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