles apart, Harrigan says.
The Bureau and other law enforcement authorities also are cautious not to castigate truckers as a whole. "We don't view this as some sort of indictment of the industry," Harrigan says.
As the spokesman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Norita Taylor, says, millions of truckers are on the roads each day. Granting all this highway serial killers happen to be truckers, that's still a tiny minority of the profession, says Taylor.
Trucker Silio hopes motorists won't stereotype. "Not all people riding motorcycles are bad people, either," he says. Others, including Nashville detective Postiglione, wonder whether the trucking profession might be a draw for someone "predisposed to become a serial killer."
David Campbell, a detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, with assistance from the FBI, was able to connect trucker Eugene Upshaw to a year-old sexual assault near a truck stop in Castaic, Calif. In late August, authorities apprehended Upshaw near Rochester, N.Y. He is blamed for beating and raping a woman and is "a person of interest in similar sexual assaults," Campbell says.
"What a perfect manner if that's what you're into," Campbell says. "What better way to mask your wrongdoings than by going from state to state doing a legitimate job?"