Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The mobile torture chamber of serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades

Caught by Accident


Robert Ben Rhoades. Police photo.

If Rhoades hadn’t been stopped by a patrolman on I-10 in Casa Grande, Ariz., in 1990, his crimes might never have been discovered. Anonymity and constant movement make a killer trucker harder to track; by the time someone catches up with him, he is 500 miles, or more, away from the scene of the crime. A victim’s body can be dumped on the other side of the country from where the trucker first picked them up. By the time law enforcement has figured out who the body belongs to, the trucker’s trail has long gone cold.

It was in the early morning of April 1, 1990, when Rhoades decided to stop his truck. He pulled over to the side of the road on Interstate 10 and turned his hazard lights on. The hazard lights caught the eye of Highway Patrolman Mike Miller, who thought that Rhoades was parked precariously and wanted him to move the truck over to avoid being hit by oncoming traffic. When Miller approached the 1988 Peterbilt cab, he didn’t see a driver in the front, and so he walked around to the back.

There he came upon a startling sight, even for someone with 23 years of experience in the force: a woman, bound, gagged and naked, chained to the wall of the truck. The woman, Lisa Pennal, saw the officer and started shrieking at the top of her lungs. Then, Miller saw Rhoades, whose reaction was equally off-putting. He was cool as a cucumber and tried to deflect attention from Pennal’s shrieks. In the book Roadside Prey, author Alva Busch writes about how Rhoades calmly told Miller. “It’s all right, Officer. Everything’s fine.”

Rhoades was patted down; a gun was removed and he was handcuffed and placed in the police car while Miller waited for backup. But when he returned, Miller was unnerved: Rhoades had, like a snake, slithered his cuffed hands from his back to the front. He waited for backup and they took Rhoades in.

There, Lisa Pennal divulged a tale of torture and kidnapping. A hardened, streetwise woman with alleged mental issues, she had the physical marks that bore witness to the truth of her story: bruises were all over body, welts from the handcuffs were around her wrists, marks were on her nipples where he had clamped them with metal clips. It was not at all what she had bargained for when she accepted a ride from Rhoades at Rip Griffin’s truck stop just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. A pro at hitchhiking, she fell asleep in the cab. When she awoke, she was in a living nightmare, chained and naked.

Though it wasn’t clear how long she’d been held captive, she’d been tortured for a long enough duration that there were two sets of bruises on her wrists. She’d also managed to get a few licks in—biting Rhoades on the arms and scratching his face. She told them about how she’d been tortured, and then they found the gruesome briefcase. She told the officers that Rhoades told her he’d been doing what he was doing to her for a long time.

According to Busch, he said, “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years.”

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