Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Larry Eyler, the Highway Murderer

Pattern Crimes

Nineteen-year-old Steven Crockett was the first known victim of the Highway Killer, stabbed to death and discarded in a cornfield outside Kankakee, Illinois, 40 miles south of Chicago and fifteen miles east of the Indiana state line. Discovery of his mutilated corpse on October 23, 1982 raised no alarms outside the immediate area of Kankakee County.

Number two, although unrecognized as such for nearly seven months, was 25-year-old John R. Johnson. He vanished from Chicago's grubby Uptown district, a neighborhood of rootless drifters and transplanted Appalachian "hillbillies," one week to the day after Steve Crockett's body was found. Missing for two months, he was found near Lowell, Indiana--some 35 miles northeast of where Crockett was found--on Christmas Day.

Police in Illinois and Indiana had no reason to suspect the two crimes were related, and since the FBI's National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime would not begin computerizing records of unsolved murders until June 1984, there was no handy method to check on similar crimes in different states. The Highway Killer was a busy predator, however, and he would soon provide authorities with evidence of his existence.

Sadly, they chose to ignore it.

Steven Agan, Victim
Steven Agan, Victim

Two more mutilated bodies were found by Indiana police on December 28, 1982. The day's first victim, 23-year-old Steven Agan, had left his mother's home in Terre Haute to catch a movie with "the boys" and never returned. Found in a wooded area near Newport, in Vermillion County, Agan had been slashed across the throat and stabbed repeatedly about the abdomen, leaving him disemboweled. Relatives called to identify the body insisted that the white tube socks found on his feet in death were not a part of Agan's wardrobe.

Victim number two for December 28 was John Roach, a 21-year-old Indianapolis resident, stabbed to death in a maniacal frenzy before his body was dumped along Interstate Highway 70 in Putnam County, thirty-odd miles southwest of his home. Again, the connection in two separate cases--drawn from separate jurisdictions, forty miles apart and separated from each other by Parke County--might have been missed, except for a quirk of fate.

Since neither Vermillion nor Putnam Counties had their own forensic pathologists, both victims were sent to Bloomington Hospital, for examination by Dr. John Pless. The crimes, while not identical, were similar enough that Dr. Pless was moved to suspect a serial killer at large. Before day's end, Pless reported his suspicions to the Indiana State Police--who in turn dismissed him as an alarmist.

The killer's next victim may have been 22-year-old David Block, a recent Yale graduate who vanished on December 30, 1982, while visiting his parents in Chicago's affluent Highland Park suburb. Block's new Volkswagen was recovered from the Tri-State Tollway near Deerfield, north of Chicago, and while he remained missing, authorities noted that Deerfield lies in Lake County, Illinois--sixty miles north of Lake County, Indiana and the scene of John Johnson's death. By the time Block's skeletal remains were found near Zionsville, Illinois on May 7, 1984, advanced decomposition and exposure to the elements ruled out definitive pronouncement on the cause of death.

Members of the Chicago and Indianapolis gay communities already recognized what police were loath to admit: that a serial killer of gays was at large and trolling for victims across the Midwest. The crimes revived ugly memories of John Wayne Gacy--then on death row at Menard, Illinois--but Gacy had concealed his victims, while the Highway Killer seemed to flaunt his crimes. By January 1983, a gay newspaper in Indianapolis had established a hot line for tips on the case and profiled the killer as a self-loathing homosexual who killed his one-night partners to refute unwelcome desires. Local police, for their part, still refused to link the crimes and had no luck prospecting for leads in the city's gay bars, where their appearance was regarded as a threat and violation.

The next verified Highway victim was 27-year-old Edgar Underkofler, found stabbed to death outside Danville, Illinois on March 4, 1983.  As in Steven Agan's case, the killer had removed Underkofler's shoes and stockings, replacing them with white tube socks the victim never owned.

Jay Reynolds was the sixth to die, the 26-year-old proprietor of an ice cream shop in Lexington, Kentucky. Reynolds left home to close his business on the night of March 21 and never returned. His mutilated corpse was found the next day, discarded along U.S. Highway 25 in rural Fayette County, south of town.

April's first victim--and number seven on the Highway Killer's confirmed hit parade--was 28-year-old Gustavo Herrera, found by construction workers in Lake County, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border. A resident of Chicago's Uptown district, Herrera was a father of two, but he also frequented local gay bars. Aside from multiple stab wounds, his killer had cut off Herrera's right hand and removed it from the scene where he was found on April 8, 1983.

Another victim surfaced in Lake County one week later, on April 15. The youngest killed to date, he was 16-year-old Ervin Gibson, found outside Lake Forest. Gibson's body had been crudely camouflaged with leaves, and he was found stretched out beside the lifeless body of a dog. Detectives noted that both victims had been dumped near exit ramps for Interstate Highway 94.

The slayer's first black victim, 18-year-old Jimmy T. Roberts, was found in Cook County, Illinois, near the Indiana border, on May 9, 1983. A Chicago native, Roberts had been stabbed more than thirty times, after which the killer pulled his pants down and rolled his body into a creek. The water had removed any signs of sexual assault, but a sadistic motive was clear, as in the eight previous crimes.

Daniel Scott McNeive, Victim
Daniel Scott McNeive, Victim

The case changed forever when another victim was discovered on May 9, 1983. Discovered in a field beside Indiana State Road 39, in Henderson County, 21-year-old Daniel McNeive was a sometime street hustler from Indianapolis. He had been stabbed 27 times, one of the abdominal gashes leaving his entrails exposed. Because Henderson County had no forensic pathologist, the corpse was sent to Bloomington Hospital--and Dr. John Pless once again saw marks of a familiar hand at work. Disturbed, Pless reached out for the state police a second time.

This time, they listened to him and believed.

 

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