The ‘Freeway Phantom’

A puzzling case recorded from the nation’s capital, this murder series stands officially unsolved despite conviction of two defendants in one of seven similar homicides. Authorities have speculated on solutions in the case, asserting that “justice was served” by the round-up of suspects on unrelated charges, but their faith was shaken by an outbreak of look-alike murders in Maryland, during 1987. At this writing, some students of the case believe the “Phantom” has eluded homicide detectives altogether, shifting his field of operations to a more fertile hunting ground. The stalker’s first victim was 13-year-old Carole Denise Sparks, abducted on April 25, 1971, while en route to a neighborhood store in Southeast Washington. Her strangled, ravaged body was recovered six days later, a mile and a half from home, Iying on the shoulder of Interstate Highway 295, one of several freeways passing through Washington east of the Anacostia River. Ten weeks passed before 16-year-old Darlenia Denise Johnson disappeared, on July 8, from the same street where Carole Sparks was kidnapped . Strangled to death, she was found on July 19, within fifteen feet of the spot where Sparks was discovered on May 1. In the meantime, a third victim, 14-year-old Angela Denise Barnes, had been abducted from Southeast Washington on July 13, shot to death and dumped the same day at Waldorf, Maryland. Brenda Crockett, age ten, disappeared two weeks later, her strangled corpse recovered on July 28 near an underpass on U.S. Highway 50. The killer took a two-month break in August and September, returning with a vengeance to abduct 12-year-old Nenomoshia Yates on October 1. Familiar marks of strangulation were apparent when her body was found six days later, discarded on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Maryland state line. At eighteen, Brenda Denise Woodward was the oldest victim, kidnapped from a Washington bus stop November 15, stabbed to death and dumped the next day on an access road leading to Prince George’s County Hospital. A mocking note, its contents still unpublished, was discovered with the body, signed “The Freeway Phantom” in accordance with a nickname coined by journalists. In a macabre twist, FBI experts reported that Woodward had written the note herself, in a steady hand, betraying no hint of tension or fear. For once, police had ample evidence of pattern, from the victims’ race — all black — to the peculiar fact that four were named Denise. There seemed to be a geographical connection, both in the abductions and disposal of remains, but speculation brought authorities no closer to their goal of an arrest. Black Washington was up in arms, demanding a solution to the case, intent on proving that a white man was to blame, but angry rhetoric did nothing to advance the murder probe. Ten months elapsed before the Phantom claimed his final victim, abducting 17-year-old Diane Williams on September 5, 1972. Her body was found the next day along I-295, five miles from the point where Carole Spinks as discovered in May 1971. Again, police noted striking similarities with the other crimes — and again, they found no evidence that would identify a suspect in the case. In late March, Maryland state police arrested two black suspects — 30-year-old Edward Leon Sellman and 26-year-old Tommie Bernard Simmons — on charges of murdering Angela Barnes. Both suspects were ex-policemen from Washington, and both had resigned in early 1971, before completion of their mandatory probation periods. Investigators now divorced the Barnes murder from other crimes in the Phantom series, filing additional charges against both suspects in the February 1971 abduction and rape of a Maryland waitress. Convicted of murder in 1974, both defendants were sentenced to life. Meanwhile, a federal grand jury probing the Phantom murders focused its spotlight on “a loosely-knit group of persons” suspected of luring girls and young women into cars — sometimes rented for the hunt — then raping and/or murdering their victims for sport. Suspects John N. Davis, 28, and Morris Warren, 27, were already serving life on conviction for previous rapes when a series of new indictments were handed down in December 1974. Turning state’s evidence, Warren received a grant of limited immunity in return for testimony against Davis and another defendant, 27-year-old Melvyn Sylvester Gray. As a government spokesman explained, “The ends of justice can be served just as well if a person is convicted and sentenced to life for kidnapping, than if he is jailed for the same term for murder.” Critics questioned the wisdom of that advice, thirteen years later, when a new series of unsolved murders was reported from neighboring Maryland. Again, the female victims were young and black, abducted and discarded in a manner reminiscent of the Freeway Phantom’s style. Authorities refuse to speculate upon a link between the crimes, and so both cases are considered “open,” with the killers still at large.

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