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“Do you want a date?”
The sound of her voice—high, sweet, and without calculation—knocked me flat as she neared the truck. An invitation for paid sex was clear, but it didn’t ring right. Coming from her, it sounded like a question you’d hear on a playground or at a high-school mixer, not something you’d expect to find here—here in the middle of the night, at a godforsaken greasy truck stop just off the highway and right next to the edge of the world.
The headlights of the 18-wheeler caught a glint in her mouth, a flash of what I took for braces. As she tried to skirt a puddle in the parking lot, her high heels left an iridescent swirl of oil and water.
She vanished momentarily in the darkness, only to reappear below the truck’s passenger-side window. I opened the door, and the cab’s dome light shone on her as she politely repeated her question—this time directly to me.
Squeezed into a low-slung white blouse and tight denim shorts, she cut quite a figure—lovely enough “to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window,” as Raymond Chandler wrote. Her curly red hair rested on the skin of her bare, tanned shoulders. Despite the abundant distractions, I was drawn to her face. Her brown eyes were more friendly than flirty, and her cheeks were sprinkled with surprising freckles.
She moved nearer and smiled, revealing a shiny gold crown on her front tooth. She sat so close that I could see the heart-shaped engraving on the crown.
It was the fall of 1989 and Sweet Cheeks, as she dubbed herself, ruled the illicit sex trade that thrived at Servicetown truck stop on Interstate 95 about 40 miles south of Washington. One night she simply appeared on the dirty parking lot like some angel of the oil slicks—an angel who seemed all too happy to spread her wings.
For most of that past summer, truckers had bellowed for Sweet Cheeks over their CBs, begging en masse like so many jilted boyfriends. Her name became a broadcast incantation, echoing over the static. Sweet Cheeks’ soft voice dutifully responded to their answered prayers and promptly filled their orders.
She was a precious rarity among the dregs of roadside hookerdom. The working women who hung about the edges of Servicetown were disparaged by their customers with a pantheon of scuzzy nicknames: “lot lizards,” “row ‘hos,” and “commercial company.” Sweet Cheeks staked out some higher claim. As celebrated for her kind ways as for her looks, she was liable to linger long after the 15-minute norm for truck-stop trysts, sitting high in the cab before her next trick, giving an ear to the profoundly lonely men who pushed the big rigs down the road. Naturally, she wasn’t cheap: She charged more than double the going rate of $20 for her services, often earning nearly $1,000 on a busy weekend, but truckers by the score were willing to idle patiently and wait their turn.
“You want a date?”
By the time she repeated her invitation again, I found myself wishing I could say yes. I was 24, single, and instantly enamored of the notion of getting next to a fallen angel. But I was also pretty much broke at the time, squatting in a friend’s unfinished house without hot water or much else. It pained me to tell Sweet Cheeks that I couldn’t afford to have sex with her. I had come to Servicetown on a lark: I heard about its wild night life and figured it would make a good story for the weekly newspaper where I worked as a cub reporter.
I hadn’t expected to meet Sweet Cheeks.
She just smiled at my mumbled response, and said, “Maybe next time.” Then she darted into the night, off to chase down other customers, who blinked their headlights to signal that they possessed both the desire and the wherewithal to spend some purchased minutes with her. I sat in the truck a long time thinking about Sweet Cheeks, imagining what a couple of 20s might have bought, and already wondering what it might be like the next time I saw her.
Two weeks later, I was writing her obituary.
A few hours after I met her, during that time when night gives way to morning, somebody killed Sweet Cheeks and dumped her body in a ditch about 25 miles south on I-95. Her murderer has never been found, but most speculate it was one of the passing truckers who invited her into his cab.
My article on her death turned out to be a big scoop on the other local papers. It ran as the top story on the front page, blaring a sensational headline: “Homicide Victim A Prostitute.” Nothing in my story reflected her reputation for kindness, the spark I felt in her presence, or even the fact that I had met her at all. Eventually, the yellowing article—and the memory that went with it—faded away.
This spring, another prostitute at Servicetown was brutally murdered and I thought again of Sweet Cheeks.
I decided to go for a ride.
Following a caravan of 18-wheelers, I take Exit 133B onto U.S. 17. Known locally as Warrenton Road, U.S. 17 was a favorite bootleggers’ route for Depression-era moonshiners; it’s now a major corridor, packed with dump trucks and flat-bed trailers—and, during rush hour, the commuters who have moved here in recent years. At the first stoplight, across from a strip of motels and fast-food joints, I hang a right into Servicetown.
For three decades, Servicetown has offered a haven for bleary-eyed truckers hauling their rigs up and down the East Coast. Its 14 acres of oil stain sit on the U.S. 17 interchange in Falmouth (pronounced “Foul-muth”), just north of the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. It opened in 1965, just as the asphalt was drying on the newly built I-95. It was an ideal location for a truck stop, not only for its proximity to Washington, but because it is a midpoint between Maine and Florida.
Every day, hundreds of 18-wheelers pass through Servicetown, which never shuts down—not even for the occasional toxic waste spill. “We’re not going to close for a little goo on the road,” says Fred Lakoduk, who’s managed the truck stop for 16 years. “I don’t even have a key to the place.”
Most truckers stop for fuel and rest on their endless road trips, and sometimes grab a shower or a hot meal at the restaurant, known for its all-you-can-eat specials and 89-cent, bottomless cups of coffee. But in the old days, they rolled in because they had other tanks in need of filling. They’d brake hard for the easy pickings of prostitutes, drugs, and just about anything else that can be ordered over a CB radio. Everything for sale. Cheap, too. Back then, Servicetown was wide open. Drivers didn’t have to pay to park their rigs for an overnight stay as they do at most modern truck stops. There were no gate guards, no yapping security hounds. Just a little roadside city of night with a reputation for very full service.
Day or night, it always feels like 3 a.m. at Servicetown. In the upside-down world of the road, night turns into day, and Servicetown sits in the middle of this nether world off the interstate, blinking an invitation to drivers who have seen too many miles and whose only link to others is by CB radio.
It’s by no means an impressive sight to the layman; it’s mostly a vast parking lot interrupted here and there with diesel pumps and a weighing scale. The main building includes a restaurant and store. Servicetown also has an abandoned back wing—a mini-motel with rooms that formerly rented for $19.95 a night, now empty. There’s the Blue Beacon Truck Wash and, at the back of the lot, a repair garage. Here the truck stop abuts some dense woods, which once provided cover for many a lot lizard.
It’s around dusk on a Thursday, and the lot fills with trucks stopping for the night. Lined up in rows, the rigs tower over the countless puddles like cattle at a watering hole. Some rumble with the sound of idling engines, others are silent but remain occupied. From their cab perches, the drivers watch and comment to each other on the CB about everything that happens in the lot—especially the appearance of regular vehicles (“four wheelers” in the parlance of truckers) that could carry cops or commercial company or interlopers like myself.
On the entrance road, I pass the McDonald’s that shares Servicetown’s property; a spot where Sweet Cheeks and her cohorts would often catch a quick meal before their long night shifts. Ever cautious of the police and management, they shunned the Servicetown shop and restaurant, which is where I pull up.
At the door, a withered old man holds a cane and a duffel bag, entreating passers-by with a refrain: “Driver, you going south?” The few who acknowledge him shake their heads no; after all, it’s against Department of Transportation—and company—regulations to carry unauthorized passengers. He tells me his rig blew its transmission; he needs a lift to a truck stop outside Richmond. There’s still a delivery to make down in Kenley, N.C. “I’m not standing here for my good looks,” he says testily. “I need a ride. But I’m not going to stand here begging for one.” He glares at the trucks lurching toward the exit, leaving him with his trembling, bony hands and his rotten luck.
“There’s none of the old respect anymore,” he complains, limping away.
On the wall of the building hangs a sign that wasn’t here when I visited six years before: “Servicetown Travelplaza. Serving your travel needs since 1965. We monitor Channel 19 for illegal activity.” I had never heard the place described as a “plaza” (“dump” is heard more often), and the last time I was here, there was no indication, signs or otherwise, that management cared much about what might be going on in the trucks parked out back.
Inside, I’m almost relieved to find that nothing seems to have changed: the same faded institutional brown-and-orange decor, the same patty-melt ambience. There are few places as downbeat as a truck-stop restaurant. It’s not even late yet, and the dismal scene makes an Edward Hopper diner seem as festive as an espresso bar’s grand opening. Tired truckers slump at the counter and in the booths. There’s no music, and little chatter. Some mumble into booth phones; everybody guzzles from their bottomless cups of coffee.
In the back room of the restaurant, there’s the Trucker’s Lounge, a place of honor supposedly reserved for drivers only. I sit down at the counter to order an iced tea and a hamburger. A musty wall mural depicts ships docked at a colonial-era river port: It’s a portrait of Falmouth in the early 18th century, when the town was bigger than Fredericksburg and the locals got shit-faced at the Sign of the Swan tavern down the road. Substitute the barges for trucks and rotgut whiskey for coffee, and you’d have a reasonable facsimile of Servicetown.
Cozy as a Masonic lodge, the Trucker’s Lounge has more conversation than the open dining area. Next to me, a retired driver named Sam scratches a few losing lottery tickets; the tiny geezer tells the waitress that just seeing her pretty face makes him feel 6 feet tall. At a booth under the mural, a man opines, “I fucking hate Ohio,” and his companions don’t disagree. Nearby, a driver apparently has his sons in tow: One of the tykes—maybe 12 years old—puffs a cigarette and scowls.
The lounge patrons are the aging brethren of the truckers whom the adolescent Elvis Presley idolized back in the early ’50s, when they were regarded as modern-day cowboys of the highways. (“Wild looking guys, they had scars,” Presley once told an interviewer. “I used to lay on the side of the road and watch [them] drive their big diesel trucks.”) The all-you-can-eat-BBQ wolfman next to me, all sideburns, shades, and big gut, could pass for the near-the-end Elvis, give or take a few pounds. The back room’s full of men who are just about as large and ungainly as the trucks they captain. The slow-moving gait of a veteran trucker just off his rig is a painful spectacle to behold: a buffalo ballet of hemorrhoids, constipation, and aching back.
I finish the burger and begin to roam Servicetown. There’s a variety shop that stocks most everything a trucker needs: log books and maps, shirts and jeans, tools and repair parts—as well as aspirin, antacids, and laxatives. There are bee-pollen pills and healthy, legal uppers for sale. (The physical traits of a few spindly truckers—scarecrows in jeans and caps—hint that some drivers still subsist on coffee, cigs, and speed.)
A shelf of cassettes features middle-aged truckers’ fare: country and soul predominate. (Standard truckers’ songs like “Six Days on the Road,” “Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves,” and “Ain’t No UFO Gonna Catch My Diesel” are oddly absent.) Comedy tapes have their own section: X-rated laugh-fests by Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Slappy White, Cha-Cha Hogan & Sister Full Blossom. And the Elmer Fudpucker series, “presenting the greatest and funniest stories ever told.” The provocatively titled Traveling Hot Tub promises this scenario: “Mother Fudpucker’s a trucker: Her traveling health spa and massage parlor rubs the law the wrong way. 60 minutes of comedy musical madness.”
Truckers with literary bents rent Books on Tape, mostly a selection of old dime-store westerns and war stories: The Lure of the Dim Trail, Gunrunners on the Missouri, Jungle Quest Intrigue, and Invasion U.S.A.: 1942 (“A frightening WWII possible scenario”) Though there are a few old-fashioned boy novels (Tom Swift in the Caves of Ice), the emphasis is clearly on manhood. When a Man Was a Man is an adventure tale set in Prescott, Ariz., at the turn of the century: “Journey back to a land where a man, to live, must be a man. Where every man is, by his divine right, his own king, his own jury, his own judge, and if it must be, his own executioner.”
The clerk is a woman, like most of the indoor staff. She tells me truckers rent these Books on Tape more than you might think, but the favored off-road attraction here is the video arcade. Nearly every game features toy pistols instead of joysticks: Mad Dog II: The Lost Gold. Lethal Enforcer, Casino Strip, and Gals Panic II, in which players obliterate enemy asteroids to uncover a video image of a nude woman. (“Could you devour every square inch of my body?” asks the sultry computer voice.)
Next to the arcade is a row of wall phones, where a driver who’s parked for the night tells his wife he won’t be home on schedule: “I can’t legally start until tomorrow morning,” he says. “It’s a wide load. I can’t run at night—that’s the law. I’m doin’ my best, babe.”
It was here that Sean (pronounced “Seen”) Goble was approached by a woman asking for a lift last February.
Authorities still don’t know how or why Sherry Tew Mansur ended up at Servicetown. In fact, for more than two months after she was found dead in North Carolina, she remained an anonymous murder victim whose only I.D. came from a police blotter: “White, 5-foot-7-1/2, 153 pounds, shoulder-length hair. A red rose, a blue butterfly and the word “Mellows’ tattooed on her right breast.”
In early February, Mansur’s sister in Prince George’s County reported her 34-year-old sibling missing. According to the Washington Times, Mansur had been visiting her sister and 2-year-old niece in Bowie. On Jan. 31, she left the house to take her niece to a Chuck E. Cheese’s Funtime Pizzeria and a movie. The next morning, someone discovered the infant alone in Mansur’s Honda Civic, which was parked in the District; Mansur herself was last seen near 13th and L Streets NW, a known prostitution hub. (Mansur had a history of prostitution and drug arrests in North Carolina and in Clearwater, Fla., her last known address. Her police record there, where she was known to vice detectives by her street nickname, “Cherokee,” dates from March 1982 to July 1994.)
No one can place Mansur during the several weeks prior to her murder. Some reports had her at a truck stop in Jessup, Md., near Baltimore. Ultimately, though, she headed south to Servicetown, where she met Goble, a 28-year-old trucker from Asheboro, N.C. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Goble later told police that he was on the phone when Mansur asked him for a ride. Local authorities say there is no evidence that Mansur was soliciting when she approached Goble; certainly, Servicetown’s so-called lot lizards know better than to venture inside the restaurant and store area to find customers. Apparently, Mansur simply wanted to hitch a ride south, maybe back home to Clearwater. “She just picked the wrong ride,” concludes Maj. Mickey Coffey of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Department.
Mansur’s “wrong ride” ended in a drainage ditch off Interstate 40 near Greensboro. People collecting cans along the highway found her partially clad body on Feb. 19. She was wearing jeans and a black shirt with a Harley-Davidson logo; she had been dead for two days, according to a coroner’s report. The autopsy also found semen and traces of cocaine in her system. In his confession, Goble said they had sex in his truck and he became angry when he saw Mansur using cocaine. He told police that he strangled her in the cab, dumped her body, and just kept driving.
The trucker has confessed to two other murders—both prostitutes, strangled and dumped on the road. Goble’s extreme girth made it necessary for police to use two sets of handcuffs on the hands that choked his victims: His massive arms could barely reach behind his back. Goble presently faces charges in southeastern Tennessee for one of these slayings, but authorities have ruled out Goble as a suspect in the unsolved killing of Sweet Cheeks, for the time being. He apparently didn’t get his trucker’s license until a few years after her murder.
If you’re looking for a portrait of trucker-as-psychopath, Sean Goble would do nicely. After he was arrested, he allegedly said, “I’m going to do my time in Tennessee and get this behind me so I can get on with my life,” according to an investigator quoted in Raleigh, N.C.’s News & Observer. “I don’t think he thinks much of these gals he’s choking. He was thinking he was going to get out and drive a truck again.”
At first, the CB chatter reminds me of the old days at Servicetown:
How ’bout some commercial company? growls a horny driver on Channel 19. Any wild women out here tonight? I’d like to get me some poontang—damn, I’d sure like to see me some hooters tonight. How ’bout some company?
Just come on over, purrs a soft female voice.
Ummmm, that’s a sweet-sounding voice. You’re making my thang wiggle.
I’m in a security pickup truck patrolling the lot. On the dashboard flashes a Starsky and Hutch-style light—half-covered in cardboard so it won’t become a nuisance to the driver, a young guy named Ray. He takes a swig from his jumbo bottle of Mountain Dew and grins at the exchange. He’s heard it a hundred times before, and he knows what’s coming next.
Where you at, darling?
I said, where you at, babe?
The woman’s garbled, fading message comes over the channel, as if it’s too far away to transmit.
WHERE YOU AT? demands the exasperated, would-be john.
Shut up, man! blares a rebuke from another driver. She’s out at the pickle park.
YOU shut up, whore dog!
The pickle park is a nearby rest area, where the exiled lot lizards of Servicetown now ply their trade.
“A few of ’em slip in once a while, but we run ’em off,” says Ray.
The message on the new sign is no empty boast: They really do monitor the CB for “illegal activity” at Servicetown these days. That’s why manager Fred Lakoduk invited me to take a ride with his security guard: So I could see for myself how the place has been cleaned up. Servicetown’s new owners, a group of local businessmen, plan to give Servicetown a complete renovation, upgrading the dilapidated facilities. They even hope to install a Subway shop and a pizza café, like the gigantic, ultramodern truck-stop complexes out West that have malls and cinemas.
Whether or not Servicetown has a glorious future as a tourist mecca, the place seems as quiet as a commuter lot tonight. The CB crackles with drivers who haven’t heard the bad news—that the wild, old Servicetown is dead. Heaves of disappointment and dashed hopes flood the airwaves.
Aw hell—where’s all the workin’ women tonight?
What in the fuck’s going on around here?
Where’s those commercial ladies?
There ain’t no commercial out here, driver.
Dem lot lizards all done gone, weeps a eulogist.
Light flashing, the security truck circles the lot. It makes an easy target for the drivers, who take potshots at the party-pooping patrol. But mostly, they turn their anger and frustration on each other, teasing and cajoling by turns.
I want some goddamn pussy! moans one tantrum-throwing trucker.
Yeah driver, what you want? replies an exaggerated, feminine falsetto.
I want some pooosy.
You want some bull pussy?
What kind of pussy?
I got some bull pussy—you want some of that?
I want some good pussy.
Ray just chuckles and continues his rounds: There’s not much to patrol, so he often goes to check on his parked Camaro. By now, talk on Channel 19 has gone from bad to foolish.
Anybody wanna borrow my girlfriend before I let the air out of her?
There’s nothing happening tonight at Servicetown. I head across the highway to the Comfort Inn, where the front desk is packed with tourists who’ve come to see the local Civil War battlefields. But not every one who comes to Falmouth is checking out the sights.
“Yeah, some of those girls came by here last week,” says night-shift manager Marci Preston, after checking in a European couple. “They drive down here in a little white car with Maryland tags and a big whip antenna so they can talk on the CB and let [truckers] know where they can meet ’em. One of them wanted to rent a room with a jacuzzi, but when she found out it was $100, she left in a hurry. I’ve dealt with enough of them to know what their intentions are.”
A feisty 51-year-old and local political gadfly, Preston has run the Comfort Inn for eight years with her husband. After moving here, she saw a 60 Minutes episode that rated Servicetown the second-most-scandalous truck stop in the U.S. She began monitoring the CB radio in her Lincoln Continental and taping the conversations, often playing the lurid cassettes for county leaders in meetings at the nearby Johnny Appleseed restaurant.
“You used to be able to get anything you wanted at Servicetown,” she says. “You don’t have that anymore. Since they have patrols, the girls don’t use the lot. They don’t really need to—they’re not open about it now. If they’re familiar with this strip at all, they’re very careful.”
Preston hopes the new owners plow over the truck stop and build a shopping center:
“It’s always seemed sleazy to me. There’s something about it that doesn’t give a real comfortable feeling. And as a woman, there’s no way I’d go in that place by myself. I don’t want somebody to think I’m in the lot trying to hook or something.”
She watches the trucks roar by on U.S. 17.
“A woman that’s willing to get into a truck with someone they don’t know is really putting themselves at risk. I just wouldn’t put myself in that situation. You don’t know whether they’re going to take you where they said they would or bump you off before you get there—it’s just no way.”
Preston has encountered scores of Servicetown women through the years, walking along U.S. 17, looking for a room, hanging out at the nearby Hardees. But she remembers Sweet Cheeks.
“She was attractive, but she wasn’t so aggressive,” says Preston. “I saw her out and I heard her on the radio operating—she wasn’t as crass and brassy as the others. She wasn’t flagrant, she dressed nice and didn’t do it in a cheap manner. She had a little bit of class about her.”
It was A.J. who first showed me the sordid glory that was Servicetown during the reign of Sweet Cheeks.
We were sitting in the cab of his 18-wheeler in a section of the back lot known as Party Row. Near the edge of the woods behind the restaurant, Party Row was the main red-light district of Servicetown. Here the lot lizards could find customers night and day, as well as sanctuary when the occasional “gumball” (county police car) made the rounds.
A.J. considered himself a new breed of trucker, determined to get his kicks on Route 66 and every other highway. Hailing from Atlanta, the 26-year-old felt at home only on the road; he had a dozen CB handles—“Slow-Motion,” “Wild One,” “Romeo”—depending on what part of the country he was in.
The cab of his rig was his castle, or more like portable bachelor pad: Lined with shag carpet, it held a bed, a TV, and a stereo system. Al Green crooned “Tired of Being Alone” from the speakers as A.J. shared his philosophy: “It’s all about heels, wheels, and deals. That’s why we all come through Servicetown. You think it’s because of the food? The place is a dump—a rat hole. We come here ’cause it’s the best sex stop around. You get out here on the road for a few days straight and you get lonely. You want somebody to be with, you need some female companionship.”
The place was literally swarming with prostitutes as thick as D.C.’s 14th Street strip in its golden era. Nearly a dozen made the rounds, sporting outrageous outfits, some in only G-strings, bras and high heels. They strutted down the rows of rigs, knocking on cab doors or scampering after blinking headlights. The spectacle of the tiny women moving nimbly among the massive machines touched me in an odd way. There was something in these backlot maneuverings that went beyond sheer lust or $10 blowjobs: It was a vivid demonstration of how long and lonely the road can get.
The scene may have been revelatory for me, but to A.J., it was simply another night on the road. He seemed to know all the girls: Good ‘n’ Plenty, Hot Chocolate, Almost Naked, Double Shot, Unforgettable—and Angel and Little Jo, a pair who always worked the lot together. “They’re out here all day sometimes,” said A.J. “Sometimes they don’t even go home to clean their ass before they’re here at night.”
All night long, truckers placed orders like customers in line at a drive-through fast food restaurant. The conversations were short and to the point:
I just got paid, I wanna spend my money. Where are you, sweet thing, and what are you wearing?
Red top and black skirt, over by the dumpster behind the restaurant.
I’m in the white truck, third from the left in Party Row.
All right darling, I’m finished here and I’ll be right over.
An urgent voice blared through the nonchalant chatter: Smokey’s in town.
With a cop in the vicinity, the woman—a Technicolor vision in a neon-red tube top and jet-black miniskirt—splashed frantically through puddles and hopped into the nearby rig, moments before the county police car rounded the corner: “It’s a game of hide and seek,” said A.J. “But when you see that antenna rocking back and forth, you know what’s going on in there.”
Watching the nonstop traffic, I was amazed by the collusion among participants, as the women used their customers’ CBs to set appointments with their next john. At one point, A.J. went over to the McDonald’s to get some burgers for the hungry Good ‘n’ Plenty, who spent some time in our cab, hanging out and singing along to the Al Green tape that never left the cassette deck.
Early that morning, A.J. pulled out in his rig, heading to the “Mighty Glory,” his nickname for the North; he had a delivery to make in New York. Driving home that morning, I decided it’d be nice to go back and see Sweet Cheeks at Servicetown sometime.
Two weeks later, I was back at Servicetown, reporting on a chemical spill. A trucker hauling muriatic acid had pulled into Servicetown, his load leaking hydrogen fumes from a punctured drum. As a hazardous-waste team in spacesuits cleaned up the mess in a roped-off area of the lot, I stood among a crowd watching the spectacle. Spotting Good ‘n’ Plenty—off duty in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt—I walked over and asked if she and Sweet Cheeks were going to be at Party Row that night.
“Ain’t no more Sweet Cheeks,” whispered Good ‘n’ Plenty. “She’s dead.”
That’s all she would tell me at first. To hear the rest of the story, I had to meet her that night at her room in a motel on U.S. 17. After providing her with menthols and a 12-pack of beer—and waiting an hour for her to finish watching a cable-TV movie she was engrossed in—I learned details of the homicide that were later confirmed by police.
Just hours after I had met her, Sweet Cheeks was murdered and dumped near the Petro truck stop in Caroline County, some 25 miles south of Servicetown. A man and his son had discovered the body in the ditch of a service road near the motel where they were staying. They had just had breakfast at an Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House and were heading for a day of fun at the King’s Dominion amusement park a few miles away. The boy was the one who spotted the body: He thought it was a mannequin.
Sweet Cheeks had been beaten, strangled, and stabbed 10 times. “It was overkill,” recalls Capt. Stan Beger of the Caroline County Sheriff’s Department. “Whoever did her in was definitely in some kind of rage—really ticked off about something. It was pretty gruesome. No matter what she did or how she lived her life, she didn’t deserve to die like that—nobody deserves to die like that.”
Beger worked the case, which remains unsolved. He says it was hard to get a lead in the case because of Sweet Cheeks’ profession. It didn’t help matters that the victim went unidentified for more than a week. I could have told them who she was, but then, I didn’t know she was dead.
In Good ‘n’ Plenty’s motel room, I found out tidbits about Sweet Cheek’s life: She used the alias Susan Thomas when she was busted that summer by local police, but her real name was Anna Marie Pina. She was 25 years old and originally from the Pennsylvania steel town of Bethlehem; she had children down in Pompano Beach, Fla. She and her boyfriend—probably her pimp as well—stayed at a motel on U.S. 17 when Sweet Cheeks worked at Servicetown. They often walked their pet pit bull together before her night shift began.
“She and her old man lived down in Florida,” Good ‘n’ Plenty told me. “Those two were in love—they were crazy about each other.”
Good ‘n’ Plenty said she was with Sweet Cheeks’ boyfriend when they found out she had been murdered. They saw newspaper accounts describing the unidentified body, which mentioned her gold tooth and a tattoo of the word “Levi.” “He got real upset and kept saying, “Tell me it’s not her,’ and he started crying—he was really tore up. Then he went to the liquor store and got a bottle and started drinking it like it was water.”
It was a mystery as to who would want to harm Sweet Cheeks.
“[Truckers] liked Sweet Cheeks because she was a nice person,” said Good ‘n’ Plenty. “She’d get in the cab and talk with them a while. They like that. Some of the girls like to go straight for the money….Everyone around Servicetown is very puzzled about the whole thing—Was it a truck? Was it a four-wheeler? She may have just got in the wrong truck this time.”
It’s hard to know how much truth there was in Good ‘n’ Plenty’s version of Sweet Cheeks’ life. After all, she was still working the Servicetown beat when she told me her story. She had herself—and who knows who else—to protect. Indeed, investigators close to the case still consider her pimp, her lovable “old man,” a prime suspect.
Good ‘n’ Plenty may have known Sweet Cheeks, but she didn’t know Anna Marie Pina. She did give me the number of Anna’s brother, Richard Pina, though.
When I first called Pina at the time of the murder, he had little to say: He told me his little sister had run away from home when she was a teen-ager, and he hadn’t seen or heard from her in several years.
“We had no idea where she’d been living,” he told me then. “All we know is she’s dead and we’re going to bury her tomorrow and we’re going to try to put it behind us.”
Pina still lives in Bethlehem, although he lost his job at the local steel mill. Now 41, he works as a maintenance man at the apartment building where he lives. He seemed more inclined to talk about Anna’s life and death when I called him this time.
He says he never knew the woman affectionately known as Sweet Cheeks; all he remembered was his wayward, rebellious baby sister: “She was like a bratty kid—she wouldn’t listen to my parents or to anybody. When she hit her teen-age years, she just started getting wild. She’d just come and go whenever she wanted to. I tried to talk to her a couple times and help her, but she didn’t want to listen. She wanted to do her own thing—obviously it didn’t turn out to be the right thing to do.”
“That’s a panther,” says the old janitor, breaking into a toothless proud grin. “I got that down in Columbus, Georgia, 30 years ago. It’s faded a little, but it doesn’t go away.”
It’s past midnight at Servicetown, and the man is showing me his tattoo, a faint purplish blob on his forearm. It’s his night off, but he decided to drop by for a cheeseburger and a few lottery tickets. I could cast aspersions about this guy haunting Servicetown on his night off, but of course, I’m the guy hanging around looking at his tattoo.
The real reason he’s here is the same reason everybody comes to Servicetown: that pure, utter, unquenchable loneliness—not just of the road, but of life. Open all night, open all day. Life got you down? Come on down to Servicetown, where everybody’s down, but never out. Servicetown will never turn you away—unless, of course, you’re a lot lizard.
I tell myself that I’ve returned once again to make sure the other no-action night wasn’t a fluke, but I’m not so sure why I’m really here. Maybe I thought I’d catch a glimpse of Sweet Cheeks’ face, or at least see some woman running around the parking lot that reminded me of her. But she’s nowhere in sight, nor are any other truck-stop women, except the tired-looking waitresses who minister to truckers like nurses to terminal patients.
The effort to “clean up” Servicetown has indeed worked: It’s sanitized and more like an all-night convenience store now. All that’s left is the old desperation, with none of the release. When Sweet Cheeks died, she took Servicetown’s notorious heyday with her.
The janitor tells me that the night manager’s in the mountains fishing, and the security man Ray has the night off as well. It seems like the perfect chance to see if the mice will play when the cat’s away. I ask the janitor if he’s seen any commercial company lately. He says a few still drop by before they’re shooed off the property. He begins reminiscing: “Used to be every time you’d turn around there’d be a bunch of ’em out there. There was this one tall black gal—what the hell was her name? I think they called her the Green Hornet.”
I ask him if I can use the CB in the patrol truck, but the janitor tells me the truck is locked, and he doesn’t have the keys. I need to get on Channel 19 to find out what’s happening out in the dark, in the real Servicetown.
The only action left is in the video arcade: A clean-cut driver playing Pac-Man agrees to let me listen to his CB, while warning me that most of the chatter was just a lot of nonsense. “We call it “Sesame Street,’ ” he says as we walk through the lot to his rig. It’s an immaculate cab with a neatly arranged sleeper, and a paperback book he’s reading, Star Wars. He even keeps his log books in a briefcase.
Hailing from tiny Douglas, Ga., Glenn’s been a trucker for five years. His combed-and-creased look betrays his Air Force background. When he got out, his minimum-wage job didn’t cut it. Then, one morning, he saw a TV commercial for truck-driving school. Ten weeks later, he was on the road, and now he makes $500 a week as a company driver. He says that lot lizards often bang on his door, but he politely says no thanks: A devout Pentecostal, he says he doesn’t drink, smoke, or yield to temptation: “My wife is the first woman I ever went to bed with,” he says. “I waited 20 years before I went to bed with her.”
He sympathizes with the truckers who pay for the commercial company, though: “Men are horny by nature,” he says. “You go 10 days or something without sex and you’re gonna give her 20 bucks and she’s gonna slam you in the cab.”
Sometimes, he picks up a hitchhiker, even though it’s against the law and company regulation. Being a good Samaritan is the Christian thing to do, he says. That’s why he let me sit in his truck tonight. Living the Gospel: Be kind to strangers and put your trust in God.
Through the windshield, the darkened lot is quiet. The old Party Row is just another line of rigs. We listen to the CB to see if there’s any action. There’s a pair of patrol cars on the lot, but not much vice to engage them.
There’s still stuff for sale on Channel 19. Someone’s trying to unload a new Cobra CB microphone and two porn videos—everything for $10 (“We had to send our VCR back to the factory for repair, so I can’t watch ’em,” he explains).
Then a female voice floats over the static:
Anybody give a lady a ride south?
Suddenly, everyone’s on the channel wanting to help.
Where you want to go, sweetheart?
Down to Alabama, she says.
Jes’ my luck, somebody moans. I’m goin’ the wrong way—I’ll take you if you want to go by way of Buffalo.
I’m stopping at the truck stop down in Fayetteville, somebody offers.
No thank you, she says.
Finally, an ominous-sounding rasp breaks through, followed by a cackle:
Are you a fun-lovin’ lady?
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.