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At the Flying J truck stop on I-40 in West Memphis, Arkansas, an ugly rumor was spreading among the long-haul truck drivers. Between grabbing meals and fueling up their big rigs, they spoke about a serial killer said to be among them. It was 2003, and the bodies of missing and murdered women were being found beneath bridges and overpasses, inside cheap motels and along highway off-ramps.
For decades, no one had noticed the pattern of murdered women being dumped along the highway. That is, until Terri Turner, a criminal analyst from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, began spotting similarities. Years later, a second woman, author and journalist Ginger Strand, took a bird’s-eye view of America’s highways and freeways, providing the missing context for how the country’s roads had become the workplace of serial-killing truck drivers and why law enforcement, especially the FBI, had missed it for decades.
When Turner began her investigation in 2003, the murders were seen as one-offs. For instance, there was “Vanilla,” a 47-year-old sex worker known for her honeyed voice from her advertisements that went out over the CB radio. Born Margaret Holmes Gardner, she was a West Memphis local. In July 2003, a USPS letter carrier happened upon Vanilla’s body in Shearerville, Arkansas, left under an interstate freeway on-ramp. She was discovered 15 miles from the West Memphis Flying J. A month later, the body of 24-year-old sex worker Jennifer Hyman of Oklahoma City turned up in the Tallahatchie River just past Oxford, Mississippi. Not long after that, another woman with ties to Oklahoma City was found dead. The remains of 43-year-old Sandra Beard, also a sex worker who frequented truck stops, were uncovered alongside I-40 on the eastern end of Oklahoma.
Each of the women’s bodies showed evidence that their limbs had been bound before they were killed — part of the pattern spotted by Turner, who soon contacted other local law enforcement agencies from neighboring states and asked for assistance tracking a suspect she believed to be a highly active serial killer. Over the next four months, four more women — Vickie Anderson, 45; Sandra Richardson, 39; Patsy Leonard, 23; and Casey Jo Pipestem — were dead.
The growing number of victims, who were often white or Indigenous sex workers, alarmed Turner. “These women were somebody’s mom, someone’s sister or someone’s daughter, and regardless of the situation they may have found themselves in, no one deserved to be treated the way they were treated,” she told local media.
From all the evidence, Turner reasoned that the suspect must be a long-haul truck driver. She believed he also wasn’t the only truck-driving serial killer operating on America’s interstate highways. From the database Turner developed, helped along by the FBI’s federal research on unsolved murders, the number of women discovered alongside Interstate 40 would eventually be connected to more than 500 killings nationwide.
Turner and her network of local law enforcement agencies eventually identified a suspect: a trucker named John Robert Williams. After his arrest for murder in a separate case, Williams confessed to killing a total of 12 women, including those Turner was investigating. In 2005, Williams plead guilty to the murder of a woman named Mikahil, and he has since claimed to have killed over 30 women. (Turner’s work inspired the FBI to create the Highway Serial Killings Initiative, which is now a nationwide program that connects local and state agencies with federal crime reporting; in its first year, the initiative “helped catch 10 truck drivers believed to be responsible for killing close to 30 women.”)
A few years later, Strand published a book, Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, that would place Turner’s work in its proper context, demonstrating how truck drivers became some of the country’s most prolific serial killers and how highways and freeways hollowed out a space for murderers to roam. Originally, she began the research for a book on the freeway system, but the theme of highway killers emerged instead. “As I looked into how the system was conceived and constructed and how it transformed American cities and the American landscape, the figure of the highway serial killer seemed to be an ever-present shadow — from the very early days to the present,” she writes over email. “And I began to see that not only did the rise of highway killers track the construction of the highways, but the killers worked in an odd way as a metaphor for the whole thing.”
Specifically, she sees serial-killer truck drivers as an analogy for highways because “they can be seen as standing for the way the highways committed acts of violence on our cities and countryside, and the way the highways promoted a world that was transactional and that reinforced inequality.”
Both Strand and the FBI agree that being a long-haul trucker is an “ideal” occupation for a serial killer, but Strand believes the FBI sees this in a very practical sense. “Truckers are alone and on the road in a truck that doubles as a bedroom, which already invites prostitution,” Strand tells me. “Then they find themselves in truck stops where there is a lively prostitution trade. And then they’re on the move again, which gives them the opportunity to dispose of a body.”
That’s everything that makes it possible. But Strand argues that what makes their getting caught less probable is a law-enforcement culture of bias. “Law enforcement doesn’t really think hard about that leap [serial-killing truckers] are making from soliciting prostitution to murder. The FBI’s assumption seems to be: Once you have prostitution, some women are going to get killed.”
Strand is also interested in determining whether there’s something about the trucking industry itself that could be partially to blame. “I tried to ask, ‘Why is that the case? What else about the trucker’s life might be helping them along the path from a functioning member of society to a killer?’ And the more I looked into trucking as a lifestyle, the more it seemed like the truckers were also victims of this brutal industry,” she says.
Strand cites a recent op-ed in the New York Times that examines the things that make trucking a miserable gig. “Our commodity-filled lifestyle, in a nation that purposefully dismantled much of its rail transit system, is completely dependent on trucking. But no one wants to think about how those truckers live and how we might try to remake their world to make them healthier and happier,” she says, elaborating on what the reality is like for many truck drivers. “You’re on the road for long, lonely hours, being paid a horribly low wage, by the mile usually, subjected to difficult deadlines and corporate surveillance, and then the conditions in which you live are awful. There’s no good sleep, no good food, and you’re sitting in that cab all day and sleeping in it at night. You yourself are always a target for violence and robbery.”
“It’s not at all surprising that truckers turn to prostitutes to ease a little of that misery,” she continues. “But you also have to think: For the trucker whose mental health isn’t great to begin with, what effect is this lifestyle going to have on them?”
Still, an FBI profiler would say that a serial murderer’s mental state as a cold-blooded killer is set long before they have a driver’s license (or in this case, CDL). Which Strand fully gets. “Did the highways actually cause serial killers to start, well, serial killing? No,” she tells me. “But the highways gave them opportunities, a place to live out and to expand on their impulses. And they helped make our society meaner, more unequal and more marginalizing to those at the bottom.
Despite the creation of the FBI’s Highway Serial Killings Initiative, Strand believes there’s much more to be done to protect the sex workers who are so often the victims of truck-driving serial killers. “Those communities are disproportionately represented among murder victims because they’re frequently working unofficially, transient and disconnected from family connections. Not to mention, with prostitution criminalized, sex workers live in a world that’s reluctant to talk to law enforcement,” she says. “So sometimes these women aren’t even reported missing. All of this makes them highly vulnerable. One of the first and easiest things we could do is ease up on prostitution, frankly. Make it the case that the women working the truck stops aren’t invisible and untraceable.”
Until that happens, men like Dellmus Colvin — aka “The Interstate Strangler,” a former long-haul trucker who has claimed to have killed somewhere between 47 and 52 women — will continue to roam the open road with near impunity. Or as he put it bluntly on the Where the Bodies Are Buried podcast, which is focused on incarcerated serial killers (Colvin is currently serving time for the seven murders the authorities could pin on him), “I was driving the truck, picked up a woman in New Jersey. She wanted me to take a detour, I told her I couldn’t. She gave me some lip, and I just strangled her,” Colvin said of his first murder, a woman he killed when he was just 23.
When the hosts asked if he was remorseful, he quickly responded, “Hell no, remorse is for suckers!”