Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Larry Eyler, the Highway Murderer

Road Kills

By any standard, the "Highway Murders" case was an investigator's nightmare. A brutal killer roamed at will across the American Midwest, targeting male prostitutes and hitchhikers, hacking them to death and discarding their mutilated bodies in rural locales, sometimes buried in clusters with weird ritual trappings. At least ten victims were killed before members of various law enforcement agencies realized their separate cases involved a single predator. Even then, years of suspicion and police harassment in the gay community prevented witnesses and traumatized survivors of the crime spree from communicating with authorities.

The Highway Murders spanned four states and 14 counties, from southeastern Wisconsin to north-central Kentucky. At its worst, the case highlighted breakdowns in communication at the city, county, state and federal levels, while the slayer--or slayers--was free to hunt from Chicago's mean streets and the gay bars of Indianapolis to small farming communities. Even after a task force was formed and a prime suspect was identified, the murders continued--13 more, in fact, to haunt police as they pursued their man.

Knowing a killer and confining him are sometimes very different things, as illustrated in this case by careless, bungled searches and interrogations, leading to judicial suppression of critical evidence, freeing the murderer to kill again. Even surveillance failed, as rivalry between police departments and inept communication left the slayer free to travel widely, often unobserved. For a time, it seemed as if the stalker was unstoppable--until his own clumsy arrogance landed him back in court and ultimately sent him to death row.

But even then, the Highway Murders case had more surprises left in store. The slayer caged was thought to work with an accomplice--a respected academic from a leading Indiana university--and he agreed to testify against the man he claimed was both the mastermind and gloating witness to his vicious crimes. That trial and its surprise result added another twist to one of America's most convoluted serial murder cases and left the conclusion in doubt--perhaps forever.


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