This week, we’re going to take a look at not one, but SIX unsolved murders known as the Freeway Phantom murders. This is a case that, in my opinion, should have been solved. And I believe it would have been solved if the victims had been white children, but we will get into that at the end of the post.
Carol Denise Spinks, Victim One
The Freeway Phantom’s first known victim was Carol Spinks. Carol was 13 years old in 1971. She had an identical twin and was one of eight children. She was known by the nickname Bay-Bay to her family. By all accounts, she loved playing games with her siblings. On April 25, 1971, she disappeared on her way home from the store. She was last seen wearing a red sweater and shorts.
Six days later, Carol’s body was found off of I-295. While she was still wearing the shorts and sweater, her shoes were nowhere to be found. The Coroner found that she had died only two to three days prior to the discovery of her body – meaning she had been alive after she disappeared. The implications of that finding are horrifying. Unfortunately for Carol’s family, her killer remained uncaught and soon killed again.
Darlenia Denise Johnson, Victim Two
The Freeway Phantom’s second victim was Darlenia Johnson. Darlenia was 16 when she was killed. This is a marked difference from Carol’s age – while the actual difference is only three years, the difference in maturity between a 13 year old and a 16 year old is incredible. Darlenia was reported missing when she didn’t report to her Rec Center job on July 9, 1971. Two witnesses claimed to be the last people to see Darlenia – one claimed she was with her boyfriend, and the other claimed she was with an unidentified black male. The police followed these leads, but came up with no information.
Darlenia was found on July 20, 11 days after she vanished. Her remains were reportedly found only 15 feet from where Carol’s body had been found, just off of I-295. No cause of death was evident – the remains were badly decomposed due to high levels of heat and humidity. Just like Carol, Darlenia’s shoes were nowhere to be found.
Brenda Faye Crockett – Victim Three
Brenda Faye Crockett was the third and youngest victim linked to the Freeway Phantom, having only been ten years old in 1971. She had been sent on an errand on July 27th but never returned with the requested items. Curiously, she did call home about an hour after she left. During this call, she spoke to a younger sister and claimed a white man had kidnapped her, though she was going to take a cab home. Then, even more curiously, there was also apparently a second call in which Brenda asked her mother’s boyfriend if her mother had seen her, even though Brenda told him she was in Virginia.
Unlike the cases of Carol and Darlenia, it only took eight hours for Brenda’s body to be found. A hitchhiker came across her body on Route 50. Because her remains had been found so quickly, more details about her fate were able to be discerned. She had a green scarf around her neck, which had apparently been used to strangle her. Unidentified green fibers were discovered on her body. She had also been sexually assaulted. Brenda was not wearing shoes when she vanished, so her being found without them is not strange, but her feet were not dirty, leading investigators to presume her murderer had washed them.
Nenomoshia Yates, Victim Four
Nenomoshia Yates was 12 years old in 1971. She was sent to a local Safeway for groceries on October 1, but it is not known whether she made it to the store or not. A witness claimed to see her getting into a blue Volkswagen, but this sighting could neither be confirmed nor denied. Her body was still warm when she was found, meaning she had only been dead a few hours at most. A teenager stumbled upon her body on Pennsylvania avenue in Prince George County, MD. Like Brenda, it was clear that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Also like Brenda, unidentified green fibers were found on her body. Like Carol and Darlenia, her shoes were nowhere to be found at the scene.
Brenda Denise Woodward, Victim Five
Brenda Woodard was 18 years old in 1971. She was out with friends on November 15, but she diverged from her group when she transferred busses. Brenda’s body was found six hours after she was last seen, off of Route 202. Like Brenda and Nenomoshia, she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Unlike the previous victims, she had also been stabbed.
Brenda was the oldest victim attributed to the Freeway Phantom. She was found with a note in her pocket. The note was in her handwriting, but apparently the words were the Phantom’s, as they signed off on it. The note reads: “this is tAntAmount to my insensititivity to people especiAlly women. I will Admit the others wheN you cAtch me iF you cAn! – FRee-wAy PhanTom.” Note that the capitalizations, misspellings, and emphasis are from the note itself. The capitalization could just be how Brenda wrote those letters – I believe this to be the case because the size of the letters is fairly uniform across the board. Of course, we don’t know what the Freeway Phantom ordered Brenda to do, so we do not know what is intentional and what is just happenstance.
Diane Denise Williams, Victim Six
Diane Denise Williams is the last known victim of the killer known as the Freeway Phantom. She went missing on September 5, 1972 – which is notable, as this means the Phantom seemingly took a neatly 10 month gap from killing. Or, at the very least, the killer went that long without having any victims connected to them. Diane was last seen just before 11:30 PM, when her boyfriend escorted her to the bust stop. Her body was discovered hours later along I-295. She had been strangled, but her shoes had been found with her.
Though there are specific suspects in this case, I’m not going to dive into them. They have been covered thoroughly elsewhere, and what I’d really like to do here is analyze the crimes in a few ways. First, I’d like to take a look at whether all of these crimes were connected. Second, I’ll be taking a look at whether the case was handled well – spoiler alert, it wasn’t.
So, first things first. I’m not sure that there’s a single killer here. The first two victims – Carol Spinks and Darlenia Johnson – definitely seem linked, based on the fact they were found in nearly the exact same spot. Victims three and four – Brenda Crockett and Nenomoshia Yates – are also linked by the green fibers found on their bodies. The six victim – Diane Williams – also fits in with the general characteristics of the other victims, as she was found on the side of I-295 and strangled. Brenda Woodward really gives me pause. The note stands out as a variation – the Freeway Phantom, up until that point, had hid his handiwork and not addressed the public. The fact that Brenda Woodward was also stabbed is also a variation. This makes me think there were at least two killers – the Freeway Phantom and perhaps someone that knew Brenda Woodward and used the Phantom as a red herring to get the police off of their trail.
Investigators came up with a rough profile of the Phantom, based on the victims and what was known about serial killers at the time. They posited that the Freeway Phantom was a Black man in his 20s or 30s. He was likely familiar with the areas in which the victims were found, as he was comfortable there. He would come off as charming and appeared friendly, but experienced difficulty maintaining relationships. He would likely be intelligent but hold no formal post-secondary education. He would likely have a steady job. He likely had a poor relationship with a woman in his life (mother, grandmother, sister, etc) that created a feeling of resentment towards women.
Now, let’s talk about Missing White Woman Syndrome. If these victims had been white, would the case have been solved? I can’t say yes for sure, but I truly believe that there would have been a hell of a lot more movement on the case. At the very least there would have been more media coverage and more public outrage. So many people have never even heard of this case despite the fact it has been unsolved for nearly 50 years. Despite its brutality. Despite the fact that similar serial killers with white victims are extremely covered in the true crime community.
So let’s get mad about it. Let’s call for action. Let’s get on the case. There has to be someone, somewhere that knows something. Some clue overlooked. All six victims – Carol Denise Spinks, Darlenia Denise Johnson, Brenda Faye Crockett, Nenomoshia Yates, Brenda Denise Woodward, and Diane Denise Williams – all deserve justice. Contact Washington D.C. Authorities or the FBI with any leads.
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