Monday, 25 June 2012

THE TRAVELING SERIAL KILLER AND HIS MOBILE TORTURE CHAMBER

From the outside, the big transport truck looked like any other truck. However, once inside the truck was a mobile torture chamber. Some serial killers go to great lengths to find victims and bring them back to the kill sites that they’ve carefully constructed either in their homes or in a forest. Robert Ben Rhoades didn’t have the luxury of capturing women in his own town. He was a long-haul trucker, who traveled from the eastern edges of the country along the stretches of highway that threaded throughout the South. On the road for weeks or months at a time, he did the sensible thing: he brought his one-man torture chamber with him.

 Every day, there is a new crop of lost souls looking for a ride or a temporary companion. At truck stops around the country, “lot lizards” (as Rhoades referred to them) troll the lanes of trucks, looking for a trucker who might give them a ride.

Rhoades was one of the truckers who would open his cab door to women who were in need of a ride or perhaps male companionship. He needed them, and preyed on them. Young girls hitchhiking were the easiest targets. He was charming and disarming which put his victims at ease. He was also an ex-military man which gave a sense of authority to him. To some, he seemed almost fatherly, protective. Others found his confidence attractive and fell victim to him.

Unbeknown to his unfortunate victims, inside his truck was his traveling torture chamber. There was a stained mattress where they would be placed and hooks in the wall where they’d be chained and spread-eagled. In the truck, was a suitcase that Rhoades carried with him at all times which was his murder kit. Many truckers knew him as “Dusty.” His other handle was more apt: “Whips and Chains.” Among his tools of the trade was an 18-inch double-sided dildo which he used to rape women both anally and orally, a horse bridle he’d shove into his victims’ mouths, handcuffs, a bullwhip, leashes, and an assortment of pins and needles.

Detective Rick Barnhart told the Tucson Weekly in 1996, “He took good care of the contents of that briefcase. It was just very well cared for and everything was placed neatly. I knew I had a serial rapist because of all that, and I suspected he might also have killed someone.” unquote

Anonymity and constant movement made this particular killer harder to track.  By the time someone would find his victim’s body on the side of the road, he would be 500 miles (805 km), or more, away from the scene of the crime. His victim’s bodies would be dumped on the other side of the country from where the trucker first picked them up. By the time law enforcement had figured out who the body belongs to, the trucker’s trail has long gone cold.

Many times, killers are eventually found as a direct result of some stupid and what to them appears to be a harmless act. It was in the early morning of April 1, 1990, when Rhoades decided to stop his truck. He pulled over to the side of the road on Interstate 10 and turned his hazard lights on. The hazard lights caught the eye of Highway Patrolman Mike Miller and his partner who thought that Rhoades was parked precariously and wanted him to move the truck over to avoid being hit by oncoming traffic. When Miller approached the 1988 Peterbilt cab, he didn’t see a driver in the front, and so he walked around to the rear of the truck. Had Rhoades remained in his cab, he would have driven his truck to another location and the patrolmen would have been none the wiser as to what was really inside his truck.

When the patrolman arrived at the rear of the truck, the doors were open and  he came upon a startling sight, even for someone with 23 years of experience in the force. He saw a woman, bound, gagged and naked, chained to the wall of the truck. The woman, Lisa Pennal, saw the officer and started shrieking at the top of her lungs. Then, Miller saw Rhoades, whose reaction was equally off-putting. He was cool as a cucumber and tried to deflect attention from Pennal’s shrieks. In the book Roadside Prey, author Alva Busch writes about how Rhoades calmly told Miller. “It’s all right, Officer. Everything’s fine.” Did he really believe that that the officer would then get back into his patrol car and drive away?

Rhoades was patted down; a gun was removed and he was handcuffed and placed in the police car while Miller waited for backup. But when he returned to the patrol car, Miller was shocked.  Rhoades had, like a snake, slithered his cuffed hands from his back to the front. The two officers waited for backup and when it arrived, they took Rhoades in their police station.

It was in that police station that, Lisa Pennal divulged a tale of torture and kidnapping. A hardened, streetwise woman with alleged mental issues, she had the physical marks that bore witness to the truth of her story such as bruises all over body, welts from the handcuffs were around her wrists, and marks were on her nipples where he had clamped them with metal clips. It was not at all what she had hoped for when she accepted a ride from Rhoades at Rip Griffin’s truck stop just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. A pro at hitchhiking, she fell asleep in the cab. When she awoke, she was in a living nightmare, chained and naked in the back of the truck.

Though it wasn’t clear how long she’d been held captive, she’d been tortured for a long enough duration that there were two sets of bruises on her wrists. She’d also managed to get a few licks in—biting Rhoades on the arms and scratching his face. She told them about how she’d been tortured, and then they looked inside the gruesome briefcase. She told the officers that Rhoades told her he’d been doing what he was doing to her; he had been doing it to other victims for a long time. According to Busch, he said, “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years.”

If Rhoades hadn’t been stopped by the patrolman on I-10 in Casa Grande, Arizona in 1990, his crimes might never have been discovered and many more victims would have died in his torture chamber.

A few months before Lisa Pennal had been saved from certain death, another victim of Rhoades had managed to escape and survive. Shana Holts came across Rhoades in San Bernardino, California, at the truck stop’s restaurant. She was a frequent hitchhiker and had no problem getting rides from strangers. She wanted to go to Arkansas, but the trucker was heading to Texas. She figured it would get her part-way there.

As with Pennal, Rhoades waited for Holts to fall asleep in the truck. In the middle of the night, he made a sudden stop. When she became aware that she was in imminent danger, she tried to escape, Rhoades responded by hitting her in the face. He took her at gunpoint to the mangy mattress in the back of the camper and shackled her with a handcuff to a bar hanging above her head. She was stripped nude, spread eagle, and chained. For the next four weeks, she was repeatedly raped by the trucker, penetrated with foreign objects, beaten and whipped, left to urinate on herself, and was barely fed unless she submitted to his demands. In an act that was as foreboding as it was dehumanizing, he cut off her long blond hair in a choppy, short cut and shaved her pubic hair. She looked like a little boy. This makes me wonder if he was also a pedophile who molested little boys. There was no evidence of that ever happening but many such victims keep what happened to them as a secret,

However on February 5th, she had found a way to escape. Perhaps, “Dusty,” as she knew him, was getting lax. He took her to his own apartment in Houston, Texas, let her take a bath before he raped her again. It was time to hit the road, so he cuffed her but it turned out that he hadn’t completely secured the handcuffs to the chains around her neck. When he stepped out of the cab of his truck, she took her chances and ran for her life down the street.

Unfortunately this particular victim, Shana Holts was much more traumatized than Lisa Pennal. She was too scared to press charges against him because she didn’t really know if she would be safe. Still, Detective R. E. Bomar, who had found Holts, made a notation in his notebook of her case. When he read about Pennal in the paper a few months later, he put the two together and called Barnhart. There was something more to this case than just sexual assault and torture. They both thought that it was possible that Rhoades could have murdered someone, and they sent the Rhoades files to the FBI.

After a few days, they obtained a search warrant for his Houston apartment. There, they found a veritable gold mine of evidence, including photographs that would definitely nail Rhoades as a serial killer.

While Rhoades was still in custody, the police searched his truck again. They found a camera with film inside. Most of the pictures that Rhoades had taken were from the driver’s seat of his truck of women driving past him. However it was his apartment that held the most useful evidence. They found white towels, some of which were soaked in blood on the floor. Bondage paraphernalia, magazines, handcuffs, and whips which were found all over the apartment. Even women’s underwear was strewn about.

Investigators also found pictures of a young girl that was in a barn. Her dark hair was cut short. In some of the images, she was wearing a black dress and high heels. She had on makeup and her nails were painted. In others, she was naked and shackled. The pictures appeared to be taken in different locations. She looked terrified in all of them. In one of the pictures, she is seen backing away from the cameraman, her hand outstretched, her eyes filled with fear.

It took almost a year before the police connected the girl in the photographs with the skeletal remains of a teenager they’d found in a barn in Illinois. Like Holts, Regina’s hair had been cut short, and her pubic hair had been shaved. Her name was Regina Kay Walters and unfortunately, her case had nearly gone cold.

Fourteen years old, Regina was from a troubled home in Pasadena, Texas. Her older sister had committed suicide eight years before Regina’s disappearance. Her older brother was always getting into trouble with the law. Regina had been living with her father, when she decided she’d come to her mother’s house to live. She’d only been home for three days when she went missing, along with another teen, Ricky Lee Jones, who lived nearby. It turned out that she had met Ricky near their apartment complex and snuck out to meet him again the next day. They were so taken with each other that they decided to run away together and were believed to be hitchhiking to Mexico when they came across Robert Ben Rhoades, the trucker with his mobile torture chamber.

At first, police focused on Ricky as the doer. He was the last person to be seen with her, but Ricky didn’t seem to be the violent type—though he’d gotten in trouble here and there, he was seen as too passive to do something like killing Regina.

As the months wore on, Ricky Lee Jones never showed up. It was eventually believed that he, too, had been killed, though his body was never found. When Regina’s mummified and mostly skeletal body was discovered in a barn, it was clear that someone far more sinister had murdered her. A wire noose attached to a board of wood had been found around her neck—it had been twisted 16 times, strangling her to death. I imagine the poor girl’s death was very slow in coming.

The investigators who had found her body were not yet aware of the investigation of Rhoades—nor were they aware of the pictures that had been taken of her just before her death.

There was another piece of evidence on Rhoades the night he was arrested for kidnapping Lisa Pennal. A small wireframe notebook, with the words “Regina” on the front, which contained phone numbers for her father’s work and her mother,  grandmother, and other friends. Her father and her grandmother had received odd phone calls telling them that he had their daughter. “I made some changes,” the Tuscon Weekly reported that the caller had said to Regina’s father, “I cut her hair.”

Another clue in the book was a notation that read, “Ricky is a dead man” accompanied by a drawing of a gun with blood dripping off it. The notebook also had odd notes written in a different handwriting. Investigators showed the notebook and the handwriting to Debra Rhoades, Rhoades’ wife at the time to confirm that it was the killer’s handwriting. The sexual sadist, serial rapist and murderer had a wife, and her story would be just as horrifying as the victims’.

When she met Robert Rhoades in 1983 when Debra Rhoades was trapped in a dead-end marriage to her previous husband. Though they were no longer together as man and wife, they were still living together and sharing custody of their kids. To blow off steam Debra and one of her girlfriends would go dancing at a nearby country and western bar. One night, she locked eyes with handsome stranger, dressed in a pilot’s uniform. He asked her to dance and bought her a drink.

He was over six feet tall and had a commanding presence. Born in a small town in Iowa, he was serving in the Marine Corps when his father was arrested for molesting a 12-year old girl. Shortly after his father’s arrest, he killed himself. It is unclear if Robert Rhoades had been molested by his father as a teenager, but it would go toward explaining his behavior and his MO — particularly his habit of cutting off of women’s hair. During his stint in the military, he became a petty criminal, was arrested for robbery and subsequently discharged. After dropping out of college, he applied to be a police officer but was rejected. He’d been married and divorced two times when he met Debra.

Debra was petite and smitten with the handsome, confident stranger. She started dating him in a very formal manner. He took her out for fine dinners and dancing. It took three months of dating and romance before they had sex. When Rhoades gave her his entire paycheck to pay for bills, he confessed to her that he was a trucker and not a pilot.  Despite that revelation, she was still moved by the way he took care of her.

Unfortunately, their the relationship wasn’t picture perfect. There were a few revealing cracks in Rhoades’ smooth facade. On one date early in their courtship, he surprised her by putting a handcuff on her wrist while they were sitting in the car on their way to a club. When she got angry, he played it off as a joke. Though the incident should have served as a warning, Debra continued to date him, even as things became more and more strange. Even though she felt comfortable in his presence, the more it was clear that something was not right with Rhoades.

After she moved out from her former husband’s house and moved in with Rhoades, he began to insist that they go to swingers’ clubs. She was outraged at the suggestion, but over the years, after needling her and making her feel guilty and frigid, Debra acquiesced. He would alternate between giving her lavish gifts like expensive coats, and taking her out to expensive dinners, and berating her for not being sexually open. At the swingers’ club, he would be cruel and have sex with other women in front of her, even as she protested. She was so dependent on Rhoades financially and emotionally, that she felt she was powerless in the situation. Alas, this is a common problem with many women.

The picture perfect situation had become a complete nightmare by the time Regina Walters went missing. Debra and Rhoades’s fights were becoming increasingly more dramatic and violent. According to the book, Roadside Prey, during an argument after a swingers’ event Rhoades pushed Debra out of the moving car, leaving her without her purse or shoes in the middle of an intersection. The enraged Rhoades was speeding and got pulled over by police who noticed the women’s clothing in the car and forced him to pick up Debra. They should have arrested him right then and there but they didn`t.

Despite all the misgivings, a cowed and abused Debra married Rhoades four years after meeting him. It was then that things got really ugly. As far as he was concerned, he owned her now. The biggest, and most abusive, fight came near the end of their relationship in October 1989. After learning that she had been communicating with her ex-husband, he raped and sodomized her. In the morning, when she tried to start her car and it wouldn’t start, she asked Rhoades for help. When he gave her the cold shoulder, she called her ex — which made Rhoades go insane. In a fury, he beat her and kicked her on the ground until he was out of breath.

Debra had decided she’d had enough. She went into the bedroom and came back with a bat. Then, she bashed his arm and walked out of his life, never to return.

While the pictures were the first serious connection between Rhoades and Regina, Rhoades’ driving logs were also damning. He’d been in the same areas where the mysterious phone calls had been placed to the parents. Though authorities had suspected that he’d indeed been “doing this for 15 years” as he’d so chillingly told Lisa Pennal, they weren’t able to yet to pin the series of skeletal remains along the various interstates on Rhoades. He might have been exaggerating.

But when Rhoades, who was in prison in Arizona doing time for the kidnapping of Pennal was shown the list of evidence that would be presented in court for Regina Walters’ trial, he agreed to a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. Special Agent Mark Young told the Tucson Weekly: “We’re positive he’s killed before. Killers like Rhoades often pick on vulnerable, anonymous people who won’t be reported missing immediately. The skeletal bodies are found and nobody knows what really happened.” Young told the paper that he believed that Rhoades was kidnapping and/or murdering as many as three women a month in the early 1990s—having accelerated his pace. Again, that is mere supposition unless Rhoades confessed to that many kidnappings and that wasn`t going to happen.

With no incentive to tell the police about the rest of his crimes, Rhoades had been enjoying his life in prison in Texas as a celebrity to fellow weak-minded prisoners until later when he was charged with the murders of two more people—Patricia Candace Walsh and her husband Scott Zyskowski. According to ABC News, the couple were from the Seattle, Washington area and were newlyweds when they embarked on an ill-advised cross country road trip as religious missionaries in November 1989 (mere months before the kidnapping and torture of his previously known victims, Regina Walters, Shana Holts, and Lisa Pennal). The husband’s body was found first in 1990 — in Ozona, Texas but wasn’t identified for two years. His wife’s body was found several months later, an indication that she had been tortured longer than her husband.

Again faced with the overwhelming evidence, Rhoades, now 65, chose to avoid a jury trial and pled guilty to the crimes in March, 2012. He got two more life sentences added to the one he was already serving. Though it is believed that he was very prolific, it’s possible we’ll never know the true number of people he killed and tortured.

"That was the problem with him,” Steve Smith, first assistant for the 112th District Attorney’s office in Texas, told ABC News, “He was on the interstate highways everywhere.”

Quite frankly, this fiend should have been sentenced to death. Society should not have to support this monster any more than they would support a rabid dog.

2 comments:

donk said...

R.I.P Regina Walters and to all of his other victims as well. So sad and disturbing to see Regina in that photo, it's awful what he did to her.

Yesterday's Gone said...

Dahn, I think that I've saw him in tapes from Morgan County ,TN. In the early nineties. There used to be a group of serial killers,kidnappers and rapists living up there. I think now, they have moved out of the area or have been incarcerated( Some for human trafficking). But most have not been tried for the murders which they always video taped. I was a hostage but when people tried to go to the police they would say things to keep the victims and witnesses from coming forth. Things like accessing them of being on drugs or asking teenage girls what their parents would think of them being involved in something like this or of simply just not telling them no, although you could tell on the tapes it was rape and that slot of times the girls were drugged.Just enough to let anyone trying to tell on them know that these officers weren't going to listen. Also they would ask where is your proof in a tone that was mocking.This man( I'm almost positive) was on one of those tapes with a little black haired girl similar to Regina but much smaller. She was from Morgan County but I don't know her name. I remember that he was standing over her maniacally laughing while she was being bit by snakes.( As crazy