Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate (Discovering America (University of Texas Press))
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Starting in the 1950s, Americans eagerly built the planet’s largest public work: the 42,795-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Before the concrete was dry on the new roads, however, a specter began haunting them—the highway killer. He went by many names: the “Hitcher,” the “Freeway Killer,” the “Killer on the Road,” the “I-5 Strangler,” and the “Beltway Sniper.” Some of these criminals were imagined, but many were real. The nation’s murder rate shot up as its expressways were built. America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.
Killer on the Road tells the entwined stories of America’s highways and its highway killers. There’s the hot-rodding juvenile delinquent who led the National Guard on a multistate manhunt; the wannabe highway patrolman who murdered hitchhiking coeds; the record promoter who preyed on “ghetto kids” in a city reshaped by freeways; the nondescript married man who stalked the interstates seeking women with car trouble; and the trucker who delivered death with his cargo. Thudding away behind these grisly crime sprees is the story of the interstates—how they were sold, how they were built, how they reshaped the nation, and how we came to equate them with violence.
Through the stories of highway killers, we see how the “killer on the road,” like the train robber, the gangster, and the mobster, entered the cast of American outlaws, and how the freeway—conceived as a road to utopia—came to be feared as a highway to hell.
James Kunstler, “is now like television, violent and tawdry.” Critic Jane Holtz Kay described the “mechanical scythe of the highway” that “maimed whatever it touched.” Even when not actively committing murder, the expressway has become a marker of social dysfunction: ﬁlms from Falling Down to Freeway to Crash propose highways as analogs for cultural psychosis. Moviemakers can simply toss out an image of a freeway packed with cars to suggest a world gone mad. In the opening sequence of James
murdered son. Heartsick in the months following Yusef’s death, she began to notice something odd in the black community. Children, primarily adolescent boys, had been vanishing with what seemed like astonishing regularity. Edward Smith, 14, had gone missing after leaving the Greenbriar Skating Rink. Alfred Evans, 13, took a bus to a movie theater downtown and was never seen alive again. Both their bodies were found a few months before Yusef’s. Milton Harvey, 14, had ridden off on his bike and
Dominating the center of California, the 450-mile-long Central Valley stretches from Redding in the north to Bakersﬁeld in the south. Once home to little more than vast ﬁelds of grapes, almond trees, and vegetable farms, the Central Valley began to be devoured by subdivisions in the eighties. Before long, it became California’s fastest-growing region, which it remains today. It was an era of change. As the eighties dawned, the nation was experiencing a profound transition. The seventies—an era of
“Killers Who Roam the U.S.” piece in the New York Times, only three could actually be said to have roamed the United States: Bundy, Lucas, and Toole. Randy Kraft, who was known as the “Freeway Killer,” did in fact roam the highways, but like Edward Kemper, he stuck to a familiar area in southern California. Wayne Williams—if he was in fact responsible for the majority of the Atlanta child murders—roamed a fairly circumscribed set of streets in Atlanta’s ghettos. Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi
company where he worked to discuss the case. Kibbe admitted to having given the woman a ride, but denied having had sex with her. Police then tried to contact the woman to follow up with her, but they couldn’t ﬁnd her. Once again, a report on Kibbe was shelved. Two years later, the bodies began to appear. They were found at varying distances from the I-5 corridor between Sacramento and Stockton, where all of them had vanished. This stretch of freeway zooms through one of the sparser parts of the