Washington, DC, was in a bad way in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the city erupted into four days of rioting that ultimately killed 13 people and damaged 900 different businesses. By 1970, African Americans made up 71 percent of the city’s population, while the white population continued to decline as white residents moved to the suburbs of Maryland and Northern Virginia.In the midst of this bubbling cauldron of racial animosity and violence, the Freeway Phantom appeared. The crime wave started on April 21, 1971. On that evening, 13-year-old Carol Denise Spinks was told to go to a nearby 7-Eleven by her older sister, 24-year-old Valerie. Carol was given $5 and instructions to get groceries and soda pop.
She never made it back to her family’s Congress Heights apartment. Carol was abducted, and her body was not found until six days later, not far from Interstate 295 and the Suitland Parkway. Carol had been sexually assaulted (specifically sodomized), beaten severely, cut across her face, torso, and arms, and strangled to death. A later autopsy revealed that Carol had been kept alive by her killer for several days before her body was discovered.The killer’s next victim, 16-year-old Darlenia Johnson, who lived in the same Congress Heights neighborhood as the Spinks family, was abducted on July 8, 1971, while she was traveling to her job as a summer counselor at the Oxon Hill Recreation Center.
In this instance, an eyewitness came forward to say that he saw Johnson riding in an older-model car with an older black male driver. Johnson’s body would later be found only 4.6 meters (15 ft) away from the spot where Carol Spinks’s body had been found. Heavy decomposition made it impossible for the authorities to tell whether or not Darlenia had been sexually assaulted, but the cause of death was strangulation.
The third victim, ten-year-old Brenda Crockett, was discovered on July 28 near an underpass located on US Highway 50. She had been strangled to death. Like Carol, Brenda had been abducted as she walked to the grocery store.Before the dreadful year of 1971 would be over, the Freeway Phantom would claim two more victims. Twelve-year-old Nenomoshia Yates was abducted on October 1, and her body was found six days later on Pennsylvania Avenue. Yates had been strangled to death. The killer’s oldest victim, 18-year-old Brenda Denise Woodard, was kidnapped from a bus stop on November 15, stabbed multiple times, and then thrown away like so much trash near the Prince George’s County Hospital. Woodard’s killer left a taunting note near body which read: “This is tantamount to my insensitivity to people especially women. I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!” The missive was signed “Free-way Phantom.”
The final victim, 17-year-old high school senior Diane Williams, went missing after boarding a bus. Her body was found alongside I-295. She had not only been strangled to death, but her body was dumped just 8 kilometers (5 mi) away from where Carol Spinks had been found. Despite several accusations that DC’s Metropolitan Police Department did not devote any serious resources toward catching the killer (a double accusation as it also accused the police of racism), several suspects were questioned in the case. Some of these suspects include members of the Green Vega Rapists, a gang known for abducting and raping DC-area girls while out riding in a green Chevrolet Vega. However, alibis were provided by gang members. Two former police officers, Edward Sullivan and Tommie Simmons, were also questioned, but they were only suspected in the murder of Angela Denise Barnes, a victim not included in the Freeway Phantom series.