Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The mobile torture chamber of serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades

The Wife


Rhoades dressed for the swingers' club.

When she met Robert Rhoades in 1983, Debra Rhoades was trapped in a dead-end marriage to her husband. Though they were no longer together, they were still living together and sharing custody of their kids. To blow off steam Debra and one of her girlfriends would go dancing at a nearby country and western bar. One night, she locked eyes with handsome stranger, dressed in a pilot’s uniform. He asked her to dance and bought her a drink.

He was over six feet tall and had a commanding presence. Born in a small town in Iowa, he was serving in the Marine Corps when his father was arrested for molesting a 12-year old girl. Shortly afterward, his father killed himself. It is unclear if Rhoades had been molested himself as a teenager, but it would go toward explaining his behavior and his MO — particularly his cruel cutting off of women’s hair. During his stint in the military, he became a petty criminal, was arrested for robbery and subsequently discharged. After dropping out of college, he applied to be a police officer but was rejected. He’d been married and divorced two times when he met Debra.

Debra was petite and smitten with the handsome, confident stranger. She started dating him in a very formal manner. He took her out for fine dinners and dancing.  It took three months of dating and romance before they had sex. When Rhoades gave her his entire paycheck to pay for bills, revealing himself to be a trucker and not a pilot, she was still moved by the way he took care of her.

But the relationship wasn’t picture perfect. There were a few revealing cracks in Rhoades’ smooth facade. On one date early in their courtship, he surprised her by putting a handcuff on her wrist while they were sitting in the car on their way to a club. When she got angry, he played it off as a joke. Though the incident should have served as a warning, Debra continued to date him, even as things became more and more strange. The more comfortable Rhoades became with her, the more it was clear that something was not right with Rhoades.

After she moved out from her husband’s house and moved in with Rhoades, he began to insist that they go to swingers’ clubs. She was outraged at the suggestion, but over the years, after needling her and making her feel guilty and frigid, Debra acquiesced. He would alternate between giving her lavish gifts like expensive coats, and taking her out to expensive dinners, and berating her for not being sexually open. At the swingers’ club, he would be cruel and have sex with other women in front of her, even as she protested. She was so dependent on Rhoades financially and emotionally, that she felt she was powerless in the situation.

The picture perfect situation had become a complete nightmare by the time Regina Walters went missing. Debra and Rhoades’s fights were becoming increasingly more dramatic and violent. According to Roadside Prey, during an argument after a swingers’ event Rhoades pushed Debra out of the moving car, leaving her without her purse or shoes in the middle of an intersection. The enraged Rhoades was speeding and got pulled over by police who noticed the women’s clothing in the car and forced him to pick up Debra.

Despite all the misgivings, a cowed and abused Debra married Rhoades four years after meeting him. It was then that things got really ugly. As far as he was concerned, he owned her now. The biggest, and most abusive, fight came near the end of their relationship in October 1989. After learning that she had been speaking to her ex-husband, he raped and sodomized her. In the morning, when she tried to start her car and it wouldn’t start, she asked Rhoades for help. When he gave her the cold shoulder, she called her ex — which made Rhoades go insane. In a fury, he beat her and kicked her on the ground until he was out of breath.

Debra had decided she’d had enough. She went into the bedroom and came back with a bat. Then, she bashed his arm and walked out, never to return.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'