After having dinner with a friend on November 15, 1971, eighteen-year-old Brenda Woodward caught a bus to return home, but she never made it. What started as a fun girl’s night out quickly turned into a young woman’s worst nightmare when the Freeway Phantom abducted her. He forced her to rip a page from her schoolbook and dictated a note for her to write to the police. She was the fourth out of the Freeway Phantom’s six victims.
On this week’s episode, Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy MacKenzie walk listeners through the scant leads in the case, the main suspects and the final moments of Brenda Woodward, Nenomoshia Yates and Diane Williams.
Brenda Woodward and her friend Cynthia joke and laugh about a boy they know while enjoying dinner at a restaurant. At the end of the meal, Cynthia spots Brenda for the bill and offers to drive her home. Brenda politely declines, opting to ride the bus instead. Cynthia walks her to her bus stop, and they talk about an upcoming English exam while waiting for Brenda’s bus to come. It arrives before too long, and the friends part ways.
After taking her seat on a nearly empty bus, the Freeway Phantom approaches Brenda, asking her if the seat next to her is taken. She grows uncomfortable. The killer tells her she looked lonely but takes the hint and temporarily leaves her alone.
Six hours later, two police officers find Brenda’s corpse strangled and riddled with stab wounds off the ramp to Route 202, about 8 miles east from I-295 where the other bodies were found. The killer covered Brenda’s upper torso with his own coat and left a note in the right pocket for the police. Written in feminine handwriting on lined notebook paper torn from Brenda’s schoolbook, it becomes evident that the Freeway Phantom forced the eighteen-year-old girl to write the note before he murdered her.
The killer left no forensic evidence.
Metropolitan police tip hotline workers become inundated with calls from people thinking they know who’s murdering young girls. One man even claims to be the Freeway Phantom himself.
The next victim, twelve-year-old Nenomoshia Yates, is assaulted and slain on October 1, 1971. While making a Safeway supermarket run for her family, Nenomoshia notices a man staring at her through the window and asks the cashier if she can stick around until he leaves. The cashier offers to call Nenomoshia’s mother and find someone to walk her home, but the little girl declines. She doesn’t believe her mother would pick up the phone and promises to walk home fast. It’s only a few hours later that her body is found.
Police bring in members of a street gang known as the Green Vega Rapists for questioning, but nothing comes of it. The case also loses FBI attention amidst the Watergate scandal. It’s during this time that the Freeway Phantom murders his last victim – 17-year-old Diane Williams.
After making dinner for her parents, Diane takes a bus to study with her boyfriend Brian on September 5, 1972, but she never makes it home. On her way back, the serial killer kidnaps, strangles and rapes her. Police ignore the semen on her clothes, wrongly thinking it belongs to Brian and not to the Freeway Phantom. They don’t believe Brian when he tells them that Diane didn’t engage in any sexual activity with him that night.
Metropolitan police detective James Trainum takes over the Freeway Phantom cold case in 2004 and is disappointed to learn that much of the evidence and files from the investigation were misplaced. Furthermore, his efforts to have the semen sample tested by the FBI and then Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner are thwarted when it, too, is lost.
What survives is this:
One of the Green Vega Rapists, now an inmate in Lorton Prison, tells a Detective Fickling that a fellow inmate is the Freeway Phantom. He tells stories and shares crime scene details only the real killer could know. However, when this scoop is leaked to the press from the prison, the inmate’s cooperative spirit dries up.
In 1977, investigators lock onto Robert Askins, a rapist, murderer and self-proclaimed “woman hater.” They find a court opinion in his house that uses the word “tantamount” and Detective Lloyd Davis connects this to the note Brenda Woodward wrote: “This is tantamount to my insensititivity (sic) to people, especially women.” While the link is thin, the detective couldn’t be more convinced that Askins is the Freeway Phantom.
Police tear apart Askins’ home looking for green synthetic carpet fibers matching those found on five of the six victims. They find none and are forced to release Askins due to a lack of evidence. Before too long, Askins gets a life sentence for kidnapping and raping two women in North Carolina.
Detective Trainum hypothesizes the killer intentionally dumped the bodies across multiple jurisdictions knowing that the police departments involved would not keep open communication with one another. This seems to implicate that the murderer was accustomed to a life of crime.
Although Robert Askins was ultimately crossed off the suspect list, between his jail stints and frequent brushes with the law, he learned enough to pull off the Freeway Phantom murders without getting caught.
But what do you think? Who was the most likely man behind the Freeway Phantom’s road trips? Weigh in on Twitter @ParcastNetwork or on Facebook.com/Parcast with your own theories