Hell on Wheels

How serial killers use cars to commit crimes and police use cars to catch them.

Posted May 19, 2020

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

It’s not unusual for serial murderers — especially sexual serial killers — to use their cars as “accomplices.” Samuel Little, who has confessed to killing 93 women in 14 different states and often logged thousands of miles on his speedometer in any given month, almost always killed his victims in his car. In fact, while listening to hours of his confession tapes, it struck me that Mr. Little’s fondness for his cars was second only to the sadistic pleasure he derived from strangling his victims. 

Ed Kemper, the Co-Ed Killer, treated his Ford Galaxie as a lure, torture chamber, and storage for the bodies of his young victims. Ted Bundy typically lured his female victims to his 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, hit them with a crowbar, and stuffed them in the floor of the passenger side of the car which had been modified (seat and inside door handle removed) to accommodate an unconscious woman. 

However, it is not common for a serial killer to use his automobile as the actual murder weapon.  But that seems to have been the case with the recently arrested 32-year old Lawrence Paul Mills III.

Serial Hit-and-Run Killer Allegedly Arrested in Detroit

So far, Lawrence Paul Mills III has been charged with three deliberate hit-and-runs on four women in Detroit, Michigan in 2017; two of his victims died. In each case, Mills would choose a sex worker on the city’s southside, approach and pay for a sexual encounter, and have sex inside his car. After she exited his 2006 gold or tan Chevy Trailblazer [he may also have used a dark Chevy Cobalt] on foot, he would follow her in his car and run over her. He would then get out, approach his victim, and take back the money he’d paid her for sex. 

So far, Mills has been charged with first-degree murder and assault on a pregnant individual causing miscarriage/stillbirth in the October 16, 2017 death of a 34-year-old woman, first-degree murder in the December 13, 2017 death of a 59-year-old woman, and assault with intent to murder and assault/assault and battery of a pregnant individual in the December 22, 2017 attack on a 29-year-old woman who, in spite of sustaining serious injuries, managed to get back home and call for help. Police suspect, however, that there may be other victims, whom they encourage to come forward. 

Is This the First Car Serial Killer? 

Since 2005, the accepted definition of serial murder, according to the FBI, is “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.” Should Mills be found guilty of his charges, he would certainly qualify. And, he does have certain things in common with other serial killers; he preyed on vulnerable victims and made sure to give himself every advantage. 

Given the unusual weapon choice, there has been speculation that, if convicted, Mr. Mills would be for the first serial killer to use his car as the actual murder weapon. Nope. That distinction goes to Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt, a serial killer duo who, on April 18, 2008, were convicted of murdering two homeless men, Paul Vados in 1999 and Kenneth McDavid in 2005. 

Ms. Golay and Rutterschmidt’s modus operandi was this; they would befriend homeless men living in the Los Angeles area, take out secret, multimillion-dollar life insurance policies on them, drug them into unconsciousness, and then stage hit-and-run incidents after running them over with their car. It is unclear just how much money these two would have collected (or how many trusting homeless people would have been killed) if 48-year old Jimmy Covington had not become suspicious (refused to sign over his insurance policy) and the Golay/Rutterschmidt killing team had not become so greedy and taken out so many life insurance policies.

Perpetrators Captured by Car

Just as it’s true that a car can be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands, it’s amazing how many serious predators were captured as a result of an automotive error. David Berkowitz, for instance, was arrested after receiving a parking ticket for being illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant. During the summer of 1993, serial killer Joel Rifkin caught the attention of law enforcement while driving down the Southern State Parkway in New York without a license plate. 

Ted Bundy was defeated by a car twice. In 1975, he was driving his VW Beetle erratically through a Salt Lake City suburb in the middle of the night when a police officer signaled for him to pull over.  Panicked, Bundy sped off and the officer pursued. Even though he had already killed 25 women in four different states, he was not wanted for any crimes at the time. When the officer finally got Bundy to stop, he noticed the removed passenger’s seat and became suspicious; this was the beginning of the end for Mr. Bundy. He did manage to escape from the window of a Colorado courthouse. He was rearrested in Florida while driving a stolen car. 

It may in fact have been the search for a serial killer that led at least one city to find more ways to use cars to solve crimes. In 2008, Daytona chief of police Mike Chitwood was searching for a serial murderer who was targeting prostitutes so he installed cameras in neighborhoods where sex workers solicited. The cameras didn’t capture the killer, but they did uncover stolen cars, burglary suspects, an absconded sex offender, and a murder suspect from Ohio.

Today, most states have license plate readers — placed on streetlight poles at intersections and/or patrol car dashboards — to their crime-fighting arsenal. The images are compared with a “hot list,” i.e., a list of vehicles of interest, including stolen cars and those used in crimes. While just about everyone applauds their use in finding and catching violent offenders, others are alarmed by their potential for abuse and are calling for stricter policies over how they can be used, with whom the information can be shared, and how the data can be stored. 

Without a doubt, there can be a fine line between using technology to fight crime and creepily surveil law-abiding citizens. But, given what’s at stake, it’s worth figuring out where that line is.

References

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