These innocent black girls were killed half a century ago, but their cases are still unsolved

Mohammed Awal October 09, 2019
The six victims of the Freeway Phantom.

It has been nearly half a century since they were killed. Between the ages of 10 to 18, these black girls were taken from the streets of D.C., strangled and discarded.

Three of them were raped, one sodomized and another was horrifying decomposed – with no chance ascertaining the cause of death.

This is a tear-jerking story of the misfortunes that befell Carol Denise Spinks, Darlenia Johnson, Brenda Crockett, Nenomoshia Yates, Brenda Woodward, and Diane Williams.

They were snatched from D.C. streets between April 1971 and September 1972 and the rest was the beginning of a grim journey for their families, they have no closure because the D.C. police have not been able to apprehend the person behind their heinous murder.

Their killings are believed to be the first serial killings in Washington. ‘Freeway Phantom Murders’ they came to be known.

Carol Denise Spinks, 13, would be the casualty of the serial killer. She was a seventh-grader at Johnson High School. On the evening of April 25, 1971, Carol’s 24-year-old older sister sent her to get some groceries at the 7-Eleven, only four blocks away.

Spinks left home and never returned. Her mother filed a missing person report that night. Six days later, Carol’s body was found discarded on the side of the freeway next to the northbound lanes of the I-295, strangled, sodomized with cuts on her face, chest, neck and both hands.

Darlenia Johnson would be the second victim 10-week later. She was found along the freeway after police dispatch was informed about the existence of her remains by a D.C. Department of Highways and Traffic employee. According to reports, the body was just 15 feet from where Carol was discovered.

Darlenia, 16, was reported missing on July 9—a day after informing her mother, she was going to work at the Oxon Run Recreation Center. With a plan of staying the night at a sleepover the center was organizing for kids, Darlenia never showed. Her remains were discovered later grisly decomposed.

The discovery of Brenda Faye Crockett was nine days later. The 10-year-old was discarded alongside the road, wearing blue-and-white print shorts and a matching halter top. She was strangled and raped. Like Spinks, she had green synthetic fibers on her clothing.

“I remember everything vividly,” Prince George’s County homicide detective Hilary Szukalowski recounted in 2017. Szukalowski was the first detective on the scene.

Careful not to give himself away, the killer put clear plastic bags on Crockett’s tiny hands to preserve any evidence before placing her 4-foot-6-inch, 75-pound frame in a black plastic body bag for the drive to the Prince George’s Hospital morgue.

Worried by the deaths and the lack of action in apprehending the suspect the African-American community in Washington D.C. was outraged that little was being done to protect their young daughters.

And as the police struggle to make headway in solving those murders, the killer struck again on October 1, 1971. Nenomoshia Yates, 12, disappeared on her way to the Safeway store which was a block away from her father’s apartment in the 4900 block of Benning Road SE. It was around 7 p.m. and she had gone to buy sugar, flour and paper plates.

On her way home, she disappeared only to be some two hours later along the Pennsylvania Avenue dead. She had been strangled and raped.

Nenomoshia’s murder touched the nerves of the media as they began to seek answers from the police. The pressure led to the police to begin calling the killer as the “Freeway Phantom”. That was when the police realized they had a serial killer on their hands.

A fifth victim was killed six weeks later. 18-year-old Brenda Woodard went missing on November 15 after stopping at Ben’s Chili Bowl with a classmate. Usually, she is driven home by the classmate but on the day of her abduction the car was in the shop. They took a bus. Woodard alighted at Eighth and H streets NE and transferred to another bus while her classmate continued – she did not make it home.

Her body was found on 22 November on Hospital Drive, just south of Route 202 near Prince George’s Hospital. Buttons were missing from her coat and skirt. She had been raped, strangled and stabbed four times.

On 05 September 1972, the body of the sixth victim would be found. Diane Williams’ remains were found by a trucker off the I-295, about 200 yards south from the D.C. lines. She was a junior at Ballou Senior High School. She spent the evening of her murder with her boyfriend. He walked her to the bus stop, to catch a bus home but never made it.

Speaking to the Washington Post last year, Retired D.C. police detective Romaine Jenkins said she would never forget the heinous killing of the six black girls. She was in her 20s when the body of the first victim, Carol was discovered.

She said the murders which are still unresolved still haunts her, waking in the night thinking about them.

“I am truly obsessed with this,” she says. “No time ever goes by that I don’t think about it.

In 1974, the FBI created a task force to investigate.

“They ran down every lead,” Jenkins told the Post. “I have to give them credit.”

The FBI task force developed some hundreds of suspects including a four-star general, a St. Elizabeths psychiatrist and a wealthy Prince George’s developer who owned property in Southeast—still, nothing to prove.

Robert Askins, a computer technician and former patient at St. Elizabeths, was strongly suspected of slaying the young girls.

Jenkins believed Askins was capable of killing the girls.  “God, yes,” she said, “but you’ve got to be able to prove these things.”

The case was reopened in 2009 and James Trainum, the D.C. detective who revisited the case noted  that police “tried to squeeze him into the box they created, and it just wasn’t working.”

A note found after the killing of Brenda Woodard reads: “This is tantamount to my insensitivity [sic] to people especially women. I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!”

Nearly half a century gone by the cases are still unresolved.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: October 9, 2019


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