City Desk

Why the Freeway Phantom Still Hasn’t Been Caught

Bureaucratic snags may be keeping a nefarious and elusive D.C.-area serial killer from being identified.

The Freeway Phantom was certainly that. Beginning in 1971, over 16 months, the killer managed to abduct six young black females and keep some captive for days, without being seen.

In the end, he sexually assaulted some of his prey and strangled all of them. The girls ranged in age from 10 to 18. The killer ditched the bodies of his victims near local highways.

He struck in various neighborhoods, though police theorize he lived in Congress Heights. It took four slayings for the cops to notice the Phantom's predilections."You better bet that if these had been white girls, the police would have solved the cases," a victim's relative told The Washington Post in 2006.

Recently, at least, there's hope the killer will finally be caught. Former Metropolitan Police Department Detective James Trainum began working the murders as cold cases in 2004, when he was still on the force; in 2009, he was told Maryland authorities had a key piece of evidence. On the clothing of the Phantom's last known victim—Diane Williams, a 17-year-old who was snatched on her way back from her boyfriend's place and whose body was found dumped in Prince George's County—there was a potential DNA sample.

Trainum got excited. The evidence was shipped off to the FBI for testing. It seemed he'd get word any day. But now it's 2011, and Trainum is retired, and one of the suspects in the serial killings, Robert Askins, has died in prison—and still no word.

Why the wait? The material that may have all the answers has been bouncing from office to office. When the evidence was first unearthed, Trainum explains, Maryland State Police sent it to MPD, and MPD sent it to the FBI. The thinking was the FBI would get the job done faster than MPD could.

Instead, the evidence languished with the feds, so MPD asked for it back. It sat in D.C. for awhile before Maryland, which had found some extra money for DNA analysis, asked to take possession of  it again. The evidence is now, perhaps, in some lab queue. Beverly Fields of the District's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner says she's seen DNA testing take as long as two and a half years because of backlogs. MPD didn't respond to a request for comment.

In a taunting note left in the pocket of his fifth victim, the Phantom promised to admit to his killings if the cops could only nab him. "This is tantamount to my insensititivity [sic] to people especially women. I will admit the others when you catch me if you can! Free-way Phantom," the note read.

You'd think that such a notorious and frustrating case would be fast tracked for DNA testing, but instead, the mystery of who killed six girls decades ago seems primed to drag on. "He was a stereotypical serial killer," says Trainum, "and we still have no idea who he is."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Typical DC BS

    Yup, our good ole DC police department hard at work. Good thing we're spending money on the indolent among us rather than spending money on wasteful things, like a competent crime lab.

  • Bonnie M. Wells

    I'd like to see this killer caught and brought to justice, just like all the other killers that we have in our nation. I don't understand why law enforcement takes so long to do something - perhaps because we have so many 'strings attached' to everything that's done in this nation. Make one mistake and the defense attorney's get the case tossed out for good. That's difficult to accept if you've spent most of your career [or life] trying to stop a killer.
    But beyond all the technical problems, I do not know why people try to turn everything into a racial problem.
    The above statement - "You better bet that if these had been white girls, the police would have solved the cases," a victim's relative told The Washington Post in 2006." - only serves to tell me that the person making it has looked no further than their own case and the color of their own skin.
    Here in my area there are at least a dozen 'white' girls whose cases are all but forgotten. No one has ever cared who killed them, and I don't think anyone ever will. Within a couple hundred mile radius there are close to 100 cases - childred, teenagers, and adults - their cases have remained unsolved and neglected since day one, and they were white.
    People need to understand that serial killers come in all colors, just like their victims, and it should never matter what color a person's skin is. We should all be trying to identify and stop these killers instead of making statements that cause hurt feelings among our people.

  • Andy R.

    I believe this article is innacurate. DNA evidence found on Diane Williams's cloting was tested and there was no match. Further, over the years, detective Trainum was quoted stating that the guilty person was in prison serving time for other crimes - that person being the late Robert Askins.

  • Andy R.

    CORRECTION: It was not Traium who stated Askins was the guilty party, it was another detective - Lloyd Davis. He was adamant that Askins committed the crimes.