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The Freeway Phantom: Washington D.C's forgotten serial killer

A stock graphic of a road sign reading 'The Freeway Phantom' and 'Washington D.C.'

Between 1971 and 1972, six black girls went missing in the Washington D.C. area. They were abducted, murdered, and their bodies were discarded alongside D.C. freeways. Local media gave the killer a name: 'The Freeway Phantom.' Five decades later, no one has been brought to justice, and few know the details behind D.C.’s first serial killer.

Now a new podcast from iHeartRadio and Tenderfoot T.V. reinvestigates the 50-year-old unsolved murders of these young girls. In this Q&A, Crime + Investigation caught up with Celeste Headlee, the host of the series, journalist to discuss the podcast and find out why such a chilling case is not more well-known.

Crime + Investigation: What has the reaction been to the podcast so far?

Celeste Headlee: It's been extremely enthusiastic. A lot of people are surprised that they have never heard of this story because so many of the issues that were involved in the Freeway Phantom case are still with us today. People have been super into it.

Can you talk through the details of the Freeway Phantom case?

This was Washington, D.C.'s first recorded serial killer. He killed a minimum of eight quite young black girls and deposited their bodies along the side of the roads in south-eastern D.C. in the very early 1970s. He was never caught. Our podcast takes up this investigation.

How did you first hear about the case?

I was approached by one of the producers at Tenderfoot. T.V. and iHeartRadio, to do an investigative podcast about the case. That was the first time I'd ever heard of it.

The first thing that strikes you is, 'How have I never heard of this?' It is shocking that he could have killed all these girls and just completely disappeared into the shadows of American history.

What was Washington, D.C., like in the 1970s during the time of the murders?

In Washington, D.C., there has always been a stark contrast between the wealth and the power focused around the Capitol and Embassy Row and the outskirts of the city. It is this bizarre mix. You don't have to go very far away from these incredibly elaborate rococo buildings, and you're in working-class neighbourhoods.

At the time that he was killing these girls, the Vietnam War protests were just really heating up in the Capitol, and thousands of people were heading towards the centre of the city to protest. Law enforcement was pulled away. We heard officers from that time saying it was all hands-on deck, and all attention went to these protests near the Capitol Building.

Why do you think the Freeway Phantom case isn’t more well-known?

It's impossible not to connect this to both race - because they were all black victims, and it's very likely the killer himself was black - and their socioeconomic status. These are just not the kind of victims, even today, that get media attention.

There are other complicating factors. The victims were left in different jurisdictions. If we think it's bad now with law enforcement departments not communicating with one another, imagine what it was like when they didn't have email. They couldn't share evidence and facts by clicking a button. Law enforcement got very distracted by what was happening in the Capitol.

What were the biggest failings in the investigation?

The cops made assumptions because they didn't understand what kind of killer they were dealing with. Some of the assumptions were racist and classist about the victims themselves. The fact that the Metropolitan Police, at that point, was almost entirely white was another failing. That complicated everything because the trust was not there.

If they had spread the information that somebody was predating on young girls, we might not have ended up with six and perhaps more victims. So, there were a lot of failings.

Do you think there's any significance in the ways the bodies were disposed of?

iHeartRadio and Tenderfoot T.V. commissioned the very first scientific profile of this killer. So, I can tell you what the experts say, which is that he was a paedophile. This is not my opinion; this is what I'm relating what I have learned from actual experts in this particular field.

He had a great deal of disgust with himself over his sexual attraction to young girls, and he transferred that to them. He disposed of them like garbage. He needed these girls to be trash because that eased his feelings of disgust with what he was doing.

The Freeway Phantom communicated with the police. Can you talk about these messages?

He pinned a note to one of the girl's bodies. It looks as though she wrote it, so he probably dictated the note to her. He signed it the Freeway Phantom, which was a name that one of the newspapers had given him. Other experts have compared it to the notes that Jack the Ripper would send taunting the police.

We also know that he made one of the victims call her own home twice to try to mislead the police by telling them they were with a white man in Virginia. Both of those things were unlikely to be true.

So those are the two things that we can confirm. There were other calls made to these victims' families, possibly made by the killer, saying, 'I killed your daughter' and things like that. This was in 1971, and they didn't have caller I.D., so it was very difficult to track a phone call, and we couldn't confirm those other contacts.

Can you tell us about the reward for catching the Freeway Phantom?

The Metropolitan Police Department is already offering a reward of up to $150,000 for information that leads to the identification of this murderer, even if that person is deceased (which is probably a good chance). iHeartRadio and Tenderfoot T.V. are matching that, which means the reward is up to $300,000.

Every single time I do an interview like this, to try to bring attention to it. All of us would like nothing better than for someone to collect that reward. I know that iHeartRadio and Tenderfoot T.V. would love to write that check.

Have you had any useful tips?

We've had quite a few tips that people can send to Tenderfoot T.V., and then they are anonymous. Our researchers and producers are tracking every single credible tip that gives them the information they can look for. They are very busy tracking down all of them. They will investigate every credible tip, and that's what they are doing right now. But yes, we have had a lot of contact with people.

You mention in the first episode that you are scared of serial killers. Was this a difficult project for you to get involved in?

I had to spend two years researching, reading talking about the thing that scares me the most in the world. It's not a logical fear, and I had to come up with coping mechanisms to help me relax. It's important work, and that's why I was willing to do it. But it was nerve-racking.

What's your favourite true crime podcast?

I listened to Dr. Death. That's true crime, and I enjoyed it. There is a podcast actually that I like out of the South here in the U.S. called Criminal, which is it that's a kind of a much broader definition of criminal. For me, it's like true crime light. I can appreciate it, especially with some association with history. I can get into that.

Check out our true crime podcast hub for podcast features and interviews, plus full episodes of the Murdertown podcast.