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Police Share Notes on Truck Stop Killings

Times Staff Writer

Investigators from at least six states are to gather in Oklahoma City today, where they will compare notes on a series of killings to determine whether someone is preying on women across the South.

Officials suspect that the deaths of at least 12 women -- many of them prostitutes who worked at truck stops in towns like this one, soliciting business on citizens band radios and knocking on the doors of idling semis -- may be the work of one man.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 28, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Truck stop killings -- A photo caption in Friday’s Section A with an article about possible serial killings at truck stops in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and other states incorrectly placed West Memphis in Tennessee. West Memphis is in Arkansas.

“We don’t care who they were or what they did. These were all God’s children,” said Jessica Brown, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which is hosting the meeting.

“We are going to do whatever it takes to stop this.”

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Law enforcement officials from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee are expected to be there, as are representatives from 17 agencies -- including the FBI, which is sending a behavioral scientist from Quantico, Va., Brown said.

Relatives of the women, many of whom never thought the cases would be a high priority because of some of the victims’ backgrounds, said they were relieved that law enforcement officials were joining forces but frustrated that more was not done sooner.

“How many more girls have to get killed before they arrest somebody?” asked Wynema Buono, 59, of Chickasha, Okla. The nude body of Buono’s only daughter, 29-year-old Janice Marie Buono, was discovered under a bridge in Comanche County, Okla., in 2002.

“Sometimes I feel like going out there myself and trying to do something,” Buono said. “Because this is just lingering on and on and on.”

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Though they are concentrating largely on seven recent deaths, the first of the killings investigators are looking into took place in August 1999.

If the deaths are the work of one person, they said, then the killer is still active: The body of a 19-year-old woman who had been raped, beaten and strangled was discovered in a Texas creek bed about four weeks ago.

Most local law enforcement agents would reveal little about their cases.

Authorities are so concerned about alarming the public -- in case the killings are not connected -- that several agencies are hoping to attend the meeting without attracting the attention of civic leaders or local media.

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“We want to get all the detectives together and speak to each other first before we say anything. We need to talk about this and see if these are all connected,” said Grapevine, Texas, Police Sgt. Todd Dearing.

The nude body of 19-year-old Casey Jo Pipestem was found beneath a Grapevine bridge in January.

Investigators think there are enough common threads to suggest the killings are connected.

All the women were either white or Native American. Most were found nude and had been strangled and left under bridges or overpasses near major highways. Investigators said they were virtually certain that the killer was a man. They suspect he could be a professional truck driver, but have few leads beyond that.

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After comparing cases over the phone in recent months, the investigators said, they felt the need for a more formal meeting. The gathering, said Jay Hill -- a Lafayette County, Miss., sheriff’s investigator who will be in attendance -- “will be what they call in the business world a networking meeting.”

Lafayette County was the site of one slaying that officials suspect to be connected. In August, a train engineer crossing over the Tallahatchee River spotted a body on a mud flat below. Jennifer Hyman, 24, of Oklahoma City, had been dead for less than six hours, the medical examiner ruled. She was found nude, and she had been strangled. Police said they had no leads.

Many of the agencies involved in the effort are from sparsely populated areas and acknowledge that they are not equipped to handle an investigation of a possible serial killer on their own. Lafayette County averages two killings a year, Hill said. In virtually every case, the victim is a local resident, instantly recognizable to detectives and was killed by another local resident.

“This one is unusual,” said Hill, a 12-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department. “To be honest with you, I’ve never been involved in anything like this myself. If they are all related, several people working on it is better.”

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Law enforcement officials caution that solving the crimes will be a challenge, largely because many of the victims lived rootless lives, hitching rides from one truck stop to the next.

Margaret Holmes Gardner, for example, was last seen at the Flying J truck stop in West Memphis, just across the Mississippi River from her native Memphis, Tenn. Three days later, in July, a mail carrier spotted her body under an interstate on-ramp, about 15 miles west of the truck stop.Gardner had been arrested twice on prostitution charges, said Crittenden County, Ark., sheriff’s chief investigator Ed Laxton.

Officials said she often used the name “Vanilla” to talk to truckers over the CB radio.

The Flying J, just off Interstate 40, comes alive at night and is engineered entirely around the needs of professional drivers.

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As midnight passed on a cold, rainy night this week, the yard behind the gas station and grocery filled with scores of tractor-trailers parked parallel to one another, idling, their running lights on.

The inside of the truck stop is an itinerant’s community center. Tired drivers in hooded sweatshirts and camouflage pants bought 12 packs of Mountain Dew to keep them up through the night, chewed on skinny cigars, watched television or played video games.

Even the advertisements on the walls of the restrooms were aimed at truck drivers, hawking everything from toaster ovens that can be powered by a truck battery to satellite radio components. Drivers could fill up on gas, take a nap, wash their truck, do a load of laundry for $1, take a shower for $11.50 -- and find a prostitute, if they chose.

Truckers said word of the serial killer had started to spread -- becoming a popular topic of conversation, along with the highway sniper shootings in central Ohio.

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“This is not a good scene,” said Robert Schumaker, who is from Phoenix and has been driving long-haul trucks for 25 years. Schumaker was filling his truck with 58 gallons of diesel, another stop on a weeklong trip of ferrying produce between several Southern and Eastern cities.

“There’s always prostitutes knocking on your door,” he said. “It’s a bad place. They’re all bad places. Whatever you want -- dope or sex or whatever -- you can get it.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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String of killings

Investigators will meet today in Oklahoma City to determine whether a serial killer is preying on women.

These are among the unsolved cases that law enforcement agencies suspect could be connected:

August 1999: Jane Chafton, 28, found near Velma, Okla., floating in a shallow creek.

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March 2000: Cassandra Lee Ramsey, 25, discovered under a rural bridge in Jefferson County, Okla.

June 2000: Mandy Raite, 21, found in a creek off a dirt road in Comanche County, Okla.

February 2002: Janice Marie Buono, 29, discovered in a rural pond outlet in Comanche County, Okla.

June 2003: Pam Woodring, 34, found in a Kiowa County, Okla., creek bed.

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July 2003: Margaret Holmes Gardner, 47, discovered near an on-ramp to Interstate 40 in Crittenden County, Ark.

August 2003: Jennifer Hyman, 24, found on a mud flat near the Tallahatchee River in Lafayette County, Miss.

September 2003: Sandra Beard, found in Macintosh County, Okla. off Interstate 40.

October 2003: Unidentified woman found under an Interstate 40 bridge in Gray County, Texas.

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November 2003: Sandra Richardson, found in Okfuskee County off Highway 62.

January 2004: Patsy Laverne Leonard, 23, discovered in a creek bed in Pottawatomie, Okla.

January 2004: Casey Jo Pipestem, 19, discovered on a creek bed under a Grapevine, Texas, overpass.

Source: ESRI, USGS

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Times staff writer Ellen Barry in Atlanta, and researchers Rennie Sloan in Atlanta and Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.


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