Abduction by Vehicular Assault
By James O. Beasley II, M.P.A., and Jennifer D. Eakin, M.A.
On a lonely highway in a rural area, a teenage boy makes his way down the road, turning to show his thumb to the occasional passing vehicle. He hears an approaching vehicle behind him as it slows down, and he begins to turn around in hopes of finally getting a ride. He feels a sudden, painful impact as he is struck and propelled through the air, landing in a nearby ditch. Stunned and bleeding, he hears approaching footsteps and is lifted into the backseat of the vehicle as the driver starts the car and continues down the road. Just as suddenly, he realizes that his rescuer has pulled off the road again and also has entered the backseat. As the boy lapses in and out of consciousness, he feels a man’s hands on his body. Sometime later the victim is revived by the coolness of the night air as he is pulled from the car and thrown to the ground. He hears the slamming of the car door, the diminishing drone of the engine, and then nothing more.
This scenario describes a previously unrecognized form of blitz-style attack where a vehicle is used to quickly overpower and capture a victim. An offender with a history of blitz-style assaults makes initial physical contact from the safe confines of a vehicle, which serves as both a weapon and a means of transporting the victim to another location, generally to commit a sexual assault.
For this article, the term blitz is defined as the rapid application of overwhelming physical force intended to injure, incapacitate, or gain control of a victim.1 The forceful approach of blitz-style offenders represents a predominant strategy, not an aberration. The cases discussed in this article illustrate that when an unknown offender is responsible for an otherwise puzzling series of blitz-style assaults, the individual sometimes also may resort to a variation of the familiar blitz theme by using an automobile to obtain a victim. Recognizing this connection and understanding the behavioral and personality characteristics associated with blitz-style offenders may allow investigators to develop additional leads. While it is not standard practice in a serial murder case to review all reports of vehicle-on-pedestrian (VOP) collisions, investigators, nevertheless, should consider this strategy for crimes that involve blitz assaults.2
A serial child abductor who sexually assaulted and murdered three victims—all males from 12 to 15 years of age—admitted his involvement in the murders to a cellmate while incarcerated for burglary, which was his only prior conviction. All criminal acts attributed to the offender occurred within a 100-mile radius over a 4-year period and began when he was 21 years old. A review of the investigative reports in combination with the offender’s account revealed his predominantly blitz-style approach toward victims. Though the significance of this approach was not recognized at the time, it later was noted that the offender had a driving history that included at least two hit-and-run incidents. In reality, both were attempts to capture victims—who were strangers to the offender—using a vehicle to stun or disable.
In his daily existence and while committing his crimes, the offender consistently demonstrated limited social skills. A school psychologist described him as immature and having a low self-image. His IQ was measured as 91, considered low-average. He held menial jobs, continued to live with his parents into adulthood, and was notably deficient in his problem-solving abilities. For example, the solution to his perceived problem of having a small penis was to inject it with cooking grease in an effort to enlarge it. An emergency room visit with a short period of hospitalization occurred as a result. Additionally, when describing the moment in which a murder occurred, he invariably ended with the statement “and then batteries out” in reference to a victim’s death. The obvious limitations in his ability to effectively communicate may have prompted the offender to resort to the use of an automobile to solve the problem of obtaining a desired victim without the awkward and, ultimately, futile attempt to interact.
Special Agent Beasley serves in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Ms. Eakin retired as a special agent in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
First Murder (1981)
The offender was acquainted with the family of his first victim and was a regular visitor to their home, located a few blocks from his own residence. He entered the victim’s dwelling uninvited late one night and, according to his statement, lured the 15-year-old boy with the promise of alcohol. The victim left his home without shoes, a jacket, or a wallet, bringing into question the voluntariness of his departure. Driving his own vehicle, the offender took the boy to a secluded area 7 to 8 miles away where he immediately began a violent assault that included manually strangling the victim, slashing the boy’s throat with a knife, and striking him repeatedly on the head with a rock. The sudden and continued onslaught soon led to the victim’s death, after which the offender admitted to performing postmortem sexual acts on the body. When the boy’s family discovered him missing the next morning, the local community, including the offender, joined them in the search for the missing victim. His body remained undiscovered for 5 years.
Second Murder (1984)
The offender confronted a 12-year-old boy on a trail near the victim’s junior high school and asked for the time. Though he was a stranger, the boy responded and turned away. The offender then grabbed him from behind and put a knife to his throat. When the victim struggled, the perpetrator stabbed him 23 times and moved his body into some nearby bushes, where it was discovered approximately 3 hours later. When questioned about the incident, the offender acknowledged observing the victim’s penis, although he denied any direct sexual contact.
Third Murder (1985)
The offender was riding his bicycle on a well-known trail one evening when he spotted a 12-year-old boy, also a stranger, riding a bicycle. He pursued the victim down the trail, bumping the boy’s bike with his own as the victim attempted to ride away. The offender then pulled both bikes and the boy into some nearby bushes and ordered him to undress. He immediately assaulted the victim with an ice pick, stabbing him twice in the chest. By the offender’s account, he lay on top of the victim, kissed him on the mouth, and inserted the ice pick into the victim’s eye near the tear duct, which the offender described as reminding him of anal intercourse. The body was discovered 6 days later.
In August 1982 while traveling at 40 mph in his vehicle, the offender struck a 17-year-old male from the rear who was on a moped. The perpetrator dragged the victim and moped, which had become entangled in the vehicle, approximately 30 feet, then turned off his headlights, backed up, and fled the scene. The boy observed the license plate, which he provided to authorities, resulting in the offender’s arrest for misdemeanor hit-and-run. In October 1982 the offender pled guilty and was fined $150. Authorities never recognized this incident as an attempted abduction, although during a later interview the offender described it as exactly that. He admitted leaving the scene without completing the abduction because the victim was not sufficiently incapacitated by the collision.
A similar incident occurred 3 months later when the offender, who was driving a vehicle, struck a 16-year-old male walking home from a party, severely injuring the boy with the impact. The offender put the incapacitated victim into his vehicle and drove to a remote area where he dumped the victim down a steep ravine and left him for dead. The boy’s injuries included a lacerated spleen, a ruptured bladder, multiple pelvic fractures, and a concussion. Though the boy survived, the case remained unsolved for the next 4 years. It officially was characterized as a hit-and-run and was not recognized as an attempted abduction. By the offender’s account, he did not intend to “damage” the victim as badly as he did; he meant, instead, to disable the boy to facilitate his abduction. As typical of this offender, he denied sexually molesting the unconscious victim.
In the context of the offender’s overall criminal conduct during the 3-year period between the first and second murders, his driving history assumes greater significance. Although the two vehicular incidents in 1982 both resulted in physical injury to young men, neither was recognized at the time as an unsuccessful abduction attempt. This is an example of a serial killer who continued to act out criminally through conduct not generally associated with his other criminal acts. However, his practice of blitzing victims with an automobile is essentially consistent with that behavior. More important, the personality characteristics of offenders who choose this strategy may have more in common than previously recognized.
“…the term blitz is defined as the rapid application of overwhelming physical force intended to injure, incapacitate, or gain control of a victim.”
An offender committed four blitz-style assaults at age 18 against white females between the ages of 24 and 49. All of the attacks were sexually motivated, with one of them resulting in a completed rape and homicide. These offenses occurred within a 10-month period and were confined to a 5-mile radius in two adjoining communities. The victims all were strangers to the offender and were confronted and assaulted outdoors at or near their homes. The perpetrator brought and used a weapon in each assault, which was initiated without any preliminary verbal engagement. At the time of his arrest, he had only one prior felony conviction for a burglary that occurred amidst the series of assaults.
A sense of the offender’s everyday interactions can be gleaned from school records and interpersonal relationships. For instance, he was expelled from high school for behavioral issues and was referred to an alternative education program, which he also failed to complete. He developed an alcohol and drug problem during this time frame, but it is unknown whether this was related to his poor academic performance. He held menial jobs and had at least two girlfriends in late adolescence. Although there were no accounts of him acting out violently in the context of those relationships, reports indicated that he had a violent streak and a volatile temper. For instance, during a disagreement with someone considered to be a close friend, he head-butted the young man and broke his nose. Additionally, he was described as “smart and calculating,” reportedly excelling during a chess competition against the Princeton University Chess Club at the prison where he was incarcerated. When characterizing his own criminal conduct in a postarrest interview, he indicated experiencing powerful and irresistible urges prior to the assaults.
First Assault (February 2003)
While on foot, the offender approached a 37-year-old female from behind while she was removing items from her vehicle in her driveway and talking on a cell phone. He grabbed her arm and, brandishing a box cutter, attempted to drag her away from the residence. The only words he uttered during the assault were “come on, come on.” Punches were exchanged during the struggle, allowing the victim to break free and scream while running toward home. Her husband ran out of the house and gave chase, but the offender escaped. Due to his hasty retreat and with no indication of motive at the scene, it was only through the offender’s later statement that authorities could infer a sexual motivation.3
Second Assault (March 2003)
A 49-year-old female was walking on the road near her residence when the offender, who was walking in the opposite direction, reversed course and came at her from behind, hitting her in the head repeatedly with a tire iron and causing her to fall to the ground. The offender straddled her legs, unbuttoned her pants, and began to remove them with both hands, putting down the weapon in the process. When the victim attempted to pick up the weapon, the offender aborted the assault, retrieved the tire iron, and fled into a nearby neighborhood. He took cash from the woman while leaving her jewelry untouched. Throughout the assault, the offender remained silent. According to detectives, the tire iron, still bearing the victim’s blood, was recovered from the offender’s vehicle when he was arrested over a year later. The woman received 16 stitches to her head and sustained damage to her hand, which required multiple surgeries.
“An offender with a history of blitz-style assaults makes initial physical contact from the safe confines of a vehicle, which serves as both a weapon and a means of transporting the victim to another location….”
Third Assault/Homicide (May 2003)
A 24-year-old female was returning to her residence late one night when she was attacked at her front door by the offender, who stabbed her repeatedly with a knife. A blood trail led from her townhome down the sidewalk and ended two doors away in a clump of bushes where she was found. The victim died in the hospital 2 days after the assault. There were a total of 19 stab wounds, and both her pants and panties were pulled down. Though the woman could not describe the details of her attack, all indications were consistent with a blitz-style assault. When later interviewed, the perpetrator described the immediate violence of the assault, as well as his persistence once it was initiated; he also spoke of briefly hiding nearby after the attack to ensure that no one had been alerted by the victim’s screams. When he returned to complete the sexual assault, the offender believed the woman “was dying, unconscious,” which he inferred from her labored breathing.
Fourth Assault (November 2003)
The offender initially walked past the victim, a 45-year-old female, while casually smoking a cigarette before turning and immediately beginning his attack. He grabbed her from behind and while wielding a knife began to stab her in the head, neck, face, and chest, continuing the assault as she fell to the ground. According to the victim, who survived, the offender never spoke to her and abruptly broke off his assault and left the scene. Police reports indicated the woman’s pants were unbuttoned when they arrived. Although she did not describe the assault as sexually motivated, a subsequent interview with the offender revealed his sexual intent.
The perpetrator came to the attention of authorities through witnesses who noted his similarity to a composite drawing, which police had circulated. A list of look-alikes was whittled down through interviewing, collecting and verifying alibi information, and requesting a DNA sample.4 From a cigarette butt and fingernail scrapings, DNA recovered at the scene of the fourth assault linked the offender to the attack and, ultimately, to the homicide 6 months prior. When asked to describe his thoughts at the time of the homicide, he stated, “They felt like sexual impulses…I just felt the impulses…I don’t know.” This apparent lack of insight and inability to articulate his motivation is common among blitz-style offenders.
Following his arrest in 2004, the offender not only confessed to the assaults and the homicide but also admitted that a prior traffic incident was a failed attempt to obtain another victim. The incident—occurring in August 2003 between the third and fourth assaults—involved the perpetrator in a vehicle crossing the opposing lane of traffic and hitting a female jogger from behind. He later admitted he intentionally struck her with the objective of getting her into the vehicle and committing another sexual assault. He did not circle the block to come back for the woman; on his admission, “I hit her with the car. I rammed into her…and I just went vroom.”
When a potential witness appeared after calling 911, the subject aborted his plan to abduct and told the responding officer that he had become distracted when he dropped a lit cigarette in his lap. The victim challenged his account, claiming she heard his engine rev just prior to being struck, but the offender was only cited for careless driving, an infraction that did not result in a loss of driving privileges. The victim, who was catapulted over the hood of the vehicle, was taken to a local hospital where she was treated for multiple abrasions and later released.
“While unsophisticated and even primitive as a technique, (vehicular assault) can be more challenging to recognize because it defies the expectations of law enforcement.”
It is not surprising that the individual responsible for this series of blitz-style assaults using a knife, tire iron, and his fists also was involved in a driving incident in which the quality of the assault was similar except that a vehicle was used in place of a more traditional weapon. Therefore, it may be necessary to expand the concept of blitz-style offenders to include, on some occasions, the use of a weapon on four wheels.
VEHICULAR ASSAULT VS. HIT-AND-RUN
Admittedly, most hit-and-run incidents are not attempts by offenders to obtain victims for potential abductions. Hit-and-runs often occur as a result of driver impairment due to drug or alcohol use, dementia, drowsiness, or distraction.5 The decision to run may be due to emotional factors, such as fear, panic, or confusion, often compounded by the impairment.
There are two active components implied in a hit-and-run. The first involves physical contact and a presumed awareness of that contact by the driver. The second entails a decision to leave or flee the scene. The awareness component may be the most problematic aspect of proving a hit-and-run case. Examples in the news media depict drivers who do not realize they hit someone or believe they hit an animal, rather than a person. Their alleged lack of awareness may confound investigations into the events, especially if they are not witnessed by a third party. Consequently, many hit-and-run cases result in lesser charges, such as reckless driving, unsafe operation of a motor vehicle, speeding, and failure to yield.
Police statistics alone may not reveal how many VOP incidents occur in a given year. For example, a 2005 study in San Francisco, California, found that 21 percent of all VOP traffic accidents were not reported to the police.6 This was evidenced by a discrepancy between hospital records documenting treatment of individuals for injuries sustained during such collisions and police reports filed on those incidents. In other words, some victims seeking medical attention after being struck by vehicles did not file corresponding police reports. Although it cannot be quantified, a small number of those collisions may have been failed abduction attempts.
When a vehicle comes into contact with a body, the degree of physical injury can be significant, even at fairly low speeds. For instance, if a person is hit by a vehicle traveling at 14 miles per hour, the legs begin to fracture. At 45 miles per hour, amputation of limbs may occur. At 55 miles per hour, amputation or transection of the body almost is certain.7
“Individuals who repeatedly commit blitz-style assaults and use their vehicles as a variation of that method…possess some common behavioral and personality traits.”
Most drivers are inexperienced with the real consequences of VOP accidents and, therefore, lack a full understanding of the potential devastation of striking a person with a vehicle. Even an individual who, in fact, is attempting to obtain a victim is relying on guesswork to estimate the logistics of hitting the victim. An offender easily could misjudge the amount of force needed to accomplish the capture. If underestimated, the victim could be slightly injured but still able to flee, resist, and report the incident. If overestimated, the victim could be killed or injured so severely that they no longer are appealing to the offender.
Sketch from the accident report of an attempted abduction using vehicular blitz. The offender was cited for careless driving and released.
The first few minutes after an offender attempts to capture a victim are the riskiest. The perpetrator may feign innocence, appearing to offer assistance while closing the gap between predator and prey but still preserving plausible deniability. If interrupted while placing the victim into the vehicle, the offender can choose to abort the abduction and explain that they only were preparing to transport the victim to the hospital.
Offenders may be able to reduce their legal exposure from an attempted abduction to a traffic citation if they do not panic. However, as previously described, their level of social and cognitive functioning may range on the continuum but often tends toward the lower end of the spectrum. Therefore, all blitz-style offenders may not be equally resourceful in offering a believable explanation to authorities.
In the following excerpt from a research interview conducted by members of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, the offender described the application of a blitz approach utilizing a vehicle to capture a victim.
Inmate: “I rode up, and he had kind of stopped to let me go by, and I kind of tapped him just slightly, and once I had tapped his bike, that gave me a reason to get out, so he wouldn’t freak out while I was getting out of the truck, and I got out and walked around, and I said, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ and I just kind of picked him up and sat him in the truck.”
Interviewer: “That’s a pretty impulsive thing to do and pretty risky.”
Inmate: “Yeah, I never said I was a criminal genius.”
For background, the victim in this case was knocked to the ground and temporarily stunned by the collision, thereby facilitating his speedy removal from the scene. The primary motivation was sexual, and an assault occurred soon after the abduction. The victim survived and was eventually rescued.
This article describes in detail numerous crimes committed by two blitz-style offenders who, it later was learned, also used an automobile as a weapon in attempting to subdue and capture victims. Individuals who repeatedly commit blitz-style assaults and use their vehicles as a variation of that method demonstrate similar mechanics in the commission of their crimes and possess some common behavioral and personality traits.
- The victims are usually strangers and often female. Selection may be based more on availability and vulnerability than physical appearance.
- The motive is sexual, although the sexual aspect of the assaults—nontraditional or, even, postmortem sexual behavior—may not be readily apparent, perhaps, due to lack of time or planning.
- Little or no verbal interaction occurs with victims prior to or during the attack.
- Crimes are need-driven rather than thought-driven and, therefore, may occur in high-risk circumstances, such as in broad daylight or with witnesses in the area.
- A handheld weapon often is used in assaults not involving a vehicle.
- Little or no planning or preparation is done. As a result, offenders’ crimes may not go well or may be aborted or modified abruptly. This can result in a crime scene that is hard to interpret because the objective was not achieved.
- Items of value may be undisturbed or overlooked, possibly because the primary objective is sexual. If items are taken, it is usually done as an afterthought.
- Little consideration is given to body disposal if the attack results in a homicide. Therefore, victims usually are found quickly.
- An irresistible urge to strike out overcomes offenders. The origins or possible precipitating circumstances for this often are unknown.
- Social or communication deficits are present and often noted early in their histories. School records also may reflect learning or developmental disabilities, which further may impede their ability to interact in mainstream society.8
- Interpersonal relationships include incidents of violent outbursts without apparent provocation and seemingly out of proportion to the offense.
- Financial or emotional dependency on family members is present and often extends into adulthood. This makes it less likely that these individuals will leave the area where family resides.
- They often are perceived as loners, even within a household, because of their social isolation, which may breed suspicion and paranoia on their part concerning the intentions of others.
- Criminal history is evident by their early 20s (sometimes with an extant juvenile record) relating to drugs, impulsivity, and antisocial behavior.
- Anecdotal or documented drug abuse, including alcohol, exists from their early years.
Possible Investigative Strategies
The use of a vehicle as a weapon is not a new concept. There are numerous accounts of individuals who deliberately run down an errant spouse or strike an officer while attempting to avoid apprehension. However, the phenomenon described in this article is radically different from those examples. The motive in this type of blitz attack instead is aimed at obtaining a victim. While unsophisticated and even primitive as a technique, it can be more challenging to recognize because it defies the expectations of law enforcement. When faced with a series of unsolved blitz attacks in which a vehicle was used, two possible investigative strategies can help bring about answers.
- When a series of blitz-style assaults is attributed to a single offender, investigators should consider reviewing driving histories to identify local individuals with hit-and-run records and related traffic offenses. Any incident details, including references to a collision or near collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, should be selected for closer review. Local emergency room records for treatment of injuries commonly associated with hit-and-run accidents also warrant review due to the underreporting of such incidents.
- Officers investigating crime scenes involving VOP collisions should consider the possibility that the offense may have been an attempt by the driver to obtain a victim. Under normal conditions most hit-and-run incidents involve either a pedestrian who was at fault or a driver who somehow was impaired. While the use of a motor vehicle to gain control of a victim is a rare occurrence, when it does happen, it often is overlooked or mischaracterized during an investigation.
In many cases it may be relatively easy to recognize the work of a blitz-style offender, particularly when the manifestation meets expectations of what a blitz assault should entail. Thorough examination of the crime scene, paired with a report from a surviving victim, can readily confirm that a blitz assault has occurred. Based on the discussion and analysis in this article, avenues of investigation, such as these, can supply law enforcement with the necessary knowledge to more effectively address the criminal behaviors of blitz-style offenders.
1 Ann W. Burgess, Robert A. Prentky, and Elizabeth B. Dowdell, “Sexual Predators in Nursing Homes,” in Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 3rd ed., ed. Robert R. Hazelwood and Ann W. Burgess (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2001), 489-490; John Douglas, Ann W. Burgess, Allen G. Burgess, and Robert K. Ressler, Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes, 1st ed. (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 1992), 351; Brent E. Turvey, ed., Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis, 1st ed. (London, UK: Academic Press, 1999), 125-127; and Jisun Park, Louis B. Schlesinger, Anthony J. Pinizzotto, and Edward F. Davis, “Serial and Single-Victim Rapists: Differences in Crime-Scene Violence, Interpersonal Involvement, and Criminal Sophistication,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 26, no. 2 (March/April 2008): 227-237.
2 The VOP label also includes cyclists and operators of scooter-type conveyances.
3 The crude and poorly planned nature of this attack by such a skilled chess player is instructive to investigators, indicating that intelligent criminals do not necessarily commit intelligent crimes.
4 In similar cases, an offender’s willingness to provide DNA has sometimes led investigators to eliminate them as a suspect without taking a sample. It often is assumed that no guilty person would voluntarily hand over evidence that would convict them.
5 “Why Drivers Hit and Run?” Hit and Run Accidents on America’s Deadly Roads, entry posted May 2003, http://www.deadlyroads.com/whydriversrun.shtml (accessed June 26, 2013).
6 Stanley Sciortino, Mary Vassar, Michael Radetsky, and M. Margaret Knudson, “San Francisco Pedestrian Injury Surveillance: Mapping, Underreporting, and Injury Severity in Police and Hospital Records,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 37, no. 6 (November 2005): 1102-1113.
7 Stan Oglesby, Midwest Accident Reconstruction Services, L.C., personal communication with authors, January 2007.
8 Social deficits are more important than IQ in describing these offenders. Although cognitive ability may impact social development, one can have a higher IQ and still be socially marginal.