The FBI suspects that serial killers working as long-haul truckers are responsible for the slayings of hundreds of prostitutes, hitchhikers and stranded motorists whose bodies have been dumped near highways over the past three decades.
Federal authorities first made the connection about five years ago while helping police link a trucker to a string of unsolved killings along I-40 in Oklahoma and several other states. After that, the FBI launched the Highway Serial Killings Initiative, or HSK, to track slayings and suspect truckers.
A computer database maintained by the FBI has grown to include information on more than 500 female crime victims, the majority of whom were killed and whose bodies were discarded at truck stops, motels and other roadside locations along popular trucking routes crisscrossing the United States.
The database also has information on scores of truckers who have been charged with killings or rapes committed near highways or who are suspects in such crimes, officials said. Authorities said they do not have statistics on whether driving trucks ranks high on the list of occupations of known serial killers.
But the pattern in roadside body dumps and other evidence have prompted many investigators to speculate that the mobility, lack of supervision and access to potential victims that come with the job make it a good cover for someone inclined to kill.
“You’ve got a mobile crime scene,” one investigator said. “You can pick a girl up on the East Coast, kill her two states away and then dump her three states after that.”
Although some local police agencies have been briefed on the program, the FBI had not publicized its existence outside law enforcement until this year, when officials agreed to show the Los Angeles Times the inner workings of the operation and share details of some of their cases.
Housed in a nondescript brick building on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., FBI analysts pore over reports and computer entries looking for patterns in slayings from California to Connecticut.
Since the program began, more than two dozen killings have been solved, authorities said.
Michael Harrigan, who oversees the Serial Killings Initiative, said the program helps local police “connect the dots” to slayings outside their jurisdictions. He said most of the victims led high-risk lifestyles that left them particularly vulnerable.
“We don’t want to scare the public and make it seem like every time you stop for gas you should look over your shoulder,” Harrigan said. “Many of these victims made poor choices — but that doesn’t mean they deserved to die.”
The program’s success depends largely on local police departments voluntarily providing data on seemingly random killings, sexual assaults and other violent crimes to the FBI, which stores it in a massive computer database. FBI analysts can query the computer to spot patterns.
That was the case two years ago when authorities noticed that dead prostitutes who had been shot with a .22 were being found along highways in Georgia and Tennessee.
The body of one victim, Sarah Hulbert, was found behind a truck stop in Nashville.
Sgt. Pat Postiglione, a veteran homicide investigator with the Nashville Police Department, was assigned the case. He called the FBI and learned that Hulbert’s killing fit a pattern of recent slayings — and may have been the work of serial killer, which he’d already suspected.
With little to go on, he and another detective began reviewing videotape taken at the Truck Stops of America site in downtown Nashville where the victim had been found.
The only thing that caught Postiglione’s eye was a yellow 18-wheeler that seemed to come and go within about 30 minutes.
As leads go, it was pretty thin. But then the detective got lucky. As Postiglione approached the truck stop the morning after watching the tape, he said he saw what he thought was the yellow rig heading toward a nearby area of East Nashville known for prostitution.
Postiglione said he followed as the driver slowly wheeled his truck down streets lined with warehouses, budget motels and liquor stores. After a few minutes, the driver returned to the truck stop and parked, he said.
His curiosity piqued, Postiglione approached the driver’s door and knocked. After a few seconds, a disheveled-looking man emerged from the cab, the detective said.
His name was Bruce Mendenhall. As Postiglione sized him up, he said he noticed a speck of blood on the man’s thumb and what he thought were several drops on the driver’s door of the truck.
According to Postiglione, Mendenhall calmly agreed to submit to a DNA swab and signed a consent form granting the detective permission to search the truck.
By the time crime-scene technicians were finished with the cab, authorities have said, they found blood or DNA linking Mendenhall to at least seven victims. He has since been charged with four slayings, according to officials.
Hanging in a cubicle in the FBI office near Quantico, Va., is a map of the United States. It’s covered in red dots representing some of the 500-plus cases in the Highway Serial Killings Initiative database. For all the crimes they represent, FBI supervisory agent John Molnar said he thinks the number of such offenses has been “grossly underreported.”
Molnar said he hopes that will change following a decision last year to make the database available to law enforcement officials online, allowing police with a password to submit case information and make their own queries.
Though many of the dots on the map now appear connected to one another by similarities — such as the killers’ modes of operation — the majority are not connected to any known suspect.
They are potential serial slayings waiting to be solved, the FBI says.
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