“The Truck Stop Killer” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 30)

The Truck Stop Killer by Vanessa Veselka in the November 2012 issue of GQ is the account of a woman’s search to uncover the history of the death of a hitchhiker left in a truck-stop dumpster. The body may have been connected to a series of young women kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a serial killer. Veselka, who herself had been a 15-year-old runaway at the same time, had a terrifying ride with a man who may or may not have been the same murderer. Nearly three decades later, she tries to find the identity of the girl abandoned in that dumpster, contemplates her own terrifying experience, and considers the incomplete or missing histories of other young runaways lost on the road.

A row of trucks at a truckstop

Veselka digs intro her own personal history and gives the story a rich sense of authenticity as she describes what it was like to be a 15-year-old woman drifting from place to place on her own as a hitchhiker:

I stuck to trucks because they were safer than cars. When you get in a truck at a truck stop, everyone notices. They chatter about it on the CB, and you are driving off in what amounts to a huge billboard advertising the name of the company. I needed visibility to stay alive. But it was also a dangerous form of brinksmanship, because if a trucker was going to cross the line, the higher stakes meant he was going to do it for real. There was a gap before that line, and most truckers wouldn’t take it that far. I lived in that gap…

I needed to find rides and usually couldn’t get into the restaurant. The general rule was that you were a prostitute until proven otherwise. And then you were still a prostitute. Waitresses were the first to kick you out. That forced me into asking for rides in the hallway by the showers. Over time, I learned safer ways of getting rides by having truckers navigate the CB radio for me. Women couldn’t really get on the “zoo channel,” as they called it then, because the sound of their voice would trigger twenty minutes of crass chatter. There was only one word for woman on the CB, and that was beaver. Even the guys who were trying to help had used it. They had to make up stories for me: “I got a beaver needs a ride to Flagstaff for her grandma’s funeral don’t want no trouble, c’mon back.” There was always a sick mom or dead grandparent involved, and I was almost always abandoned by my jerk of a boyfriend, who’d made off with all my money and my car.

Through these stories, I jumped from truck to truck. Like a lemur in a canopy of trees, I barely saw the ground. Even so, it still wasn’t safe to sleep. Adhering to my rule (that the only safe truck was a moving truck) meant I woke when a truck took an exit. I woke when it slowed for traffic. When it turned, when it downshifted, when it drifted toward the shoulder—I woke.

Early in the story, Veselka suggests that the truck driver who pulled a knife on her and demanded she go to the back cabin of the truck may have been Robert Ben Rhodes, a serial killer who kept a torture chamber in the back of his truck. He picked up runaways and hitchhikers at truck stops, kidnapped them, then typically tortured, raped, and eventually killed them. We was arrested in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.

Veselka interviews former FBI agents who investigated Rhodes and Rhodes’ ex-wife to try and determine if he was the man who she rode with that night. She also gets insights into the depth of his sociopathic mindset. She tries to understand who he was and why he did what he did.

And as she tries to uncover more about his victims, it becomes increasingly clear that they have been mostly forgotten or erased from history:

The next morning, I drove to the Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. I thought that maybe in a truck stop where known murders had occurred, people would be more forthcoming. Maybe they would remember something the others hadn’t. I parked in front of the family travel plaza, then walked back past a sign that read TRUCKS ONLY. The store for professional drivers was clean and quiet. I asked around until I found someone who had been there in 1985. It was a woman, probably in her midfifties. She came over and gave me an open smile. I asked her the same questions I was asking everybody: Did you ever hear about a hitchhiker in a Dumpster?

“No,” she said.

“Did you ever hear of anything like that at all, in other times, any other bodies of women found along this stretch of I-70?”

I was in the one place where I knew for certain women had been found, one less than a hundred yards away from where she was standing. “No,” she said, “I never heard of anything like that anywhere.”

Listening to her, it occurred to me that this investigation of mine wasn’t a detective novel. It was a ghost story.

This is a chilling, well-written story, and one that raises some troubling questions about how our culture overlooks or refuses to acknowledge people on the edges of society. It suggests that Rhoades got away with his crimes for years because, in part, his victims were largely invisible to society, that no one would miss them. He not only preyed on runaways as misfits, he depended on the indifference of strangers.

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“The Hacker is Watching” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 25)

From increasingly powerful mobile phones to free FaceTime or Skype video chats to inexpensive GPS navigation tools, we’re living in a time where a lot of science fiction of our childhoods has become reality. For tech geeks like me, we live in a golden age. We’re instantly connected with the rest of the world in ways unthinkable decades ago. But the flip side to this is the threat of viruses, malware, and hacking that stir up our worst paranoia and fears, sometimes with good reason.

A woman in her underwear, getting dressed

Photo by Jason Madara for GQ

The Hacker is Watching by David Kushner in the January 2012 issue of GQ looks at a chilling tale of someone who managed to hack into the webcams and personal files of hundeds of users around the world. And not only did he violate other people’s privacy, he connected them directly with demands and threats, terrorizing them, it seemed, wherever they went.

What makes this interesting and effective is that Kushner starts off the piece from the perspective the victims, facing an invisible, powerful threat:

How would you feel, how would you behave, if the devices that surround your life were suddenly turned against you?

It’s a question that James Kelly and his girlfriend, Amy Wright, never thought they’d have to entertain. But one instant message changed everything. Amy, a 20-year-old brunette at the University of California at Irvine, was on her laptop when she got an IM from a random guy nicknamed mistahxxxrightme, asking her for webcam sex. Out of the blue, like that. Amy told the guy off, but he IM’d again, saying he knew all about her, and to prove it he started describing her dorm room, the color of her walls, the pattern on her sheets, the pictures on her walls. “You have a pink vibrator,” he said. It was like Amy’d slipped into a stalker movie. Then he sent her an image file. Amy watched in horror as the picture materialized on the screen: a shot of her in that very room, naked on the bed, having webcam sex with James.

The story shift quickly to the other side of the camera, where the reader is introduced to 32-year-old Luis Mijangos, who grew up in Mexico City and immigrated to Santa Ana, California. He isn’t revealed as a mustache-twirling villain, but rather, a complex person whose story is, if not sympathetic, somewhat understandable. Mijangos, whose father died from torture by drug cartels, was paralyzed from the waist down when he was sixteen, a victim of a gang violence crossfire in the streets of Mexico City. You don’t have to condone or approve of what he did, but by the end of the story, the reader can see why he did it.

Kushner profiles Mijangos, from his childhood to the present, and as he traces the outlines of his story, conveys the sense of power the growing hacking skills gave Mijangos:

Mijangos had one thing to help make him an expert hacker: time, and plenty of it. He spent all day in his wheelchair, digging deeper online. Hackers coalesced as teams, just like his old soccer club, and Mijangos printed up a T-shirt with the name of his squad, cc power (as in credit card)…

He wasn’t getting rich, but Mijangos says he earned enough to buy a $5,000 titanium wheelchair that he tricked out with $400 wheels. He felt reborn. “When it comes to hacking, yes, I’m not going to deny it—it’s like you feel like you accomplish something,” he says. “Like you feel proud of doing something that not many people can do.”

And as Mijango’s hacking becomes more expansive and invasive, it fuels his ego. His activities continue to give him a sense of power he lacked in everyday life:

An infection that had started with one victim spread to hundreds. For a guy stuck in a chair, it was like playing a real-life game of The Sims. He spent his days alone, watching up to four webcams, each one trained on a different victim. Sex became just a part of the thrill. He saw them crying, studying, or sitting on the can (apparently a lot of people take laptops into the bathroom). Eavesdropping on the everyday moments of their lives, in a way, felt most intimate of all. “Those people that I was able to watch on a daily basis,” he says, “I felt that they become like my friends.” Mijangos watched for hours as women slept or read; he was living his own twisted version of Rear Window, the lonely guy in a wheelchair staring out his glowing portal.

The story is thought-provoking. It doesn’t make you like Mijango or feel he doesn’t deserve punishment for his crimes, but it does humanize a threat that most of us usually think of as remote and faceless. It’s a eye-opening read, and one that may prompt you to cover up your webcam lens, just to be safe.

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