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She wears a dress that reaches to just above her knees and patent leather heels. Sometime after the photo was taken, year-old Regina Walters, a runaway from Pasadena, Texas, was strangled with baling wire and her body abandoned in that same barn. The person who took the photo—her killer—is Robert Ben Rhoades, a long-haul trucker from Houston. A state trooper, who thought Rhoades was parked dangerously, discovered a woman inside the truck, alive, but shackled to the door. She had welts on her body, cuts on her mouth, and a horse bridle secured around her neck. He had told his latest victim—the woman in the cab—that he had been torturing women for 15 years as he crisscrossed America by highway. Rhoades was sentenced in Illinois to life without parole. But in March of this year he was transferred to Ozona, Texas, where he appeared in court charged with the murders of two hitchhikers. Rhoades, in his 50s and balding, wearing glasses and a squint, stared straight ahead as the judge read his sentence. After the trial, prosecutors told the media they suspected Rhoades may be responsible for additional murders. Trucking records showed he regularly traversed 22 states. Crisscrossing the nation in big rigs, they are unconfined by city, county and state boundaries. In her book Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, published by the University of Texas Press in April, author Ginger Strand writes that highway violence followed hard on the heels of the construction of the U. Local law enforcement agencies can fill out a page form indicating the characteristics of a particular homicide. The form can be sent to the FBI, where analysts look for patterns. In , the agency launched its Highway Serial Killings initiative, creating a repository specifically for information about serial murders gleaned from law enforcement agencies nationwide. By , the initiative had identified victims and upwards of suspects. Two years ago, FBI statistics showed Texas leading the nation in unsolved serial highway homicides. What I discovered was an inter-institutional mess in which law enforcement agencies hardly communicate with each other, leaving murders unsolved, families without closure, and killers on the loose. By that same token, reported figures are likely to be smaller than the real number, because law enforcement agencies are under no compulsion to notify the FBI. Surely the Texas Rangers, tasked with the state-wide investigation of unsolved serial crime, among other things, would be able to help? We have no comprehensive idea how many victims of serial murder there are, let alone how many perpetrators. The calls were traced to Oklahoma City and Ennis, Texas. In the Houston case, according to a story in Tuscon Weekly magazine, the victim was too scared to identify Rhoades for police and he was allowed to go free. Laurie English, the District Attorney for Pecos County, which includes Ozona, called it among the worst crimes she had ever prosecuted. Had Rhoades not parked at the side of an Arizona highway with his hazard lights on that April night 22 years ago, he might never have been caught at all. Jack Levin, author of one of the first books about serial killers—Mass Murder: For long-haul truckers, the comfort zone is the cab of their truck. According to the FBI, victims of highway serial murderers are typically women who live high-risk, transient lifestyles, and are often involved in drug and alcohol abuse and prostitution. Their bodies, the agency says, are often left in rural areas along highways, distant from the jurisdiction or even the state in which they were picked up. Walters, Zyskowski and Walsh did not fit this profile. Jesperson, who became known as the Happy Face Killer due to the smiley faces he drew on letters to the media, killed eight women in the Pacific Northwest in the early s. There have been others too, he says. In , an Illinois trucker named Bruce Mendenhall was found guilty of the murder of year-old truck-stop prostitute Sara Hulbert in Tennessee after police discovered her bloody clothing in a plastic sack in the cab of his truck. He is due to stand trial for the murder of a Tennessee woman later this year. Serial killers may not be Mensa members, but they become aware of this fact. And bodies, he says, may be outnumbered by crime scenes: But if they think task force, they think task force within their own agency. Since , 10 bodies have been discovered in undergrowth lining the ocean-front of Jones Beach, but for months police refused to consider that the murders could be the work of one killer. The gravesites stretched across county lines. Detectives in both counties now accept that the murders were likely the work of one man, who remains at large. According to the American Trucking Association, there are roughly 3. In her book, Ginger Strand identifies about 25 former truckers currently serving time in U. Pit-stopping travelers tend not to pay much attention to their surroundings, Egger says. Boxes of Mountain Dew share shelf space with engine oil. I sit at a Formica table on grubby blue faux leather seats. Divorce Court plays on TV. A woman in tight jeans, high heels and hoop earrings walks past me and smiles. She looks out of place; everyone else here wears overalls and caps and faces that have seen too much sun. A decade ago, BBC news asked: The nine law enforcement departments with jurisdiction over the murders failed to identify a pattern. He admitted to, or was implicated in, more than killings, but later recanted many of his confessions. Lucas was never charged with any of the I killings, and died in prison of heart failure in In April this year, Kevin Edison Smith, a refinery worker from nearby Port Arthur, was convicted of murdering a year-old girl in Texas City, along the I corridor, and dumping her body under an interstate bridge. He was sentenced to life without parole, and some investigators believe he may have been involved in other I murders. After my visit to the truck stop, I check into a seedy motel just off the highway near the town of Dickinson. I pull the curtain back. Suddenly it slooshes across the tarmac, past my window, and disappears into the night. Next morning I join the rush-hour traffic for a few miles south, a stretch of highway choked with motor inns, fast food joints and adult video stores. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, on average , vehicles traverse this stretch of road each day. A few miles down the road I turn off the highway and drive down a lonely stretch called Calder Road. The only sign that anything sinister ever happened here is a small memorial cross, with broken shells at the base and flowers. In September, Houston detectives announced they were looking through old case files to see if a transient worker who once lived in Galveston could be responsible for any of the unsolved murders. Bobby Jack Fowler had already been linked through DNA to an unsolved hitchhiker murder in Canada, and is a suspect in the deaths of two teenage girls in Oregon in the mids. He died from cancer in prison six years ago. The most promising lead in the Laura Miller case arrived when the League City Police Department named as a suspect the owner of the land adjacent to the field where the bodies were found. Tim Miller was long convinced that Abel killed his daughter—and possibly other women along I—and confronted him about it several times. Abel took out a restraining order against Miller. Abel died after his golf cart was struck by a train at his ranch in Bellville, Texas, in Miller says he feels terrible. I hugged him and I choked up. We both broke down. In , in memory of his daughter, Miller started Texas Equusearch, a mounted search and recovery organization. Since then, the all-volunteer group has helped locate more than missing people and bodies around the nation, helping families find closure. I ask Miller what motivates him. Equusearch began by looking for missing people along the I corridor, but now its services are in demand nationally. The organization helped in the search for Caylee Anthony and Stacy Peterson, two of the highest-profile missing-person cases of recent years. Miller is a small man with piercing eyes. He wears polished ostrich leather cowboy boots, blue jeans and a pale blue denim shirt. He seems exhausted, and while talking to me he checks emails, answers his ever-ringing mobile phone, and yells instructions or questions down the hallway to his office administrator. Plaques on the wall bear testament to the gratitude of those Equusearch has helped. They could all have been one-time homicides. And, he says, only one of the murders has ever been connected with a truck driver. That was in , when the body of a truck-stop prostitute from the Channelview area was found in a League City ditch near the highway. Bittner doubts the girls found off Calder Road were killed by a trucker. In a situation like that, he says, finding a pattern is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Alex Hannaford is a magazine writer based in Texas. Published Wed, Nov 7, at 4:
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