The most common advice you hear about writing is to “write what you know.” This is good advice — unless you’re a murderer, and you write short stories about your unsolved crimes. Such was the case of a murderer/writer named Larry Via. Forty-seven years after he went on a thrill-kill spree in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky, he was busted for a murder he committed that remained a cold case for almost five decades.
It more or less started on September 20, 1972, when two college students were driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike headed to school in Ohio. At mile marker 189.2, just outside of a town called Chambersburg, the men pulled off the road to urinate. But instead of a perfect place to pee, they found a dead man.
Lying face down in the grass, the deceased was obscured from traffic. If they hadn’t stopped, who knows how long it would’ve been before his body was discovered. The dead man was fully clothed. He’d been fatally shot in the back with a .25 caliber handgun. A box of ratchets was found near the scene. A red Ford pickup truck belonging to the deceased had been found by state police two days earlier, about 17 miles down the highway. The dead man, Morgan Peters, was a married father of three. Originally from New York, he was just 29 years old.
The only serious lead investigators had into his murder came from a trucker who’d passed the scene and spotted two vehicles parked on the side of the turnpike. According to the eyewitness, two women with long blonde hair had been standing outside of the vehicles. But the eyewitness was mistaken about what he saw, which misled investigators, and might help explain why the man who killed Morgan Peters wouldn’t be found until 2019.
Peters worked for Universal Resilate Products, installing wrestling mats for a living. He was on his way to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, for an install job in a local gymnasium. On Sunday, he’d left his wife and three kids in Long Island. He got on the road in the late afternoon. Two hours after midnight, he stopped at a truck stop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was a regular who stopped there often on his runs to Western Pennsylvania for business. He told the employees working the late-night shift he was headed to Pittsburgh. While at the truck stop, Peters bought an alarm clock, presumably assuming he’d need it to wake up the next day after his long drive.
At 2:12 a.m. Peters pulled onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A little more than an hour later, a truck driver spotted his red Ford pickup on the side of the road. It was parked behind a maroon Cadillac. The truck driver thought he saw the aforementioned blonde women hop out of the car and walk back toward the pickup. According to the eyewitness, soon after that, the truck lurched forward and stalled, as if the person behind the wheel didn’t know how to get it in gear.
Further down the turnpike, the truck was left abandoned. When local authorities discovered it the next day, they correctly guessed it had been possibly stolen and left behind by the thieves. They contacted Universal Resilate Products. As the owner of Peters’ work truck, they arranged for its return to New York. The truck was cleaned and serviced days before homicide investigators began to work the case and managed to catch up to it. Essentially then, any evidence of Peters’ murder had been scrubbed away. But investigators still went over it, hoping some clue might have been left behind. All they found was a single bullet hole, punched into the door of the truck’s camper.
When police questioned Peters’ boss, he portrayed his employee as a man who “did not back down from anyone.” His rivals in high school wrestling — Peters was a former alternate for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team — similarly described him as a formidable opponent. “His arms were so big. They were like rocks,” is how one remembered him. Peters was also the sort of hard ass who wouldn’t typically stop to pick up a pair of hippie hitchhikers, that is, unless he thought they were two women, stranded in the middle of nowhere, and clearly in need of help. He may have been feeling more charitable that night, too, since his own father had died just a month earlier.
The homicide investigators followed up on all the available leads. But they found little in return. Their best suspect was a drunk who said he’d killed Peters. It turned out, though, he was likely boasting, trying to get even for a loss to Peters in a bar fight.
In the meantime, from May to September 1972, Larry Via and his partner Charmaine Phillips spent their summer traveling the country, getting their kicks by killing. Their modus operandi was simple: They’d pull over alongside a road in a semi-remote area and wait for a Good Samaritan to spot them — two stranded blondes, both with hair down to their asses. When a motorist would slow to help them, sometimes the driver would notice the ruse — i.e., they’d see that only one of them was a woman — and they’d speed off. Other times, the passing stranger would miss that key fact. The kind-hearted drivers who did stop would get robbed. Sometimes, if they were truly unlucky, they’d be killed.
Phillips in particular knew how to get attention. She was a dancer at a place called “Guys and Dolls Club.” In fact, she and Via also traveled the highways and backroads of the U.S. together so she could work dance clubs all across the land. Sometimes they hitchhiked. Other times, they drove her Cadillac. That’s what Morgan Peters saw: Two blondes and a pair of poodles, waiting beside their broken-down Cadillac, in the middle of nowhere, in the wee hours of the morning. Phillips later told police that she stayed with the dogs while Via went back to Peters’ truck and asked for help. Minutes later, he ran back to the Cadillac and told her, “We gotta go!”
Phillips drove off in the Cadillac. Via followed her in Peters’ truck. It was the first time she’d ever seen Via drive. Until that moment, she doubted that he even knew how to operate a vehicle. Seventeen miles down the turnpike, they pulled over again and ditched the red Ford pickup truck. Further down the turnpike, they split up for good. She headed to Cleveland. Via went his own way.
Previous to meeting Peters, the pair of thrill killers had been on one helluva run. According to authorities tasked with stitching together their trail of blood and murder, the pair zigzagged between Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio. On August 24th, Via robbed a store in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He pulled off the heist at gunpoint. Outside the store, a maroon Cadillac was spotted, idling.
Two weeks later, on September 4th, in the small town of Geauga, Ohio, Via and Phillips pulled their preferred ruse — they posed as motorists in need of help. When gas station owner Harvey Hoffman pulled over to do exactly that, they tied him up and Via shot him in the head with a .25 caliber handgun. (It was Phillips’ gun; she’d purchased it for security and protection.) Somehow, though, Hoffman didn’t die. His testimony was integral in naming and identifying them as his attempted killers.
Two weeks after that, Jane Maguire, a 19-year old from Washington, Pennsylvania, who was traveling to visit her sister in West Virginia, was discovered in the woods behind a rest stop in Summit County, Ohio. She’d been raped and shot in the head. Unlike Hoffman, she died of her wounds. The FBI got involved and determined that the shell casings found at the murder scene were from a .25 caliber, which connected her murder to the attack on Hoffman.
In November, Phillips was arrested for the attempted murder of Hoffman. She flipped on Via, and helped prosecutors with their case against him. When Via was arrested, he had a wallet on him that belonged to Morgan Peters. Authorities, however, missed this detail. And so, Via was only charged for the rape and murder of Maguire and the attempted murder of Hoffman (with the Peters murder going unsolved and not tied to him). He was sentenced to life in prison in Ohio.
While behind bars, Via married and divorced — twice. In the mid-to-late 1980s, while still behind bars, Via began to write and publish short stories and poems under the pen name Jody Via. He sent them to magazines that favored rough-and-tumble stories of bad men on the road such as Easyriders and Outlaw Biker. One of his stories was called “Dangerous Dave.” In 1985, Outlaw Biker published it in their September issue. It centered on a cute hitchhiker used as bait to lure men to stop. When a friendly man finally does stop for her, he hears a “cold” voice that tells him not to move. A bad man steps out from behind a tree and shoots and kills the driver.
Via penned other poems about his alter-ego Dangerous Dave too. For example, in the January 1986 issue of Outlaw Biker, there’s a poem called “Dangerous Dave’s Mountain Justice,” and in the September 1987 issue, there’s another poem called “Wrath of Dangerous Dave.” The plots for these poems and stories were eerily similar to his own murderous rampage. They were also easily-overlooked as confessions since they appeared alongside other published fiction with titles like “Why Nazis Are Lousy Lovers” (as written by Sally Suck ‘em Silly).
In Easyriders, Via published vengeful works like October 1988’s “Payback in Full,” which features a woman who ties up a victim. The details that follow neatly parallel the horror story that Harvey Hoffman lived through. The next year, Easyriders published “The Recovery,” billed as a story about “bruisin’ bar-brawlin’ bros who go on the hunt for a missin’ pan.” Another poem written by Via, “Moonlit Ride,” is described as “peaceful putt turns rowdy an’ racy in a rest area.” The plot features details that mirror the rape and murder of Maguire.
Investigators would have likely never learned of the stories if it weren’t for Via’s ex-wives. After a cold-case review of Peters’ death was initiated in 2009 and Via was named as a person of interest, both women informed police that their ex was writing tell-all short stories and poems and publishing them under a pen name. With this tip-off, Pennsylvania state trooper Jeff Baney investigated all the poisonous prose of Jody Via. That’s how it was discovered that Via had published a de facto confession of how he and Phillips lured Peters into their murderous path and then left him in the brush off to the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Still locked-up for his other crimes, Via was put on trial for Peters’ 1972 murder. His biker poems were used as evidence to prosecute the 75-year-old inmate. After a two-year-long grand jury investigation, he was found guilty of the murder. And since Via’s already serving a life sentence in the Marion Correctional Institute, he and his alter-ego Dangerous Dave will now almost certainly die behind bars.