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American Isolato

Ginger Strand
25 Snaps

In June of 1983, Henry Lee ­Lucas was arrested in Texas for possession of a firearm. Five days later, he confessed to the brutal murder of an elderly neighbor, Kate Rich. If his famous predecessor Ted Bundy evoked the serial killer’s “mask of sanity,” Lucas, a one-eyed former mental patient who had already done time for killing his mother, seemed to embody the monster behind the mask. Born in the backwoods of Virginia, Lucas was a nasty piece of work. His father, according to stories, was a moonshiner who had passed out on a railroad track in a drunken stupor and had had both legs severed by a passing train. He hopped around legless for a while before dragging his sorry self into the cold one night to freeze to death. Henry’s mother was no better: allegedly a prostitute, she forced her family to watch her meetings with “clients,” it was claimed, and regularly beat her children with a club. Not surprisingly, young Henry’s life of crime began at an early age.

Seemingly remorseless, Lucas admitted upon arrest that he had murdered his elderly neighbor and raped her dead body. But that was only the beginning. Once in custody, he spontaneously began confessing to more ­murders. First it was 27 women. Then 100. Then 150. Then 165. He offered up the name of his frequent accomplice: Ottis Toole, who was already in jail in Jacksonville, Florida. Police declared that between them, Lucas and Toole were good for at least 28 murders in eight states, including some of what were being called “the I-35 killings”—the late-’70s murders of around 20 hitchhikers and women with car trouble along Interstate 35 in Texas. By October of 1983, Lucas was admitting to 200 murders. Then Ottis Toole—perhaps greedy to share some of that airtime—confessed to having killed Adam Walsh. The son of a wealthy Florida hotel developer, six-year-old Adam had been kidnapped in 1981 from a Florida shopping mall. When Adam’s severed head turned up sixteen days later, his father, John, dedicated his life to preventing crimes against children. John Walsh went on to found the National ­Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and would eventually find his niche as host of the Fox network’s longest-running program, America’s Most Wanted.

Glendale–Hyperion Viaduct, Los Angeles County; image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Lucas confessions picked up where Ted Bundy left off. Exaggerated though they turned out to be, the confessions of Lucas and Toole confirmed what many already believed: the nation was being haunted by traveling murderers.

The Reagan administration had swept into office in part on the promise of “getting tough” on violent crime, and, in July 1983, the Senate held hearings on how to address this new epidemic of serial murder. The Senate hearings were largely focused on connecting serial killers to interstate mobility. “Experts” and law-enforcement officials were brought in to testify to the dramatic increase in random-stranger murders committed with no regard for jurisdictional boundaries.

One expert was Ann Rule. “The thing that I have found about the serial murders that I have researched,” Rule declared, “they travel constantly. They are trollers; while most of us might put fifteen thousand to twenty thousand miles a year on our cars, several of the serial killers I have researched have put two hundred thousand miles a year on their cars. They move constantly. They may drive all night long. They are always looking for the random victim who may cross their path.” Rule’s prepared statement referred over and over to serial killers as a “new breed” of criminal whose emergence “may be tied in somehow with the fact that we have become an increasingly mobile society.”

Another witness was John Walsh. Emotionally, Walsh declared there were “6,300 unsolved murders in this country last year, random murders… and someone is doing these murders, and they are going through this country and police agencies are not linking them up.”

Luckily, the FBI was there with a solution. Director William Webster proposed creating a central repository within the FBI to track and record apparently motiveless violent crimes. Based at Quantico, the division would catalog rapes and ­murders and provide law ­enforcement with the latest in behavioral analysis of these dangerous, mobile criminals.

In the months that followed, the FBI helped to “educate” the public about this frightening new threat. Justice Department officials declared that as many as thirty-five serial murderers could be at large in the United States. They defined serial murderers as “those who kill for reasons other than greed, a fight, jealousy or family disputes.” They distinguished serial from mass murderers, explaining that serial killers “often cross city and state lines, making detection more difficult.” Pointing out that 28 percent of the nation’s twenty thousand annual homicides went unsolved, the Justice Department hinted darkly that serial killers might be murdering around four thousand people a year. “We’ve got people out there now killing twenty and thirty people and more, and some of them just don’t kill. They torture their victims in terrible ways and mutilate them before they kill them,” declared the Justice Department’s Robert Heck. “Something’s going on out there… It’s an epidemic.”

Skeptics have subsequently pointed out that it was very much in the interest of the FBI, seeking funding for its new national database, to highlight interjurisdictional, mobile killers. The FBI has always needed to justify its existence by highlighting an “enemy within,” preferably a highly mobile one best fought by a well-equipped federal agency. Gangsters, communists, and “student radicals” had all served this purpose at various points. In the ’80s, serial killers fit the bill perfectly.

The nation loved the story. In 1984 and 1985, articles ran in nearly every major magazine. Television news magazines, from 60 Minutes to America Undercover, ran ­serial-killer episodes. HBO ­created a full-length documentary, and new “infotainment” television shows like Inside Edition and Hard Copy aired ­lurid “re-creations” of killers’ alleged crimes. All emphasized the killers’ mobility, and most of them repeated the Justice Department estimate of four thousand victims annually, murdered by thirty to thirty-five serial killers roaming the nation. That would mean each killer was dispatching a hundred people ­annually—an average of two a week. No wonder there was a panic.

Was there an actual epidemic of serial killing in the ’80s? A 1988 ­article in Criminal Justice Research Bulletin concluded there was evidence for a dramatic increase in American serial murder since 1964, but that the number of victims was nowhere near the Justice Department’s insinuations. Scholar Philip Jenkins estimated that serial murder accounts for about 2 to 3 percent of American homicides, meaning there are perhaps three to four hundred victims a year. And most serial killers, he declared, do not roam. The public’s panic was not only unjustified by the numbers, but focused on an image that had little basis in reality.

“In feeding the frenzy,” confessed retired FBI profiler Robert Ressler years later, “we were using an old tactic in Washington, playing up the problem as a way of getting Congress and the higher-ups in the executive branch to pay attention to it.” The strategy worked. In June of 1984, President Reagan announced the creation of the National Center for the Analysis of ­Violent Crime, a federal clearinghouse for information about mobile violent criminals ­under the auspices of the FBI at Quantico. The NCAVC would be home to the evolving art of criminal profiling, as well as to a computer database, known as ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program), a ­centralized, searchable repository of unsolved, apparently random murders and rapes. In developing the questionnaire that local law-­enforcement agencies would fill out to enter their cases into ViCAP, the FBI consulted with America’s favorite expert on serial killers: Ted Bundy.

*

The reality for Sacramento homicide detective Ray Biondi was much less ­glamorous. Two years after Reagan green-lighted the FBI’s serial-killer specialists, 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 California’s Central Valley, an area still dominated today by rich agricultural lands and a network
of irrigation canals and aqueducts.

Stephanie Brown was pulled out of one of those irrigation ditches, near a place called Terminus Island. A vivacious nineteen-year-old bank teller, Brown never returned to her home in one of Sacramento’s northeast suburbs in July 1986 after going to rescue a roommate whose car had broken down. Unfamiliar with the downtown area, she apparently got lost. The California Highway Patrol tagged her abandoned car the next morning on the Hood/ Franklin off-ramp, an isolated highway exit about sixteen miles south of where she should have gone north on I-5. A crumpled roadmap lay on the ground nearby. Within a day, her strangled body was found about twenty miles away, not far from the intersection of I-5 and Highway 12.

The next month, Charmaine Sabrah disappeared. She had enjoyed a night out in Stockton with her mother, Carmen Anselmi. But as the mother and daughter drove home to Sacramento, their car broke down. The two women waited on the shoulder of I-5, and, eventually, a middle-aged man with a small, two-seater sports car stopped behind them. Offering to help, he drove the mother, Carmen, to a nearby exit so she could make a phone call. She couldn’t reach anyone. The man drove her back to the disabled car, and offered to drive the women home. But one at a time, he said, as he only had room for two in his car. Carmen and her daughter decided Charmaine should go first, since she had an infant at home. Charmaine got into the car with the man and waved goodbye to her mother. She was never seen alive again. Her strangled body was found several months later in the old gold-mining country of Amador County, on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas.

I-5, south Orange County, 1960s; image courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Detectives talked with Carmen Anselmi at length, but it was dark and she had been drinking. The description she gave was vague: he was middle-aged, with graying hair. The man who killed her daughter, she told police, was completely nondescript.

Not long after Charmaine Sabrah disappeared, another body was found in the desolate country off I-5. It was Lora Heedick, a Sacramento prostitute. Her case didn’t receive the attention paid the pretty all-American girl, or the young mother trying to get home to her baby. Nor did the case of Katherine Quinones, another Sacramento prostitute, who disappeared in November 1986. But both women had also been strangled.

In mid-1986, Roger Kibbe’s furniture-making business had failed. The next year, avoiding foreclosure, the Kibbes moved to northern Sacramento to manage a mini-storage facility called Public Storage. They got modest salaries and a one-bedroom apartment on the premises. Behind their new home, rows of garage-like storage units reached their fingers toward I-80, roaring dully by.

That June, a young woman named Karen Finch disappeared after dropping her daughter off at her ex-husband’s home in Twain Harte, near the west side of Yosemite National Park. Her anxious boyfriend found her car on a deserted, mostly agricultural stretch of French Camp Road, between Modesto and Stockton. A week later, her body was found in sparsely populated Amador County, about an hour north of her car. She had been viciously stabbed to death.

Ray Biondi was pretty sure he knew what he was looking at: another victim of the man he was thinking of as “the I-5 Strangler.” Like Stephanie Brown, Charmaine Sabrah, and Lora Heedick, Finch had been found mostly nude, with her clothing scattered about the scene. Some of the clothes had been cut up or simply slashed in odd ways. The detectives called it “nonfunctional cutting.” And Biondi had a gut ­feeling he knew what those nonfunctional cuts were: a signature.

*

By 1987, serial killers were becoming big business. Since the 1980 success of The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule’s true-crime book about Ted Bundy, Rule had been averaging nearly a book a year profiling serial killers. Meanwhile, slasher films, a ­horror subgenre centered on ­psychopathic murderers and their strings of gruesome killings, had become wildly popular. And there were sensationalist nonfiction books, like Jack Levin and James Alan Fox’s 1985 Mass Murder: America’s ­Growing Menace. “We must face the fact that the incidence of mass murder is growing,” the authors declared at the start. “The 1960s mark the onset of the age of mass murder in the United States.” Many of the books and TV shows about serial killers reported on the law-enforcement theories issuing forth from the new National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. One of those was the idea of  a criminal “signature.”

A criminal’s signature, according to John Douglas, an author and retired FBI profiler, is “what the perpetrator has to do to fulfill himself.” It differs from a modus operandi, and may have little to do with the murder itself—it may even complicate the crime’s commission. But it’s something the criminal must do for his own kicks.

To Biondi, the nonfunctional cutting of the victim’s clothing was a signature. It convinced him the murders he was investigating were linked. Once he learned about Roger Kibbe’s teenage habit of stealing items of women’s clothing and cutting them up, he would begin to see how it all fit together. He became even more certain in August 1987, when the body of seventeen-year-old runaway Darcie Frackenpohl was found one hundred miles away in South Lake Tahoe, by the side of Highway 50. Frackenpohl’s sleeveless pink dress had been cut in several places.

Scholars of serial killing have frequently pointed out that a signature is often an acquisitive act. Killers sometimes keep “trophies” from their victims—often jewelry or personal effects. Some keep body parts. The killers become, in essence, collectors. Writers and serial-killer “buffs” reinforce the collecting aspect of the crime, arguing over body counts and debating about the most prolific serial killers, as if a high body-count is a marker of status. Ted Bundy, discussing his crimes in the third person, saw it that way, insisting that he “should have recognized that what really fascinated him was the hunt, the adventure of searching out his victims. And, to a degree, possessing them physically as one would possess a potted plant, a painting, or a Porsche. Owning, as it were, this individual.”

*

In September of 1987, Lieutenant Biondi went to Nashville to attend the fifth ­National Conference on Homicide, Unidentified Bodies, and Missing Persons. There, he outlined what he and his fellow detectives were now calling “the I-5 series.”

Biondi wasn’t the only one at the conference looking for ideas about an unsolved series of freeway murders. Public panic about serial killing had abated, but homicide detectives were noticing a disturbing new trend. Bodies were regularly being found along the nation’s interstate highways. Such cases had been increasing in frequency since the late ’70s. Donald Henry Gaskins, convicted in 1976, traveled the South’s roads in search of victims for what he called his “highway killings.” Patrick Kearney, arrested in 1977, trolled the freeways of Orange County looking for young male hitchhikers. William Bonin, who also killed young men along California highways, was arrested in 1980. Randy Kraft, a Bonin copycat, was arrested in 1983. Kearney, Bonin, and Kraft had each been dubbed “the Freeway Killer.” Randy Woodfield, an ­Oregon bartender who murdered people while robbing homes and businesses along I-5, became known as “the I-5 Killer.” He was arrested in 1981. And in 1984, Larry Eyler, called “the Interstate Killer” or “the Highway Killer,” was arrested in Illinois. He was a suspect in more than twenty murders, many involving bodies dumped along highways.

But none of these killers became a household name, as so many other killers did at the same time. Even Henry Lee Lucas, who had so captivated the nation with his string of confessions, pretty much dropped out of view after the Texas attorney general’s office issued a 1986 report debunking the majority of his claims, including the one that had consigned him to death row. Lucas would likely never have made it into print again had he not, in 1998, become the only Texas death-row prisoner to be granted clemency by Governor George W. Bush. His sentence commuted to life, he went back to relative obscurity. He died of heart failure in 2001, largely forgotten.

Something strange was going on. The nation had created a panic over mobile serial killers. But the most talked-about killers—John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Son of Sam, even Ted Bundy—were geographically focused. With the exception of Bundy, they weren’t mobile at all. But it didn’t matter, because the nation had come to associate freeways with ­violence. Meanwhile, real freeway killers—mobile predators using the ­highways to find vulnerable ­victims—were out there, but they got far less attention. Like the highways themselves, they were bland, ­unappealing, and lacking in taste. And their victims—gay hustlers, drifters, prostitutes, runaways—were “throwaway” people. The highway killers may have been “collectors,” but, unlike Ted Bundy, they were collecting the wrong thing.

While Ray Biondi was at the Nashville conference, the I-5 case got its big break. On the night of September 14, Roger Kibbe picked up a prostitute in downtown Sacramento and tried to handcuff her. The prostitute, Debra Ann Guffie, fought back, and a Sacramento police officer heard her screams. Kibbe fled, but the officer caught him a few blocks later.

In November of 1987, Kibbe was tried for battery, solicitation, and false imprisonment—all misdemeanor charges. Convicted on the first two counts, he was sentenced to eight months in jail. Detectives decided to put together their murder case against him while he was in jail, so he wouldn’t have the chance to kill again.

In early 1988, Biondi and the Sacramento County sheriff held a press conference to declare that detectives had linked seven of the murders along I-5. They asked the public for help identifying the murderer. “We think he is a frequent lone traveler on major highways in the Central Valley, the Highway 50 corridor, and the Tahoe Basin,” the sheriff told reporters. “He’s probably a resident of one of those areas, more likely the general Valley, and he’s familiar, very familiar, with the rural roads and back roads.”

This sounded exactly like the kind of serial killer the FBI had been warning the nation about for years: a mobile predator, pounding the pavement in his search for easy victims. In spite of this, the newly named “I-5 Strangler” got little attention. Roger Kibbe didn’t make for good copy. Even his indictment for murder immediately upon his release went largely unnoticed. At his first hearing that fall, the judge banned television cameras from the courtroom. He needn’t have bothered; the media showed little interest. Not that the public’s fascination with serial killers was flagging. In England that autumn, a celebration was being held on the centennial of the White-chapel murders. Vendors hawked jack the ripper T-shirts, mugs, and pins, while newspapers, books, and television specials recounted the murders. There was an extra-gory computer game called Jack the Ripper, and, in pubs, a special, bloodred Ripper cocktail, so people could drink to the forefather of serial killers everywhere.

The following year, Ted ­Bundy’s execution was front-page news across the nation.

*

Roger Kibbe’s trial for the murder of Darcie Frackenpohl opened on ­February 14, 1991. That day, MGM Studios released the blockbuster hit The Silence of the Lambs. Directed by Jonathan Demme and based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, Silence was perhaps the most successful pop-culture evocation of serial-killing ever. The film creates a triangle between FBI cadet Clarice Starling and two serial killers: the “bad” killer, Buffalo Bill, and the “good” killer, Hannibal Lecter. Buffalo Bill, who longs to be a woman, kidnaps women, starves them for several days, and skins them to make himself a “woman suit.” Hannibal Lecter, now in prison, was the more civilized murderer: he simply ate his victims.

Played with demonic glee by Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal the Cannibal immediately became a cultural icon. This killer was no monster, but a master of consumer culture: not simply a collector, but a connoisseur. A former psychiatrist, Lecter is not only brilliant but elegant, rising above his lowly prison circumstances. He makes drawings of the Florence duomo, quotes Marcus Aurelius, recognizes that Clarice has a “good bag and cheap shoes.” He has the soul of an aesthete, and in prison he reaches out to collect the one thing available to him: Clarice Starling’s memories. In the film’s pivotal scenes, he offers her information that will help her track Buffalo Bill in exchange for her recollections of the miserable, hardscrabble childhood she has repressed to get ahead in the world, savoring her stories just as he once savored a victim’s liver, as he famously tells Clarice, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Poor, social-climbing Ted Bundy—the Safeway stockist—whose attempts to ape such highbrow tastes were so pitiably obvious. Hannibal the Cannibal is no poser but the real deal: sophisticated, high-class, and educated. Audiences loved him. At the film’s end he escapes, and the final scene shows him following an obnoxious prison warden: viewers know another grisly meal is about to take place, and they relish it, too.

Was it inevitable that the serial killer would metamorphose, in the ’80s, from bogeyman to icon? Serial killing is, after all, a kind of greed: Jeffrey Dahmer fixating on his victims’ body parts, Ted Bundy owning his victims, Henry Lee Lucas piling up the confessions. Hannibal Lecter, too, is nothing if not greedy; “Thank you, Clarice,” he breathes, when she finally yields up her most painful memory, the one for which the film is named, the one he was waiting for all along. Was embracing the serial killer just one more way to insist that greed was good?

The year Silence hit theaters, Bret Easton Ellis published his controversial novel American Psycho. Its protagonist, yuppie Wall Street executive Patrick Bateman, spends much of the novel recounting his flashy, brand-name-obsessed lifestyle in exhaustive detail. He uses the same flat tone to describe the increasingly brutal murders he commits as the novel progresses. In one scene, for instance, he tortures a victim by making her watch a video of himself killing another woman: “I’m wearing a Joseph Abboud suit, a tie by Paul Stuart, shoes by J. Crew, a vest by someone Italian and I’m kneeling on the floor beside a corpse, eating the girl’s brain, gobbling it down, spreading Grey Poupon over hunks of the pink, fleshy meat.”

Unpleasant as it is to read, American Psycho—like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street—was clearly intended as a satirical critique of ’80s materialism. The controversy that exploded upon its publication suggests that it may have been a little bit too close to the bone. Critics declared it “repulsive,” “revolting,” “garbage,” and “designer porn.” The author received death threats. The nation was ready to accept a connoisseur-killer as a hero, but it wasn’t eager to have the connection between consumerism and killing made so explicit.

The Silence of the Lambs won five Academy Awards. Award-show host Billy Crystal was brought onto the stage at the ceremony dressed as Hannibal Lecter: it was no longer a bad thing to be identified with a serial murderer, as long as it was the classy kind. If the nation was fascinated by serial killers before, it was absolutely crazy about them now. “Somehow it has happened,” declared Joyce Carol Oates in a 1994 New York Review of Books essay, “that the ‘serial killer’ has become our debased, condemned, yet eerily glorified Noble Savage, the vestiges of the frontier spirit, the American isolato cruising interstate highways in van or pickup truck that will yield, should police have the opportunity to investigate, a shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle, quantities of ammunition and six-packs and junk food, possibly a decomposing female corpse in the rear.”

And yet, an isolato—a person out of step with the times or the culture—was just what the serial killer was not, as the ’90s dawned. Serial killers like Hannibal Lecter were completely in step with the era’s unapologetic materialism. Bland, blue-collar Roger Reece Kibbe was the one who was out of step: an economic loser in an age that loved winners. The media couldn’t get enough of Hannibal and those they saw as his real-life counterparts, but they were barely interested in the case of the I-5 Strangler. The Sacramento Bee ran intermittent stories about the trial in its Metro pages; outside Sacramento, it was barely covered. The hundreds of reporters who had jostled for seats at Ted Bundy’s trial were no-shows.

The trial took just over a month. The Silence of the Lambs was still raking in admissions fees when Kibbe was declared guilty. In May, Kibbe was sentenced to a mandatory twenty-five years to life. The event was given a single column in the L.A. Times. USA Today gave it thirty-four words. No other major newspaper even mentioned it.

The media were not the only ones who felt the case was hardly noteworthy. As the sheriff’s deputy escorted him from the building, Kibbe offered his defense.

“I’ve killed a few women,” he said. “What’s the big deal?”

*

The New York Times used the phrase serial killer or serial murderer 108 times in the 1980s. In the 1990s, one or the other appeared 781 times. In the 2000s, 1,199. The vast majority of mentions, however, were not in news stories but in movie, film, and television reviews. The nation is still crazy about serial killers—the handsome and tasteful Dexter being the current favorite—but they have to fit the bill. Highway killers don’t make the grade. Outside the world of serial-killer “buffs,” the names Larry Eyler, Randall Woodfield, Randy Kraft, and Roger Kibbe are little known. Like the highways themselves and their ­soulless sprawlscape of big-box stores, parking lots, strip malls, and ground cover, highway killers have become a part of life in America—one that is ugly, unpleasant, and no fun to think about. It’s much more fun to ignore them in favor of their glamorous fictional counterparts. The nation adores Hannibal Lecter; it can’t help but admire Ted Bundy, but Roger Kibbe? Like rest areas, fast-food franchises, ugly overpasses, he’s just part of the highway landscape.

When I drove from San Francisco to see the stretch of I-5 between Stockton and Sacramento where so many women had vanished, boxy housing developments and bland malls were still spreading along I-580 from the East Bay into the Central Valley. I-5 looks much the same as it must have in the ’80s: lined with agricultural fields and a complicated system of dikes and canals. The Hood/Franklin off-ramp is still desolate, and French Camp Road still a quiet byway through farmland. One thing, however, had changed. Along I-5, about every five miles, bright blue emergency telephones had sprouted, safeguards for a nation still on the move. 

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