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Cheerleaders, College Students and Call Girls

How should the media describe murder victims?

Key points

  • Sexually motivated serial killers often target vulnerable women.
  • Engaging in sex work or struggling with an addiction can increase the risk of violence.
  • The media should not spotlight characteristics such as sex work when describing victims of murder.
copyright free, mugshot from Volusia County Sheriff's office
Source: copyright free, mugshot from Volusia County Sheriff's office

The conviction this week of 39-year-old serial killer Robert Tyrone Hayes in the murder of three sex workers in the mid-2000s is a chilling reminder that predators can hide in plain sight. While stalking and murdering three innocent women, Hayes was a criminal justice major and cheerleader at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Then he became the Daytona Beach Serial Killer. He was only 22 when he began his killing career.

Hayes was on no one's radar. Police had questioned him twice, simply because he had purchased a 40-caliber handgun around the time the first victim died; police were then looking at everyone who had purchased a similar gun. There was nothing else to raise a red flag; no felony convictions, no anonymous tips implicating him, no history of domestic violence. He seemed to be a well-adjusted college student.

Preying on the Vulnerable

Hayes' victims had experienced much tougher lives. Hayes killed 45-year-old Laquetta Gunther, 34-year-old Julie Green, and 35-year-old Iwana Patton over three months between December 2005 and February 2006. They were all found abandoned, nude, and face down on dirt roads in out-of-the-way locations (a garbage-strewn alley, on the edge of a construction zone, in a wooded, undeveloped area). Someone had shot each of them in the head.

At least two of the victims had a history of sex work. Prosecutors asserted that Ms. Patton did not appear to engage in regular sex work but may have done so out of a desperate need for money; her niece says otherwise. At the time of her death, her aunt worked two jobs (as a caregiver for an assisted living facility) and was helping her raise her five children. She denies that her aunt did drugs or sold sex for money and doesn't know how her aunt crossed paths with her killer. She suspects he lured her by pretending to need some help.

Hayes' defense acknowledged that his client had consensual sex with all three women (he had no choice as Hayes' semen was found at the scenes) but insisted the defendant didn't kill them. If true, this would have been a coincidence of epic proportion. The defense was grasping at straws because they had nothing else to go on. Unfortunately for Hayes, he had previously contradicted this theory during questioning by police, telling them:

  • He had never had sex with a prostitute without wearing a condom.
  • He did not use the services of a sex worker before 2012.
  • He had never had intercourse with a sex worker in Daytona Beach.

DNA eventually called BS on all three. But not before the demons driving Hayes in the mid-2000s came back. He is currently awaiting trial for the brutal March 7, 2016 murder of 32-year-old Rachel Bey, who was strangled and beaten near Jupiter in Palm Beach County.

Forensic evidence on Ms. Bey's body told a story where the evil villain was identifiable. It was Robert Tyrone Hayes. Hayes was arrested in 2019 after investigators discovered a cigarette pushed inside a beer can and linked it to the DNA found on Rachel Bey's body – and, ultimately, the other victims.

Sex Workers in the Headlines

If I was murdered tomorrow, I expect the media would mention that I am a psychologist. I am equally sure the same would happen if I murdered someone else. Hopefully, it would also come to light that I loved my kids, fostered animals, and wrote books. It would be nice if they left out the tough times I've gone through or the mistakes I've made.

Why don't we do this for crime victims? Yes, the fact that a slain woman engaged in sex work or used drugs is relevant in that it created a situational vulnerability that a predator pounced on. But should that be the headline?

Why is an innocent victim described as a sex worker and predator Hayes described as a "cheerleader" and college graduate? Ms. Patton attended the same university her killer did.

I've read stories of survivors once trapped in sex trafficking. These are bright, successful people who went through tough times and emerged triumphantly. I witness the amazing work they are now doing as victim advocates.

How unfair it would be if a news article pictured their entire lives through snapshots of their darkest days. Perhaps Hayes' victims would have had an "after," too. We'll never know.

The Bottom Line

I understand that a headline is not a biography, and a news article can't tell the complete story of someone's life. But if an article about a serial killer can lead with his academic credentials or extracurricular activities, we can surely do better in the way we describe his innocent victims.

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