The FBI suspects that serial killers working as long-haul truckers are responsible for the slayings of hundreds of prostitutes, hitchhikers and stranded motorists whose bodies have been dumped near highways over the last three decades.
Federal authorities first made the connection about five years ago while helping police link a trucker to a string of unsolved killings along Interstate 40 in Oklahoma and several other states. After that, the FBI launched the Highway Serial Killings Initiative to track suspicious slayings and suspect truckers.
A computer database maintained by the FBI has grown to include information on more than 500 female crime victims, most of whom were killed and their bodies discarded at truck stops, motels and other locations along popular trucking routes crisscrossing the U.S.
The database also has information on scores of truckers who've been charged with killings or rapes committed near highways or who are suspects in such crimes, officials said. Authorities said they do not have statistics on whether driving trucks ranks high on the list of occupations of known serial killers.
But the pattern in roadside body dumps and other evidence has prompted many investigators to speculate that the mobility, lack of supervision and access to potential victims that come with the job make it a good cover for someone inclined to kill.
"You've got a mobile crime scene," one investigator said. "You can pick a girl up on the East Coast, kill her two states away and then dump her three states after that."
Although some local police agencies have been briefed on the program, the FBI had not publicized its existence outside law enforcement until earlier this year, when officials agreed to show The Times the inner workings of the operation and share details of some of their cases.
Housed in a nondescript brick building on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., FBI analysts pore over reports and computer entries looking for patterns in slayings from California to Connecticut.
Since the program began, more than two dozen killings have been solved, authorities said.
Michael Harrigan, who oversees the Highway Serial Killings Initiative, said the program helps local police "connect the dots" to slayings outside their jurisdictions. He said most of the victims led high-risk lifestyles that left them particularly vulnerable.
"We don't want to scare the public and make it seem like every time you stop for gas you should look over your shoulder," Harrigan said. "Many of these victims made poor choices, but that doesn't mean they deserved to die."
Though most of the entries in the database pertain to unsolved slayings, cases that authorities consider "cleared," or solved, remain in it so that investigators may potentially link additional crimes to a known perpetrator. There are also entries on sexual assaults and missing-person cases linked to highway locations. FBI officials declined to provide The Times with a more detailed breakdown of the database's contents.
The program's success depends largely on local police departments' voluntarily providing data on seemingly random killings, sexual assaults and other violent crimes to the FBI, where it is stored in a massive computer database. FBI analysts can query the computer to spot patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed.
This was exactly the kind of help Terri Turner was looking for when she turned to the FBI in early 2004. Turner, a senior criminal intelligence analyst with the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation, was working on a string of seven slayings along I-40 in which the victims were truck-stop prostitutes who had been killed and left at roadside locations.
Turner's inquiry was given to an analyst with the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, which maintains the agency's crime database. The analyst found that the database contained more than 250 cases of roadside female crime victims, many of them bearing enough similarities to suggest patterns in the violence. Subsequent searches and Internet research bumped the number to 350. As a result, bureau officials created a separate computer database to track such crimes and assigned an analyst to work full time on the serial killer program.
Later that year, Turner's suspected killer was identified as John Robert Williams, a 28-year-old trucker.
Williams and his girlfriend had kidnapped a woman from a casino in Mississippi, killed her and dumped her body along a rural county road, authorities said. Concerned that they'd been seen leaving the casino with the victim, Williams' girlfriend panicked and called police, telling them that she and Williams had found the body. Their story quickly unraveled, and the pair were arrested for murder.