Murdered in DC: The Case of the Freeway Phantom

In April of 1971, 13 year old Carol Spinx was home alone with 3 of her 7 siblings- twin sister Carolyn, and older sister Evander. Their mother Alenteen was a single mom who was out visiting a friend, but the kids knew mom’s strict rules for when she wasn’t home- don’t open the door, don’t leave the house, stay put, behave, I’ll be back soon. 

The girls had a 24 year old sister Valerie who didn’t live with them anymore, but was visiting a friend at a nearby apartment. Valerie came over and began pestering her sisters to run to the store for her, go pick up a few things. Eventually Carol said “she’s driving me nuts, I’ll go”, and she headed a couple of blocks away to the nearby 7-11. 

Carol actually ran into her mother on the way to the store as she was walking home, so her mom naturally reprimanded her a little bit for breaking the rules. Ultimately though, she decided to let her finish the errand and they’d talk more about it when she gots home. 

When a half hour went by and there’s still no sign of Carol, big sister Evander went to the 7-11 to collect her sister and see what she was being so slow about. When Evander got to the store and looked around- no Carol. She looked out on the street- no Carol. She asked the clerk if he had seen her sister- sure he had. She got her stuff and left, a while ago. 

Evander ran home, and the family called the police immediately to report Carol missing. The police called Carol a runaway. 

On May 1st, Evander sat in a back room of her apartment and listened as her mom answered a knock on the door. Her mother’s anguished screams told her immediately that her sister was dead. The body of 13 year old Carol Spinx was found in a wooded back parking lot at St. Elizabeth’s hospital on route 295, 

The coroner reported that young Carol was covered in abrasions and bruises, and had contusions around her throat. The wounds were on her hands, face, and neck, and she’d been sexually assaulted- sodomized. Perhaps most upsetting for the family, was the realization that she had fresh food in the contents of her stomach. Someone had been keeping her alive. Feeding her and torturing her. 

Two investigators on her case, both now retired sprung into action as quickly as they could. Detective Jim Trainum found in interviews of the neighborhood that Carol was seen carrying a grocery bag back toward the house, meaning they could pin down almost the exact spot she had been abducted. 

The case came to a screeching halt when Vietnam War protestors began accumulating in the nation’s capital.  According to Detective Romaine Jenkins, the police were expected to be at full capacity at the makeshift camps set up to detain protestors. Emergency duty was expected for every single officer. She even reports attempting to investigate the child abduction and murder and beoing told absolutely not- get to the riots. For the next several weeks, it seemed all but forgotten about. 

Until July of 1971 when 16 year old Darlenia Johnson left her home walking down Wahler Road one morning. When she never arrived at work as planned, her company called home and spoke to her mom Hellen. Hellen reported her daughter missing, but what happened next was beyond traumatic for the frantic mother. 

Hellen began receiving a series of disturbing phone calls. The person on the other end of the line wouldn’t speak, simply breathe to let Hellen know they were there. She was terrified by these calls, but was hoping and praying perhaps it was her daughter and one day she’d be brave enough to speak, so she’d continue to listen to every breath. When the voice finally did speak, it wasn’t Darlenia but a man’s voice. He said “I killed your daughter” and hung up. 

The police didn’t have the capacity to trace the calls in 1971, and like the case of Carol Spinx no headway seemed to be made. Then on July 19th 1971, a body was found near St. Elizabeth’s hospital off of i295, just 15 feet from where Carol Spinx had been found two months prior. She’d been left there for 14 or 15 days, and was so badly decomposed that no cause or manner of death could be concluded. Hellen was able to identify her daughter Darlenia by her clothing.  

8 days later, on the opposite side of town, 10 year old Brenda Crockett was with her family preparing for a fun movie night. The grocery store was a mere block away, and Brenda’s mom sent her to the store to pick up some snacks and food for the evening while she stayed home with baby sister Bertha. 

When Brenda had been gone for an hour, her mother got a little nervous and ran down to the store to find her. While she was gone, the family home received an eerie phone call in which little Bertha answered the phone. It’s Brenda!! She tells her little sister that a man in a white van took her and was sending her home in a cab. Little Bertha thought that was weird but didn’t really understand and said ok sis, and hung up the phone. She told her father, who began to panic when the phone rang again. Brenda was on the line again and her father said “where are you? Stay put, I’ll come get you right away!” Brenda told him she was in Virginia, she asked if her mother had seen her. She hung up, and moments later the mom arrived saying Brenda wasn’t at the store. The family called the police. 

In another tragic likeness to the story of Carol Spinx, Bertha recalls waking up the next morning to the blood curdling sound of her mothers screams of pain as detectives tell her that a body has been recovered. 10 year old Brenda Crockett was found on July 28th 1971 off route 50 in Prince George’s County Maryland. She was found laying back off the side of the road. Strangled and sexually assaulted.

Investigations into the phone calls led detectives to believe that they had been scripted. That Brenda was being told what to say in an effort to throw the investigation off. Probably not a white van, probably never in Virginia. An investigative discovery that leads them to know even less about the killer’s true identity. The case lies cold, and the family continues to anguish. 

October 1st, 1971 in Northeast Washington DC 12 year old Nenomoshia Yates went to the store, purchased what she needed, and disappeared sometime on her one block walk home.  Another young black girl abducted in broad daylight within the vicinity of her home. This time she was found a mere two hours later. An unceremonious body dump off route 4 in Prince George’s county. Nenomoshia too had been strangled and sexually assaulted. 

4 girls abducted and discarded on the side of the road. The community was in fear, and needed answers. Though police were reluctant to believe these cases were connected, the local media had already picked up on the threads in common all of the victims had. Whether the police were reluctant or not, DC was convinced there was a serial killer among them. The press deemed him The Freeway Phantom. 

The public speculation about the case got the attention of the FBI, who sent over Special Agent Barry Covert to head up a reexamination into all of the evidence together. They discover that three of the four victims, all but Darlenia who’s body had suffered too much decomposition, had forensic evidence in the underwear. A hair to be exact, likely belonging to an African American. This hair evidence is the piece investigators need to likely tie the cases together. DC’s first serial killer. 

Within a month, the Freeway Phantom had struck again, clearly not dismayed by the FBI’s arrival on the scene. In fact, he decided to taunt them. On November 16th, 1971 the body of 18 year old Brenda Woodard was discovered on an access ramp to the Baltimore Washington Parkway. Like other others she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Unlike the others, Brenda Woodard was the only victim who’d been stabbed, and she had many defensive wounds indicating she fought back against her abductor. 

Brenda was found wearing a red crushed velvet coat. In the pocket was a handwritten note: 

The FBI quickly begins a language and handwriting analysis of the note. They get stuck on the word “tantemount”- an unusual choice of words, not commonly used at the time. This made SA Covert wonder if the note was directed at someone in particular- as if to say “YOU made me do this.” Even more interesting, the handwriting analysis revealed that the note was written by Brenda herself. You’d expect evidence that she’d been coerced to write the note in her style of writing- hands shake when under duress. The fact that Brenda’s handwriting appeared normal, comfortable, indicated that perhaps Brenda knew her killer and had no reason to feel unafraid up until the attack where she defended herself. 

Months go by without another abduction of this kind. The community hopes and wonders if it’s over. Maybe the killer has moved on, or been arrested, or even died. The families beg for closure as the status of the cases stay the same. No news. 

Then on September 5th 1972, 17 year old Dianne Williams says goodbye to her boyfriend at the bus stop, and heads home after a nice date night out. Her body was found the next morning on the side of i295 southbound. She’s been sexually assaulted and strangled. And investigators finally found evidence of such- semen in her underwear. They also identify a green synthetic fiber on Dianne, which leads them to recheck the other victims for the same fiber yet again. All of the victims except for Johnson (again, decomposition) have the synthetic green fiber present. 

Fortunately, the killings seemed to stop after the murder of Dianne Williams. Unfortunately, there was not much coming in as far as evidence goes. There’s a lot more of this story to tell, but you know that this is a podcast about unsolved cases, so before we get into some of the investigative leads that detectives have had over the years, I want to take a moment to remind you of the importance of sharing these stories. I’m about to give you some of the theories, but this person who committed these murders has never been held accountable for them. At the end, I’ll go full Criminal Minds on you and “deliver the profile” so I hope that you’ll please share. 

Desperate for leads, detectives take another look at some of the known predators with criminal history in the area. One particular ex-con that stands out to them is a man named Robert Askins. He had a history of rape, abduction, and even murder. In one of these cases, he’d had the victim write a note. In another one of these cases, he’d had the victime call home and give false facts about where she was. Some of his associates even reported that he uses the word “tantamount” frequently and casually in conversation. Detectives get a search warrant for his home looking for any carpet to match the green synthetic fibers. They do find some strange items- women’s earrings, buttons, a knife- but no green carpet. They had no choice but to let him go. 

Early in 1974, a jailhouse snitch called up a detective and said that a man named Morris Warren at Lorton Prison had information about the Freeway Phantom. At first, Warren denied any knowledge but eventually he started giving information. Warren was in prison for something else, and was awaiting trial on a series of kidnappings and rapes by a group of suspects in a Green Vega. Warren says other members of the Green Vega gang had been responsible for the girls murders, and he could give them details of the dump sites and the murders. Nothing in prison comes free however, and Warren wanted an exchange- release from prison, and a part of the $10k reward money. 

Detectives couldn’t agree to those terms with nothing, so they took him on two ride alongs to test his credibility. While there were some elements he got right, such as the body disposal locations of Brenda Woodward and Darlenia Johnson, there were also a lot of inconsistencies. During the second ride along, a news report came on the radio with an update in the Freeway Phantom investigation- Police were following new leads by working with a cooperating inmate from Lorton prison. Knowing that this would get back to people in prison, Warren completely shut down and stopped cooperating. Further investigation revealed that the green vega had not been manufactured until the spring of 1972, meaning it couldn’t have been involved in most of the murders. Warren later admitted in a letter that was confiscated that he’d made the whole thing up to get out of his prison sentence. 

Detectives puttered along over the years but the case stayed cold. A painful memory staining the DC metropolitan area. The families felt as though they’d been given up on- forgotten about. In 1987, Detective Romaine Jenkins was promoted to Sergeant, a position with a supervisory capacity. She reached back to the case from her earlier years that had haunted her, and pulled together a team of detectives to reinvigorate the cold case. 

Sergeant Jenkins went to the evidence book to find the proper boxes and case files to get started only to find the most gut wrenching words a victim’s family could ever imagine. “Evidence Destroyed”. There was nothing left. Evidence is not stored forever, but before the evidence is destroyed the officer is supposed to be certain the case has been closed. Because the case had been so long forgotten, many people assumed it had been closed- and someone, somewhere, didn’t fact check that. During the investigations into the deaths of these six girls, detectives came to their families homes and collected photos, clothes, personal effects, mementos. Those were gone. Furthermore the DNA, biological, and all other evidence which could forensically link a criminal to a victim was lost forever.

We can all agree that is a horrific tragedy in and of itself that never ever should have happened. As a result, I read that the City Council strengthened their evidence retention laws and all evidence must be kept for a minimum of 65 years. But as far as the Freeway Phantom goes- it’s too late. Luckily the FBI keeps their records a little more diligently then DC metro did at the time, so Jenkins was able to at least piece back together the case file even if there was no physical evidence. She also made a really smart move in calling up all of her old detective pals who kept old school handwritten notebooks for all of their cases. But the damage has tragically been done, and I know the families are really feeling the weight of that mistake. 

Lets end the evening tonight by telling you what the FBI and Sargeant Jenkins have put together as a criminal profile. These will be physical and behavioral characteristics that are most likely for this killer in the early 1970s. The killer could still be alive today, in his 80s. Many cases have been solved before by someone realizing that a weird old family rumor was not just a rumor. If you know anyone who may have fit this description, especially if your family is from the DC area, we would encourage you to make a call. 

The Freeway Phantom Serial Killer who has murdered at least 6 young black girls in 1971 and 72 can most likely be identified as: 

  • African American Male 
  • Ages 27 to 32 in 1971. 
  • A loner 
  • A Psychopath 
  • Hated women 
  • Held down a dayjob
  • Knew some of the victims and was easily able to gain their trust 
  • Comfort zones around the body dump sites indicate St. Elizabeths hospital was a geographical anchor point for him. At the time it was labeled as a mental asylum. Police believe the killer was either a patient, a doctor, or a staff member of the hospital. 

I want to leave you with a quote from Sargeant Jenkins tonight “Every mystery case is like solving a puzzle. If you have have all the pieces, you cant finish the puzzle” 

If you think you might have any of the missing puzzle pieces to this story- maybe the weird family rumors about that one estranged uncle or something- please call the Synchronized Operations Command Center at 202 727 9099 or email unsolved.murder@dc.gov. If you don’t have the answers to this case, you can still contribute to helping the cause by sharing!! Spread awareness- the more people that know the stories, the more likely it is to be closed. But we need help! Join us next week as we shine light on another unsolved case. These are the stories of the voiceless. These are the lost souls of america.

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