May 2012
Ginger Strand

American Isolato

Missing Persons, Highway Killers, and What’s Found in the Landscapes Left Behind by America’s Dreams of Mobility

Discussed: The Absent Mask of Sanity, Car Trouble, America’s Most Wanted, Interests of the FBI, Terminus Island, The Buffalo Bill–Hannibal Lecter Dialectic, Big Business, Clemency Granted by George W. Bush, The Frontier Spirit, Patrick Bateman’s Vest, The Return of the Noble Savage, Sprawlscapes
Visit to read the first section of “American Isolato.”


In June of 1983, Henry Lee Lucas was arrested in Texas for possession of a firearm. Five days later, he confessed to the brutal murder of an elderly neighbor, Kate Rich. If his famous predecessor Ted Bundy evoked the serial killer’s “mask of sanity,” Lucas, a one-eyed former mental patient who had already done time for killing his mother, seemed to embody the monster behind the mask. Born in the backwoods ofVirginia, Lucas was a nasty piece of work. His father, according to stories, was a moonshiner who had passed out on a railroad track in a drunken stupor and had had both legs severed by a passing train. He hopped around legless for a while before dragging his sorry self into the cold one night to freeze to death. Henry’s mother was no better: allegedly a prostitute, she forced her family to watch her meetings with “clients,” it was claimed, and regularly beat her children with a club. Not surprisingly, young Henry’s life of crime began at an early age.

Seemingly remorseless, Lucas admitted upon arrest that he had murdered his elderly neighbor and raped her dead body. But that was only the beginning. Once in custody, he spontaneously began confessing to more murders. First it was 27 women. Then 100. Then 150. Then 165. He offered up the name of his frequent accomplice: Ottis Toole, who was already in jail in Jacksonville, Florida. Police declared that between them, Lucas and Toole were good for at least 28 murders in eight states, including some of what were being called “the I-35 killings”—the late-’70s murders of around 20 hitchhikers and women with car trouble along Interstate 35 in Texas. By October of 1983, Lucas was admitting to 200 murders. Then Ottis Toole—perhaps greedy to share some of that airtime—confessed to having killed Adam Walsh. The son of a wealthy Florida hotel developer, six-year-old Adam had been kidnapped in 1981 from a Florida shopping mall. When Adam’s severed head turned up sixteen days later, his father, John, dedicated his life to preventing crimes against children. John Walsh went on to found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and would eventually find his niche as host of the Fox network’s longest-running program, America’s Most Wanted.

The Lucas confessions picked up where Ted Bundy left off. Exaggerated though they turned out to be, the confessions of Lucas and Toole confirmed what many already believed: the nation was being haunted by traveling murderers.

The Reagan administration had swept into office in part on the promise of “getting tough” on violent crime, and, in July 1983, the Senate held hearings on how to address this new epidemic of serial murder. The Senate hearings were largely focused on connecting serial killers to interstate mobility. “Experts” and law-enforcement officials were brought in to testify to the dramatic increase in random-stranger murders committed with no regard for jurisdictional boundaries.

One expert wasAnn Rule. “The thing that I have found about the serial murders that I have researched,” Rule declared, “they travel constantly. They are trollers; while most of us might put fifteen thousand to twenty thousand miles a year on our cars, several of the serial killers I have researched have put two hundred thousand miles a year on their cars. They move constantly. They may drive all night long. They are always looking for the random victim who may cross their path.” Rule’s prepared statement referred over and over to serial killers as a “new breed” of criminal whose emergence “may be tied in somehow with the fact that we have become an increasingly mobile society.”

Another witness was John Walsh. Emotionally, Walsh declared there were “6,300 unsolved murders in this country last year, random murders… and someone is doing these murders, and they are going through this country and police agencies are not linking them up.”

Luckily, the FBI was there with a solution. Director William Webster proposed creating a central repository within the FBI to track and record apparently motiveless violent crimes. Based at Quantico, the division would catalog rapes and murders and provide law enforcement with the latest in behavioral analysis of these dangerous, mobile criminals.

In the months that followed, the FBI helped to “educate” the public about this frightening new threat. Justice Department officials declared that as many as thirty-five serial murderers could be at large in the United States. They defined serial murderers as “those who kill for reasons other than greed, a fight, jealousy or family disputes.” They distinguished serial from mass murderers, explaining that serial killers “often cross city and state lines, making detection more difficult.” Pointing out that 28 percent of the nation’s twenty thousand annual homicides went unsolved, the Justice Department hinted darkly that serial killers might be murdering around four thousand people a year. “We’ve got people out there now killing twenty and thirty people and more, and some of them just don’t kill. They torture their victims in terrible ways and mutilate them before they kill them,” declared the Justice Department’s Robert Heck. “Something’s going on out there… It’s an epidemic.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Ginger Strand is the author of the books Flight, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, and Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, the Believer, the Iowa Review, the New England Review, This Land, and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.

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