Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Benjamin Tony Atkins, the ‘Woodward Corridor Killer’

Benjamin 'Tony' Atkins

Benjamin 'Tony' Atkins

A blocky, heavily built and dark-skinned African American, Benjamin Tony Atkins was living on the streets of Detroit, Michigan in late 1991. Addicted to crack cocaine, he sometimes held jobs as a pizza cook.

In October 1991, the then-23-year-old Atkins attacked for the first time. He approached a delicately built African-American woman and introduced himself as “Tony.”

Darlene Saunders, 35, agreed to accompany him to an abandoned building. He soon raped her. She managed to escape before he could murder her, running naked into the street.

Two months later, on December 14, 1991, he approached Debbie Ann Friday, 30. Like Saunders, and indeed like every victim he would have, she was petite and African American. Every victim he attacked was also a prostitute and/or a drug addict. Atkins raped Friday and strangled her to death. Her corpse was later discovered in an abandoned building located in Highland Park, a city with an extremely high crime rate that is surrounded by areas of the much larger city of Detroit.

Atkins would soon rack up more victims. He raped and strangled Bertha Jean Mason, 26, whose body was found on December 30, 1991; Patricia Cannon George, 36, whose corpse was found on January 3, 1992; and Vickie Truelove, 30, whose corpse was discovered on January 25, 1992. All three of these corpses were found in Detroit.

The raped and strangled bodies of Valerie Chalk, 34, Juanita Hardy, 23, and an unidentified woman were all found in various rooms at the Monterey Motel in Highland Park. All three corpses were discovered on February 17, 1992.

Then Atkins apparently returned to raping and murdering women in abandoned buildings. The bodies of Brenda Mitchell, 38, discovered on April 19, 1992, Vickie Beasley-Brown, 43, found on April 15, 1992, Joanne O’Rourke, 40, found on June 15, 1992, and Ocinena Waymer, 22, found on August 21, 1992, were all found in such buildings in Highland Park.

Since Atkins had murdered no fewer than eleven women in a period of nine months, the FBI determined that he murdered the largest number of victims in the shortest time period of any known serial murderer in the United States.

All of the victims were found in an area close to a street called Woodward Avenue, which led the murderer’s being nicknamed the “Woodward Corridor Killer.”

Map of Detroit, Michigan, with Highland Park outlined

Map of Detroit, Michigan, with Highland Park outlined

When it became obvious that a serial murderer was busily operating in both Detroit and Highland Park, a special task force consisting of investigators from the Detroit Police Department, the Highland Park Police Department, the Michigan State Police Department, and the FBI was assembled. In an article for the Detroit Free Press, Joe Swickard wrote, “The coalition underscored the urgency of the manhunt, given the frequently bitter relations between the Detroit city administration and the FBI.”

The task force had a special asset: the first, and only surviving, victim was helping them. As Swickard notes, the task force was aided “in great measure by a woman who had survived an attack by a street character she knew only as Tony.”

Paul Lindsay, a member of that task force, commented in an interview, “Any serial killer, especially a prolific one like Atkins, requires a good team effort.” Lindsay went on to emphasize that the urgency to stop the murders was not diminished by the fact that the murdered women were prostitutes and/or illegal drug users. “It doesn’t matter who the victims are, you just want it stopped,” he said.

Police asked surviving victim Darlene Saunders to ride with them in patrol cars in the relatively narrow areas in which the other victims were known to have been attacked and murdered. Two weeks after she began riding around in their patrol cars, Saunders spotted the malefactor she had known as “Tony” walking down the street and pointed him out to the officers.

Detectives brought Atkins in for questioning. He at first denied having anything to do with this series of murders. In fact, he claimed that he was a homosexual and would have no interest in any sort of sex with a woman regardless of whether it was consensual or rape.

Swickard writes, “Watching the interrogation was Detroit homicide detective Sgt. Ronald Sanders. Scheduled to leave on vacation in an hour, Sanders asked for a shot at Atkins.”

He was allowed to interrogate the suspect. Gently the detective, who had learned something of Atkins’ background, said, “You never had a father. I have a son exactly your age. You need to get this off your chest. Talk to me.”

That statement touched something in Atkins. As he continued eating through no less than five cheeseburgers, he confessed to the rape of Darlene Saunders and the rapes and murders of eleven more women.

Task force member James Dobson remembers wondering, “Why? Why did it all happen? Who knows what happened in those lives [of the victims] that brought [them] to this pass. And who knows what happened to him.”

As is so frequently true of serial murderers, the seeds of disaster were planted in the early years of Benjamin Tony Atkins. As Dameain Taylor correctly notes on, Benjamin grew up from a tortured childhood” and his “was a study of childhood distress.” He was shuffled back and forth between his mother and a series of boys’ homes. His mother was often unable to care for her children because she was a prostitute addicted to heroin. When he was a small child, his mother would leave him in the back seat of a car while she performed sexual acts for money in the front seat of that very same car. At the age of ten, Atkins was raped – by a caseworker assigned to help the disadvantaged and at-risk child.

Atkins gave conflicting motives for the murders. At one point he claimed he only desired to commit rape but murdered to prevent the victims from reporting the rapes to police. At other times, he said he was motivated by an intense hatred for prostitutes. While recalling the murder of Juanita Hardy, Atkins stated, “I never really planned to kill her. After raping her, having sex and hating her for being a woman, I had the desire to kill her for being a woman, I just wanted to hate her and cause her harm.”

Atkins was defended at trial by attorney Jeffrey Edison who valiantly tried to convince the jury that his client was mentally disordered due to his horribly traumatic upbringing and, therefore, not legally responsible.

The jury rejected that plea. They were persuaded by the arguments of Prosecutor Michael Reynolds who argued that Atkins was legally sane and responsible for his actions regardless of how terrible his childhood had been. Atkins was convicted of eleven counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to eleven life terms to be served not concurrently but consecutively, making parole within a human lifespan impossible.

An article in reports, “After a four month long trial, Atkins was alone in the courtroom when the verdict was read. He had no family or friends in the courtroom and his attorney was out of town.”

Atkins appeared unconcerned when informed he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. A sheriff’s deputy said that as Atkins left the courtroom, his primary concern was getting hold of a cigarette.

However, others were satisfied by the verdict and sentence. From his retirement home, Lindsay said, “Sooner or later, justice does prevail.”

Atkins had served four years in prison when, suffering from complications due to HIV infection, he was taken to the Duane Waters Hospital that is connected with the Egeler Correctional Facility where he was incarcerated. He died on September 17, 1997 at the age of twenty-nine.

Michael Reynolds, who had prosecuted Atkins, said on his passing, “While no one takes joy in another’s death – even one who committed such hideous crimes – at least those who lost loved ones at Mr. Atkins’ hands can take comfort in knowing he will never be released back into society.”

Perhaps it is somehow gruesomely fitting that Benjamin Tony Atkins, the horrible product of a horrible childhood, learned his fate in a courtroom in which he was oddly alone.

It is also gruesomely telling that one of his victims, a prostitute and/or drug addict, has never been identified. Like Atkins, like all of his victims, like the mother whom he repeatedly murdered symbolically, she was a lost soul.


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