“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.

Read The Truck Stop Killer →

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Two)

This story, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing this year, has haunted me since I read it. It has lingered in the back of my mind and prompted me to double check the locks on my doors and windows before I go to bed. As a father, a husband, and a man, it has shaken me. It’s rare that a story can stick in your head like this, but this one did.

Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is riveting, horrifying, and (unexpectedly) inspiring. It’s about a terrifying crime of violence, rape, and murder, and the woman who survived (that’s not a spoiler; Sanders reveals the outcome of the crime in the fifth paragraph). The story is really two parallel narratives: the story of the two women before, during, and after the night of the crime; and the subsequent testimony of the survivor in court, where she recounted the gruesome details of that night. Those details are devastating enough. But Sanders gives you a rich sense of the two women though specific details (big and small) and anecdotes. The reader gets a sense their personalities, their relationship, and their plans for the future. But we also learn the little details: their favorite booth at a neighborhood restaurant, what they drank that night, what they ate. And as the narrative leads up to the night of the crime, the “normalness” of it all sets up the reader for the painful blow of what we know is coming:

Dinner. Then a movie that had been lying around the house for a while, a musical that made them both cry. It was around midnight. Butz checked the locks multiple times (like always), she brushed her teeth multiple times while flossing in between (like always), she took the left side of the bed (like always) right next to her water and her lip balm. Her partner took the right side of the bed (like always). They said good night.

The article doesn’t spare the reader the grim details of what the criminal did to the two women, just as the survivor didn’t spare those details to the jury and the courtroom observers. The reader is trapped there with the two victims, trying to will a way out of the nightmarish situation. Sanders takes the reader towards the end of the night, when, despite everything, there seem to still be fleeting moments of hope and humanity, a possibility that the worst is already over:

She said: “Please don’t hurt us. We’re good people.”

He said: “yeah, you seem like you’re good people. I wish we could have been friends.”

Butz replied: “yeah, I wish we could.”

“Which,” her partner said on the stand, “is exactly what she would do… Even in that moment, she wanted to make some sort of connection. She said, ‘Maybe we still can.’”

He asked: “Do I seem like a good person to you?”

“She put the tips of her fingers on his chest — I will never ever forget this — and said, ‘I am sure there is some good in here.’”

He said: “No more questions.”

I won’t go further about what happens next or how the story ends, but it’s powerful and compelling.

The structure of the story makes it devastatingly effective. The reader starts out with the knowledge of what happens by the end of the night, but not the details or the people involved. Then Sanders winds back the narrative and introduces us to the victims, making them very real people, with hopes, passions, and plans for the future. And after that, the crime itself is unveiled in an unblinking fashion, through the testimony of the survivor on the witness stand. We can only imagine the courage and pain it took for the victim to recount her story in front of her family and a room full of witnesses. And it tells us even more about the woman we met earlier in the story, before all this happened.

I’m not surprised that this story won the Pulitzer. It’s a difficult story to read, but a fine example of a nonfiction feature that can tell a story with genuine depth and emotional power, without being sentimental or over-written. The language is very spare and direct; there are few artistic flourishes or showy literary techniques. Sanders smartly avoids all that and delivers a devastating story with raw, simple language and a methodical, unflinching chronological narrative. The story doesn’t need clever wording or phrasing; the truth is enough. More than enough.

Read “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” →

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.