The FBI’s Tool For Tracking Highway Serial Killers

In 2003, the FBI noticed a spike in dead bodies found on the sides of highways and have since developed the technology that helps find the killers

May 06, 2016 at 5:38 PM ET

An Oklahoma salesman was driving on Interstate 40 when he needed a bathroom break. He exited the highway and continued on to an isolated stretch of road before he stopped his car, got out and walked over to a ditch on the side of the road. That’s when he noticed the smell.

“Your mind tells you it’s a deer. It’s a goat. It’s anything but a human being. My mind would not even allow me to entertain that as reality until, as I looked at her limbs and followed her arm out to one of her hands, I saw a ring on her finger,” the salesman told the Oklahoman newspaper after his grim, September 2003 discovery. “At that moment, in that second, it was undeniable, and my mind finally accepted that this was a human.”

The body he’d discovered was that of Sandra Beard, a 43-year-old prostitute who frequently hung out at truck stops along the interstate. Beard was one of seven women who were found murdered near highways in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas from July 2003 to January 2004. The killings prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigations to come up with a way to track what they said was a spike in bodies that were found on the sides of, or near, highways.

To date, the FBI’s Highway Serial Killings Initiative has identified more than 750 people whose bodies were found near U.S. highways and has identified 450 potential suspects thanks to a database that allows local state and federal law enforcement agencies to share information and identify trends that could link victims, many of whom were prostitutes, to each other and to potential suspects, many of whom also shared a common occupation: Long-haul truckers.

“We had an inordinate number of victims and offenders from this rather specific population pool,” said FBI Crime Analyst Christie Palazzolo, who has managed the Highway Serial Killings Initiative since 2012.

Law enforcement agencies across the country can share information with each other that, the FBI said, allows analysts to “develop detailed timelines” on potential suspects based on information obtained from trucking company logs, gas station receipts and other records, which allows law enforcement to determine where the suspect was when a murder or assault happened.

“It’s not unusual for a driver to pass through five or even seven states in one day,” Palazzolo said. “The amount of ground they cover and the lack of any connection to where they’re passing through makes it difficult to tie cases back to them.”

The Department of Transportation, the FBI said, expects the number of long-haul truckers on the road is likely to grow exponentially over the next several years—as will long-haul serial killers.

“So if we’ve already identified a population from which we are getting a significant number of offenders, and if we are going to be seeing more and more trucks on the road, the potential for additional highway serial killings is definitely there,” Palazzolo said.