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There’s something quintessentially American about the idea of a road trip: piling into the car, rolling down the windows, and hitting the highway for some interstate travel. It’s a quaint picture, but America’s roadways have a dark underbelly. They’re the hunting ground for some of the country’s most prolific serial killers.
After all, highways are a prime spot to ensnare victims. They can be quite dark and isolated, and the brush surrounding them makes for easy disposal. And while many of these freeway killers have been caught — check out "Mark of a Serial Killer," airing Monday, April 12 through Friday, April 16 at 8/7c on Oxygen as part of a nine-night special event, Serial Killer Week, to learn about some of them —other cases have never been solved, including the Colonial Parkway murders, which are the focus of Oxygen’s limited series “Lovers’ Lane Murders,”
Here are some of the most notorious roadway serial killers of all time.
Kearney seemed like a slight, unassuming man to those who knew him. In his downtime, however, he was targeting and killing transient young men along California highways in the 1970s. He picked up hitchhikers or men in gay bars, and would then rape and murder, occasionally torturing his victims. Afterward, he would usually dismember the bodies (after sometimes committing necrophilia) and dispose of them in industrial trash bags along the highways, the New Zealand Herald reported in 2017. It’s how he earned both of his monikers: “the Freeway Killer” and “the Trash Bag Killer.”
Kearney is suspected of killing up to 43 men but pleaded guilty to killing 21 people in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table. He claimed he committed the murders as an outlet for his rage stemming from the bullying he endured in his youth.
He was given 21 life sentences in March 1978, according to a 2019 New York Daily News story.
Bonin was another California highway serial killer dubbed “the Freeway Killer.” The former truck driver was arrested in Hollywood, California on June 11, 1980 while raping a teen runaway, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1996. Police on the scene found gear in Bonin’s van that he used for raping and murdering all his victims.
He primarily strangled his victims, typically ranging in age between 12 and 19, and worked with a series of accomplices. He then disposed of their nude bodies along the highway.
Bonin was found guilty of 10 murders in Los Angeles County in 1982 and another four in Orange County in 1983. He was executed in 1996, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The third serial killer to be nicknamed the Freeway Killer is Randy Kraft, who also was referred to as “The Scorecard Killer,” as he kept a coded list of his 61 murder victims. For example, one entry was “Iowa,” believed to be a U.S. Marine named Oral Alfred Stewart Jr., an Iowa-born man killed by blunt force trauma in Long Beach in 1974, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported in 2019.
Kraft, too, killed a series of people off California highways, although he usually went after older men, especially servicemen, that he lured in with drugs and alcohol, according to the New York Daily News. He was arrested in 1983 and eventually convicted of killing 16 people. He was sentenced to die and remains on death row to this day in San Quentin State Prison.
The New Bedford Highway Killer
From 1988 to 1989, nine women, all sex workers from New Bedford, Massachusetts, were found dead along Route 140, I-195, and Route 88, the Toronto Sun reported in 2020. Two more women went missing and were presumed victims of the mysterious serial killer. It’s been decades and still no one has been identified as the New Bedford Highway Killer.
The 1-70 Killer
In 1992, a serial murderer dubbed “The 1-70 Killer” left behind a string of bodies in three states: Kansas, Indiana, and Missouri. The killer gunned down six store clerks: five women and one man (although there’s debate the killer mistook the man for a woman thanks to his long hair), CBS affiliate station KMOV4 reported in 2020. All of the victims’ workplaces were off 1-70. The killer was never identified.
The 1-45 Killer
The 1-45 Killer, if indeed one person, would be one of the most prolific serial killers in the United States. On a 50-mile stretch of 1-45 from Houston, Texas to Galveston, Texas, 42 bodies have been found. All of the victims were women, although they didn’t have much else in common.
One League City oil field was dubbed the “Killing Fields” after four young women were found dead there between 1984 to 1991, the Washington Post reported in 1999. Eventually, the whole stretch of the 1-45 where women have been found murdered became referred to as “the Killing Fields” by Texans. Authorities believe more than one person is behind the murders — potentially even multiple serial killers, according to the Washington Post.
The Colonial Parkway Murders
From 1986 to 1989, four double homicides occurred on or near the Colonial Parkway, a 23-mile scenic stretch in Virginia. All of the victims were young, white, and were either a romantic couple or would have appeared so to a stranger. The first pair were found strangled to death with their throats slashed in their car. The second pair were shot to death, their car discovered not far from where their bodies washed up from the James River. The third pair vanished entirely, their vehicle abandoned. The fourth pair were found dead in the woods, their bodies too decomposed to reveal how they were killed. Their car had been left weeks earlier at a rest stop.
While the timing, location, and type of victims were all similar enough to suggest a single serial killer, the different ways in which they were murdered and their bodies were disposed of could suggest the cases are unrelated. The investigation is still active, the Virginian Pilot reported in 2016.
For more on the Colonial Parkway murders, watch Oxygen’s limited series “Lovers’ Lane Murders." To learn more other freeway killers, check out "Mark of a Serial Killer," airing Monday, April 12 through Friday, April 16 at 8/7c on Oxygen as part of a nine-night special event, Serial Killer Week.
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