Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The mobile torture chamber of serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades

The Escapee


A young Rhoades.

Just a few months before Lisa Pennal had been saved from certain death, another victim of Rhoades had managed to escape and survive. Shana Holts came across Rhoades in San Bernardino, California, at the truck stop’s restaurant. She was a frequent hitchhiker and had no problem getting rides from strangers. She wanted to go to Arkansas, but the trucker was heading to Texas. She figured it would get her part-way there.

As with Pennal, Rhoades waited for Holts to fall asleep in the truck. In the middle of the night, he made a sudden stop.

When she tried to escape, Rhoades responded by hitting her in the face. He took her at gunpoint to the mangy mattress in the back of the camper and shackled her with a handcuff to a bar hanging above her head. She was stripped nude, spread eagle, and chained. For the next four weeks, she was repeatedly raped by the trucker, penetrated with foreign objects, beaten and whipped, left to urinate on herself, and was barely fed unless she submitted to his demands. In an act that was as foreboding as it was dehumanizing, he cut off her long blond hair in a choppy, short cut and shaved her pubic hair. She looked like a little boy.

But on February 5, she had an opening. Perhaps, “Dusty,” as she knew him, was getting lax. He took her to his own apartment in Houston, Texas, let her take a bath before he raped her again. It was time to hit the road, so he cuffed her but it turned out that he hadn’t completely secured the cuff to the chains around her neck. When he got out of the cab, she took her chances and ran for her life down the street.

Shana Holts was much more traumatized than Lisa Pennal. She was too scared to press charges against him; she didn’t know if she would be really safe. Still, Detective R. E. Bomar, who had found Holts, made a note of her case.  When he read about Pennal in the paper a few months later, he put the two together and called Barnhart. There was something more to this case than just sexual assault and torture. They both thought that it was possible that Rhoades could have murdered someone, and they sent the Rhoades files to the FBI.

After a few days, they obtained a search warrant for his Houston apartment. There, they found a veritable gold mine of evidence, including photographs that would nail Rhoades as a killer.

The Search

With Rhoades still in custody, the police searched his truck again. They found a camera with film inside; most were pictures that Rhoades had taken from the driver’s seat of his truck of women driving past him.

But it was his apartment that held the most useful evidence. They found white towels, some of which were soaked in blood on the floor. Bondage paraphernalia—magazines, handcuffs, and whips—were all over the apartment. Women’s underwear was strewn about.

Investigators also found mysterious pictures of a young girl, her dark hair cut short, in a barn. In some images she was wearing a black dress and high heels. She had on makeup and her nails were painted. In others, she was naked and shackled. The pictures appeared to be taken in different locations; she looked terrified in all of them. In one, she is seen backing away from the cameraman, her hand outstretched, her eyes filled with fear.

It took almost a year before the police connected the girl in the photographs with the skeletal remains of a teenager they’d found in a barn in Illinois. Like Holts, Regina’s hair had been cut short, and her pubic hair had been shaved. Her name was Regina Kay Walters and her case had nearly gone cold.

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