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As the country continues to embrace the true crime genre, a new podcast series on the unsolved case of Washington, D.C.’s first serial killer launches today, May 17, with the additional goal of bringing equity to criminal justice investigations.
Freeway Phantom, released by Black Bar Mitzvah in collaboration with Tenderfoot TV and iHeartPodcast, follows host, journalist, and public radio veteran Celeste Headlee as she investigates the unsolved murders of six Black girls killed in the greater D.C. area between 1971 and 1972. Carol Spinks, Darlenia Johnson, Brenda Crockett, Nenomoshia Yates, Brenda Woodard, and Diane Williams were between the ages of 10 and 18 years old when they were abducted, raped, and murdered. Their killer has never been caught.
After the girls were killed, their bodies were left on the side of D.C.-area highways, leading the local media to dub their assailant “the Freeway Phantom” after the body of Yates was found. No one has ever been identified as the killer, let alone charged and tried for the murders. Without this closure, the girls’ families and friends are still wrestling with the loss. “Their emotions are still so raw,” Headlee tells City Paper, “Even after half a century. It’s an unimaginable loss and that’s partly because they don’t know who did this.”
The families have worked to keep attention on the story of their loved ones. In a 2018 interview with the Washington Post, Bertha Crockett, Brenda Crockett’s sister, said she still asks herself, “Why didn’t I go to the store with her?” She wonders, “Maybe things would have turned out different.”
In a 2008 interview with WUSA9, Spinks’ sister, Evander Spinks, said she continues to talk with Spinks daily: “Basically, I just tell her I hope she’s OK. I’m sure she is.”
The equity lens, which the podcast aims to cast on the story, stems from a believed lack of attention directed to solving these murders. The production team suggests that disregard is directly tied to systemic racism in society, both then and now—and especially its strong manifestation in law enforcement.
As Headlee notes in a press release, “our effort to protect the public is still hampered by racism, mistrust between communities and authorities, and a lack of cooperation among those whose job is to protect and serve.”
Speaking with City Paper, Headlee says, “when listeners hear the voices of these family members and their stories, they’ll be as invested in this as we are. You can’t help but want to find some kind of justice and to just remember these girls who were so quickly dismissed and forgotten.”
Over the course of two years, beginning in 2020, Headlee and the series’ team examined case documents and conducted interviews with both investigators who worked the original cases and the girls’ family members. The podcast will tell the stories of the six victims and bring new evidence to light. At the same time, the show will dive into the flawed police investigation to explore the systemic issues at the root, and how law enforcement has or has not progressed since.
Headlee was drawn to the project because it touches on several issues she feels passionate about—and which remain pervasive today—the intersection of urban violence, criminal justice, and racism, especially against Black women and girls.
As the press release notes, these early 1970s cases share major parallels with other, recent incidents of missing Black and Brown girls in the District. Likewise, the podcast team suggests there’s still an underinvestment of law enforcement in the disappearance of young women and children of color.
“We’re still grappling with the same issues,” Headlee says.
The series aims to use the Freeway Phantom murders to explore racial disparities. It will also address the persistent lack of trust between law enforcement and local communities of color, as well as the role community action can play in bringing forth justice by speaking out for its members, and demanding accountability from those whose role it is to protect and serve them.
The show’s investigation started in the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd. With these events as a backdrop, it made for “a tough subject matter at an emotionally tough time,” Headlee says. Still, it was these devastating, unsolved crimes that drove Headlee and her team to pursue the stories of the Freeway Phantom’s victims in the first place.
After Diane Williams, the last confirmed Freeway Phantom victim, was found in September 1972, the original investigation lost steam, Headlee explains. Evidence from the Freeway Phantom murders was already being thrown out, much to the disappointment of then D.C. police detective Romaine Jenkins. With the Metropolitan Police Department quickly losing interest in the murders of these six Black girls, Jenkins decided to step in. Headlee says that, because the department was already so uninvested in the girls’ murders, Jenkins was able to take case evidence and reports home with her, holding onto them long after her 1994 retirement from the department.
In 2018 Jenkins told the Post she reopened the investigation herself in 1987, but made little progress in solving the murders, pointing to the police department’s poor preservation of evidence.
When Headlee and her team approached Jenkins in 2020, she quickly became one of the podcast’s main collaborators, letting them examine the materials she worked to preserve.
“She’s invested years and so much of her soul to keeping this story alive,” Headlee says. With Jenkins’ help, the team was able to consult the case evidence and develop a new profile of the killer, using modern criminal investigative tools that hadn’t been established at the time of the murders. Headlee says the inferior investigative resources of the 1970s are a huge reason the Freeway Phantom murders went unsolved. However, the fraught relationship between law enforcement and D.C.’s Black communities also played a role.
“There was clearly a great deal of mistrust among the [girls’] neighborhood,” she tells City Paper. “In order to catch this guy,” she says, “you needed the help of the community and the help of the media, but the media didn’t [adequately] cover these murders.”
The series aims to remedy this lack of media attention by shining a new, stronger light on the girls’ stories. According to Headlee, it took time to gain the trust of the girls’ families, but now, they’re grateful to have more eyes—and ears—on the crimes against their daughters, even half a century later.
“Just knowing that people are still looking and people still care enough to bring light to this investigation,” says Headlee. “It goes along with the idea of ‘Say their names.’ There’s a power in the memory of a lost loved one and there’s a power in at least saying the names of these loved ones.”
Many involved in the investigation aren’t certain the perpetrator is still alive, but Headlee says, “that doesn’t mean these families can’t get justice.”
The team hopes their investigation will help get law enforcement closer to identifying the killer and finding closure for these families. More generally, it aims to call attention to the persistent, systemic issues that put these girls in harm’s way and failed to protect them in the first place.
The first two episodes of Freeway Phantom are available for streaming Wednesday, May 17, on all podcast platforms. The eight subsequent episodes will be released every Wednesday.