Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate (Discovering America (University of Texas Press))
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Starting in the 1950s, Americans eagerly built the planet’s largest public work: the 42,795-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Before the concrete was dry on the new roads, however, a specter began haunting them—the highway killer. He went by many names: the “Hitcher,” the “Freeway Killer,” the “Killer on the Road,” the “I-5 Strangler,” and the “Beltway Sniper.” Some of these criminals were imagined, but many were real. The nation’s murder rate shot up as its expressways were built. America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.
Killer on the Road tells the entwined stories of America’s highways and its highway killers. There’s the hot-rodding juvenile delinquent who led the National Guard on a multistate manhunt; the wannabe highway patrolman who murdered hitchhiking coeds; the record promoter who preyed on “ghetto kids” in a city reshaped by freeways; the nondescript married man who stalked the interstates seeking women with car trouble; and the trucker who delivered death with his cargo. Thudding away behind these grisly crime sprees is the story of the interstates—how they were sold, how they were built, how they reshaped the nation, and how we came to equate them with violence.
Through the stories of highway killers, we see how the “killer on the road,” like the train robber, the gangster, and the mobster, entered the cast of American outlaws, and how the freeway—conceived as a road to utopia—came to be feared as a highway to hell.
Montgomery, Birmingham, Columbus, St. Paul, and Los Angeles, black communities were lost to the 88 Strand Pages1.indd 88 2/6/12 1:44 PM = THE CRUELEST BLOW = freeway. Expressways were used not only to clear out communities the planners dubbed “slums,” but to isolate and contain the black neighborhoods that remained. “When the American people, through their Congress, voted a little while ago for a twenty-six-billion-dollar highway program,” declared Lewis Mumford, “the most charitable thing
complex between the Buford Highway and I-85. 108 Strand Pages1.indd 108 2/6/12 1:44 PM = THE CRUELEST BLOW = ••••• M arch 1981 was a watershed. Curtis Walker, 13, a Bowen Homes resident who had vanished on February 19, was found strangled. Four more young men, ages 13 to 23, disappeared, bringing the count—depending on which murders and disappearances you counted—to more than twenty. Newspapers revealed that the police were ﬁnding trace evidence on the bodies. After that, the bodies
to make anyone hit the brakes. ••••• C harles Starkweather was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in November 1938. He was the third of seven kids, all but one of them boys. When he was three, his family moved to what Charles called a “shabby” house on the city’s northeast side. They were an unexceptional clan. His father, Guy, was a carpenter and handyman who worked off and on due to various ailments; for a short time in 1950, while he suffered from a bad 16 Strand Pages1.indd 16 2/6/12 1:44 PM =
Robert Williams—the suspect in Terri Turner’s series—confessed to the Grapevine crime from prison in Mississippi. The sergeant called Clark Fine and told him he ought to talk to the guy too. “Myself and a partner drove down to Mississippi and we had speciﬁc things about our case—she had certain tattoos on her— to see if this might be the guy,” Fine recalled. At the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, John Williams told the detectives he remembered their Buffie Brawley, though he hadn’t
new overpass would connect downtown Lincoln to the proposed Interstate 80 route, slated to pass north of town. The viaduct’s location was practically in the backyard of Capital Bridge, and it was no surprise when Ward’s company got the contract to build it. Lauer Ward went by his middle name. His ﬁrst name, Chester, he shared with his father, Chester K. Ward, who founded 23 Strand Pages1.indd 23 2/6/12 1:44 PM = KILLER ON THE ROAD = Capital Bridge and Steel as one company in 1925. Lauer