Serial killers working as long-haul truckers may be responsible for a string of homicides that stretch from coast to coast and cut right through the tri-state area, according to the FBI.
Law officers have compiled a stack of 500 unsolved homicides and 200 potential murder suspects as part of the bureau's Highway Serial Killer initiative. Most of the suspects are truckers.
The victims are highway prostitutes, hitchhikers and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many are nameless Jane and John Does whose bodies were found tossed along the nation's busiest highways. There are 10 such cases in or near the Chattanooga area, the FBI said.
One unsolved Chattanooga homicide dates back to 1999, when contractors clearing brush in a dirty creek just below Interstate 75 on Cannon Avenue found the body of a 35- to 40-year-old woman.
"When you don't know who your victim is, there really isn't anywhere to start," said Lt. Tim Carroll, head of the Chattanooga Police Department's major crimes division. "You can't even start to ask questions until you know that."
The body was badly decomposed, but the woman had been strangled and bound with cord. Lt. Carroll feels certain the killer brought the woman to the area and dumped her remains.
"They treat these people like they are disposable," he said. "We have to figure out who they are before we can figure out who did this to them."
TRACKING THEM DOWN
The FBI's Highway Serial Killer initiative, started five years ago, is the key for local law enforcement to connect unsolved killings - often with unidentified bodies - to suspects and families yearning for answers.
"The mobile nature of the offenders, the high-risk lifestyle of the victims, the significant distances and involvement of multiple jurisdictions, the lack of witnesses and forensic evidence combine to make these cases almost impossible to solve using conventional investigative techniques," said Special Agent Ann Todd, a Washington, D.C.-based FBI spokeswoman.
Truckers who kill have skirted the nation's laws for years by committing their crimes in one state and transporting the bodies for hundreds - if not thousands - of miles.
That throws investigators such as Lt. Carroll off course. When a body is found, investigators turn to their missing-persons lists, but if someone was killed states away, the local list is no good, he said.
The 1999 homicide in Chattanooga is typical of the crimes listed in the Highway Serial Killer initiative. So is a 1988 Jane Doe homicide victim found along Interstate 59 in Dade County, Ga.
There are more than 40 unidentified remains listed on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Web site. "It's the prevailing feeling that many of those victims are victims of this sort of crime," said John Bankhead, GBI spokesman.
A TRUSTING VICTIM
Lisa Manis was a free spirit who had no fear when encountering strangers.
"She never met anyone she didn't trust right away," said Rebecca Allen, Ms. Manis' sister.
So when the 23-year-old didn't call her family for a few months in 1993, no one back home in Michigan paid much attention. After all, Ms. Manis was known to hitchhike, and she was looking to establish a relationship with her estranged father in Tennessee.
But police believe her trusting nature fell victim to a highway serial killer. Her body was found June 12, 1993, off Mountain Creek Road, just a few hundred yards from U.S. Highway 27.
Ms. Manis had been in the Chattanooga area for a few weeks, hanging out at the Palomino Club on Rossville Boulevard and applying for jobs at various restaurants. She told her family that she had ridden with a trucker to get to Tennessee, Lt. Carroll said.
When police found her body, it had no identification. After local media showed a post-mortem photo of Ms. Manis, "people at the restaurants recognized her and called us," Lt. Carroll said.
Now that case is in the FBI database with nameless victims. Police hope that the facts of Ms. Manis' death will link her case to some other victim and then, perhaps, to a suspect.
JUST A START
In 2007, there were more than 40,000 unidentified human remains known to exist nationwide. Not all were victims of crimes, a handful were suicide victims.
The FBI admits that its listing of 500 homicide victims is a paltry start.
"We feel that there are many more victims than the estimated 500 who could be included in the database," Agent Todd said. "In fact, the purpose of publicizing the initiative is to encourage law enforcement agencies to send cases to (the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program)."
Chattanooga police invited area law enforcement authorities to a 2005 workshop to discuss the Highway Serial Killer initiative and to encourage other cities and counties to take part.
"No matter how small the department, they can enter the information into the system," Lt. Carroll said.
The wider the network, and the more victims and suspects entered, the more likely police are to make an arrest. So far, there have been successes.
"Electronic timelines have been developed on 46 trucker drivers and are available to law enforcement investigators," Agent Todd said. "At least 10 suspects, who are responsible for more than 30 homicides, have been placed in custody since 2004. All of the suspects are truck drivers, but not all were on duty at the time of their crimes."
Lt. Carroll hopes to use one such timeline from Bruce Mendenhall, a trucker accused of killing four women in Tennessee and Georgia. Officials here want to know when Mr. Mendenhall was in the area and if his truck log corresponds with local cases.
NOT ALL BAD GUYS
Truckers say knowing that a few people in their profession have been involved in such crimes is not a surprise, but it is yet another black eye for an often-maligned profession.
"I've been doing this 15 years, and truckers are some of the best folks you could know," said Bruce Blankenship, a Michigan-based trucker refilling off Interstate 75 last week. "There are bad guys on the road, yes, but there are really good guys, too. I'm the kind of person that would give somebody a ride and tell them about my grandkids."
The FBI acknowledges that the trucking industry has been helpful in assembling the data.
"While the list of subjects involved in the HSK initiative consists of long-haul truckers, this represents a very small percentage of the drivers within the industry," Agent Todd said. "The vast majority of the drivers are honest, law-abiding citizens. We have received overwhelming support and cooperation from the trucking industry throughout the initiative."
Still, it pays to be wary, one trucker said.
"For every 10 guys who read their Bible at the truck stop, there are others looking for drugs and hookers," said William Morgan, a New Orleans trucker passing through the area. "It's scary, but this is a good profession for guys like me and a whole bunch of others who are just working-class guys doing the best we can."