Highway Serial Killings Initiative
March 6, 2009
The FBI provides an overview of the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) and how it has partnered with local law enforcement to initiate the Highway Serial Killings Initiative analyzing a pattern of murders of prostitutes.
Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. You may have heard about them. Highway serial killers. The FBI is working with state and local authorities hunting these killers around the United States and the program is called the Highway Serial Killings initiative.
Mr. Harrigan: “It started about five years ago. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Grapevine, Texas PD (Police Department) came together and recognized a pattern of prostitutes that were found killed along the I-40 corridor in several states in the south and the Midwest there.”
Mr. Schiff: That’s Supervisory Special Agent Mike Harrigan. He’s in the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, CIRG, and heads up the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, known as ViCAP.
Mr. Harrigan: “The FBI’s ViCAP program has been around since 1985. And what it is, it’s got two parts to it. The primary part is a database; it’s the national repository for violent crimes. And we look for crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults—both of those that are generally random or motiveless types of crimes; missing persons and unidentified deads where there’s foul play suspected. In addition to that, we provide analytical support on those cases to law enforcement agencies across the country free of charge.”
Mr. Schiff: How do police officers get the information?
Mr. Harrigan: “The main way that agencies use our system is we have a secure link over the Internet where agencies, law enforcement agencies around the country, can enter these cases directly into the national database and they can query and look for similar cases that might stretch across jurisdictional lines. It’s a major change in how we do business. Previously only the Bureau could see those cases, but in July of 2008 we rolled out this web access which now allows all agencies in the country to access all the information going back since the program started in 1985.”
Mr. Schiff: The ViCAP program was running hot and heavy after information came in about those murders along the I-40 corridor Harrigan referenced earlier.
Mr. Harrigan: “They brought it to our attention and asked us if we could look at, with our ViCAP database, look across the country and see if there was a pattern of other homicides or sexual assaults up on and along the highways. So we took a look at that. We took a look across the country in our database and we found there was a pattern across the country of a large number of homicides, sexual assaults, and unidentified dead bodies found on or along the highway.”
Mr. Schiff: Harrigan says the FBI began to catalogue the cases to make it easier to access the data.
Mr. Harrigan: “We started cataloging those victims and over time other agencies came to us with potential offenders, which historically have been primarily interstate truck drivers, but not always, that utilized the Interstates for transportation. And we then started cataloging all these cases, putting them together and linking them together.”
Mr. Schiff: Harrigan says the Highway Serial Killings initiative had a modest beginning.
Mr. Harrigan: “Well really, when the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation looked at a series of homicides on the highway, they identified an offender who had victimized women in several states; a large number of cases. And that was the main focus at the time. As it expanded, other cases came forward from other jurisdictions around the country in which we provided support to those investigations. And then all these cases, the local agencies are the ones that really solved these cases. We provided some investigative leads and provided the ability to tie these cases together. Especially the victims, because of the multiple jurisdictions involved and the unique difficulty of the fact that the offenders and the victims generally weren’t from the jurisdiction in which the body was found, they were simply traveling through. Very difficult for a local agency to link that to other cases.”
Mr. Schiff: We asked Harrigan what areas of the country that have seen an increase in serial highway deaths.
Mr. Harrigan: “We’ve seen it across all 50 states. We have instances where these bodies have been recovered. Some of these stretch back 20 or more years, because we’re looking historically to catalogue these victims that generally went into a cold case status and were sitting there with all logical leads have been exhausted by the investigating agency. So now we’re pulling these together across the country to provide a vehicle, potentially, to link when an offender is identified by a local agency, we can go ahead and maybe look at his travels; what jurisdictions he came through; and other timeline characteristics, and try to put him in close proximity or in proximity to other victims where the local agency may be able to follow up on that and make definitive links locally on that.”
Mr. Schiff: Always making efforts to improve investigations and solve these cases, Harrigan says the FBI and local and state authorities are now focusing on the victims.
Mr. Harrigan: “We want to try to bring these cold cases to the nation’s law enforcement agencies; bring them out of cold case storage, so to speak, and put them somewhere where all other agencies can then look at those as they look for similars in their jurisdictions. That’s what our hope is, is to shine the light on these old cases that have grown cold.”
Mr. Schiff: It’s possible you and I wouldn’t think about this, but Harrigan says the Interstate Highway System is a plus for these highway serial killers to act out their fantasies.
Mr. Harrigan: “As individuals move interstate, and there’s a lot of mobility in our society with victims and also the suspects, many times that are not from the jurisdiction in which the crime is committed, very difficult with the movements. So you may have an individual, from, let’s say, Florida, moving through may victimize somebody in Missouri, and then within several hours could be several states away. So that, it just creates a unique challenge for law enforcement whenever there’s cross-jurisdictional crime. Very difficult.”
Mr. Schiff: Back to the ViCAP system. Harrigan says police officers around the nation can go into the computer and look for information to try and tie cases from their area to cases in other areas of the country.
Mr. Harrigan: “Everything is from their case files and they enter this information directly into the database now. And we look at all aspects of the crime. We look at specifics of the crime; you know, everything from the victims to the suspect information to the crime scene characteristics. And when we look at these cases, we look for similar cases, and this is in any kind of ViCAP case, not just the highway serial killer-type case, is we look for similar cases in other jurisdictions. And our analysts sit there and they crunch these cases; they look at them and they analyze the behavioral aspects of these cases and then look to make the links. And what they do, is they, if they find a case, let’s say, in one state that might be similar to a case in another state by crime scene characteristics, they’ll go ahead and let both detectives know that, ‘hey, you know, we found this case that might be similar to one in each of your jurisdictions. We recommend the detectives go ahead and talk to each other,’ and then that’s when they actually verify a match when they actually discuss the details of the case.”
Mr. Schiff: The FBI holds ViCAP training seminars a couple of times a year for police, and Harrigan says the FBI picks up the tab.
Mr. Harrigan: “We’ll invite a couple hundred law enforcement officers that would have an interest in working crimes on the highways. We invite them in, explain what our program is and offer up our services, and also be a conduit to get those cases into our system during those seminars.”
Mr. Schiff: Police agencies cannot solve crimes alone. Help from the public is needed. Harrigan says there are ways to help out so that officers and FBI agents can put all the puzzle pieces together and solve these crimes.
Mr. Harrigan: “It’s really the high-risk groups that are more highly victimized here. Our big thing here is getting cases into our system so that we can look at them and other agencies across the country can look at each other’s cases. It’s just making the public aware that we exist. So those, especially those families of victims that might be out there whose cases have gone cold; is that we urge them to recommend to their local department that might be investigating their case to reach out to ViCAP and ensure the case is in ViCAP, so at least their case, when all logical leads have been exhausted at the local level, we can at least on a continual basis expose that case to other cases around the country.”
Mr. Schiff: Check in at the FBI’s Internet site for more information about Highway Serial Killings cases. That’s www.fbi.gov. And if you have any information on any of these cases, call your local police department or the FBI right away. That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.