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The Most Infamous And Disturbing Hitchhiking Crimes Of All Time
Serial killers and depraved kidnappers have been known to prey on hitchhikers seeking a ride.
These days, it's a common safety suggestion: Don't ever hitchhike. Getting in a car with a stranger is a dangerous move, people are taught from a young age.
But there was actually a time, long before Ubers and cell phones, when hitchhiking was rather common. The majority of hitchhikers, whether they were grabbing a quick ride home or heading across the country, made it to their destination safely. But many others weren't so lucky -- including Colleen Stan, often known as "The Girl In The Box."
On May 19, 1977, 20-year-old Stan decided to hitchhike from Eugene, Oregon down to Westwood, California for a friend's surprise birthday party. She never made it. Instead, a seemingly friendly, young couple that picked her up at one point during her journey and held her captive for seven years, raping her, torturing her, and often keeping a 20-pound wooden box around her head, the New York Daily News reported in 2014. Eventually, her tormentor Cameron Hooker's wife, Janice, helped her escape.
Stan herself recounts her horrific ordeal in the upcoming Oxygen special "Snapped Notorious: The Girl In The Box," premiering Saturday, July 17 at 9/8c. She's far from the only person to fall victim to a crime while hitchhiking -- after all, the number one lesson she's learned, she wrote in her 2009 book "The Simple Gifts of Life," is "Don't hitchhike."
Here are some of the more infamous hitchhiking crimes of all time.
The Toolbox Killers
Ever hear a warning about being wary of vans? Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris helped contribute to this fear with their GM cargo van that they nicknamed "Murder Mac" and modified specifically for murder, adding in blackout windows, police radar, soundproofing, and a toolbox with instruments to use for torture that earned them their moniker, according to Laura Brand, one of the foremost experts on the Toolbox Killers.
Bittaker and Norris initially met in prison, where they bonded over their twisted desires of rape, murder, and torture. After Bittaker and Norris were released on parole in 1978 and 1979, respectively, they moved to Los Angeles County, reconnected, and turned their depraved fantasies into a horrifying reality. During a span of five months in 1979, they killed at least five women: Lucinda "Cindy" Schaefer, 16; Andrea Hall, 18; Jacqueline Gilliam, 15; Leah Lamp, 13, and Shirley Lynette Ledford, 16, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1989.
Bittaker and Norris lured most of their victims in by offering them a ride in their van. They would then take the girls to the San Gabriel mountains, where they would rape and torture them before murdering them. They often recorded the torture on audio tape or in photos.
Bittaker and Norris were eventually caught after Norris confided to a friend about their horrific pursuits. Norris escaped the death penalty by testifying against Bittaker, while Bittaker was sentenced to death. Both men ended up dying in prison of natural causes -- Bittaker in 2019 and Norris in 2020. Brand's interviews with Bittaker will be the focus of an upcoming Oxygen special airing this fall entitled "The Toolbox Killer."
The Backpack Murders
In November 1993, a man named Paul Onions was backpacking in the Australian outback when he hitched a ride from a passing driver. As they headed toward the the Belanglo State Forest, Onions became unsettled by the man's line of questioning, as he asked if anyone was aware of where Onions was. Then, the driver pulled over, claiming he wanted to find some tapes to play music -- but instead he pulled out a gun and attacked Onions, The Guardian reported in 2019.
Onions was able to flee and flag down another car -- and years later, his testimony would prove crucial when he was able to identify Ivan Milat as the man who attacked him. Milat was the man behind the "Backpack Murders," terrorizing hitchhikers in New South Wales between 1989 and 1993. In total, he killed seven people and it's possible he murdered others as well, The Guardian notes.
Milat would pick up hitchhikers and bring them over to the Belanglo State forest where he would attack and rob them before holding them captive, torturing them, and killing them. His crimes later partially inspired the horror film "Wolf Creek."
Milat was sentenced to life in prison in 1996, and eventually died of cancer in 2019.
Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders
One of the most chilling aspects of the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders? It's still unknown who committed them. Some have theorized that the Zodiac Killer or Ted Bundy were behind the string of killings, but it's never been proven who murdered several female hitchhikers in the North Bay area of California in 1972 and 1973.
The victims included Kim Wendy Allen, a 19-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student; Yvonne Weber, 13, and Maureen Sterling, 12, two friends who disappeared together; Lori Lee Kursa, a 13-year-old who was known to run away often; Carolyn Davis, a 15-year-old who had also previously run away; and Terese Walsh, a 23-year-old who was intent on hitchhiking home to see her family for the holidays, according to a 2016 SF Weekly article.
All of the victims were found naked and off roadside embankments in rural areas. Many showed signs off sexual assault. It was impossible to determine a cause of death for all the victims. In 1979, a Jane Doe was found near where the bodies were discovered -- it was later determined she had been killed between 1972 and 1974 and was around the same age range of the other victims, suggesting her death was related to the other murders.
There are other possible victims in the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, including Jeanette Kamahele, a 20-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student who vanished and was last seen alive hitchhiking, SF Weekly reports. The case remains unsolved to this day.
Ed Kemper's first victims weren't hitchhikers at all -- it was his own grandparents. In 1964, at the age of 15, he shot both of them to death. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he was sentenced to a psychiatric facility and released at the age of 21, according to a 2012 Washington Examiner article.
But Kemper, who earned the nickname the "Co-Ed Killer," soon went on a murderous rampage targeting female hitchhikers in California in 1972 and 1973. In total, he killed six young women looking for a ride: 18-year-old Fresno State students Mary Ann Pesce and Anita Mary Luchessa; 15-year-old dance student Aiko Ko; Cindy Schall, an 18-year-old student at Cabrillo College; and Rosalind Thorpe, 23, and Alice Liu, 20, whom he picked up directly from the UC Santa Cruz campus. Kemper would stab, shoot, or strangle his victims before having sex with their corpses and dismembering them.
His killing spree ended with the murder of his mother on April 20, 1973. He bludgeoned Clarnell Stage to death, cut off her head, and had sex with it. He then invited her best friend Sara “Sally” Hallett over and murdered her, too.
Days later, on April 24, 1973, Kemper called police and confessed to all eight murders. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Patrick Kearney was eventually nicknamed the "Freeway Killer," after terrorizing California's highways in the 1970s. He picked up male hitchhikers or men in gay bars, and would then rape and murder them. Occasionally, he would also torture 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 another one of his monikers: “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.