Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate (Discovering America (University of Texas Press))
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Starting in the 1950s, Americans eagerly built the planet’s largest public work: the 42,795-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Before the concrete was dry on the new roads, however, a specter began haunting them—the highway killer. He went by many names: the “Hitcher,” the “Freeway Killer,” the “Killer on the Road,” the “I-5 Strangler,” and the “Beltway Sniper.” Some of these criminals were imagined, but many were real. The nation’s murder rate shot up as its expressways were built. America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.
Killer on the Road tells the entwined stories of America’s highways and its highway killers. There’s the hot-rodding juvenile delinquent who led the National Guard on a multistate manhunt; the wannabe highway patrolman who murdered hitchhiking coeds; the record promoter who preyed on “ghetto kids” in a city reshaped by freeways; the nondescript married man who stalked the interstates seeking women with car trouble; and the trucker who delivered death with his cargo. Thudding away behind these grisly crime sprees is the story of the interstates—how they were sold, how they were built, how they reshaped the nation, and how we came to equate them with violence.
Through the stories of highway killers, we see how the “killer on the road,” like the train robber, the gangster, and the mobster, entered the cast of American outlaws, and how the freeway—conceived as a road to utopia—came to be feared as a highway to hell.
a hitchhiking murderer and warn the driver not to give him a ride, but here, too, the image feels like a metaphor. Morrison was not writing a public service message about picking up hitchers: to be a rider on the storm is simply to be a person on the turbulent journey through life, with the hitchhiker standing in for any bogeymen who can ruin the trip. (The metaphor is played out even further in Morrison’s obscure 1969 art ﬁlm HWY: An American Pastoral, where he 68 Strand Pages1.indd 68 2/6/12
believes Wayne Williams committed all those murders alone.” Observers debated whether the “pattern murders” had stopped. Chet Dettlinger lists seven murders that occurred after Williams’s arrest that he thinks ﬁt the pattern. In 1985, Abby Mann’s made-for-television docudrama The Atlanta Child Murders was widely denounced by Atlanta’s mainstream for implying that Wayne Williams had been railroaded. In 1986, Spin magazine published an account of how the Georgia Bureau of Investigation pursued and
parents, all the goodies.” It’s hard not to hear an echo of Charles Starkweather’s resentment for “‘uppity’ kids from big houses whose old man was a doctor or a president of a bank.” Once at the University of Washington, Bundy worked hard to disguise his humble origins by pursuing a high-end brand133 Strand Pages1.indd 133 2/6/12 1:44 PM = KILLER ON THE ROAD = name lifestyle. He bought preppy clothes, drank fancy French wines, forged ski lift tickets. He affected an English-sounding accent.
ﬁnally got sick of killing and walked into a California 169 Strand Pages1.indd 169 2/6/12 1:44 PM = KILLER ON THE ROAD = sheriff ’s office carrying a woman’s breast in a plastic bag. When trucker Sean Patrick Goble was arrested in North Carolina and confessed to several murders, ten states lined up to question him about their own cold-case highway homicides. It seems our interstate highway system has become our Whitechapel, with truckers its roving Rippers. ••••• A soft-spoken woman from
attracted a new demographic: less educated, less stable, less tied to unions, less rooted in family life. Has it also begun attracting a criminal element? Or as Supervisory Special Agent Mark Hilts, head of one of the FBI proﬁling units, puts it: “Are some of these guys migrating to truck driving as a lifestyle that allows them to do what they do? We don’t know enough yet to make conclusions.” The FBI may not want to draw conclusions, but the public already has. The mythology of the trucker has