Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Case of Tammy Zywicki

Suspect

Sara Nicole Hulbert
Sara Nicole Hulbert

Around 1 a.m. on June 26, 2007, a security guard at a TravelCenters of America truck stop on Interstate 24 in Nashville, Tenn., discovered a body lying in the grass behind the station. The body was that of 25-year-old Sara Nicole Hulbert from Ashland City, Tenn., about 25 miles northwest of the truck stop. She had been shot to death. Based on surveillance footage from the truck stop, police investigating this case asked the public, especially truckers, for information regarding their person of interest: a 5-foot-9-inch, 200 pound, white-haired trucker in his 40s or 50s, who had been driving a white Volvo flatbed truck hauling a large tan container.

Twenty days prior to the discovery of Sara Hulbert's body, another body, that of Symantha Winters, had been found at a Pilot truck stop in Lebanon, Tenn., a town east of Nashville. Like Hulbert, Winters had also been shot and left in a dumpster at the truck stop. However, unlike the young Hulbert, whose only arrest record was for minor offenses, the 48-year-old Winters was a drug-addicted prostitute with a long rap sheet. Because of the differences between the two women, it was unclear whether the killings were related, but their proximity in time and place, as well as the similarity in modus operandi, did not allow investigators to dismiss the possibility.

Symantha Winters
Symantha Winters

Three weeks into the investigation of Hulbert's murder, police made an arrest. Bruce Mendenhall, a 56-year-old trucker from Albion, Ill., was apprehended on July 12, 2007, at the same TA truck stop at which Sara Hulbert's body had been found. While working on an unrelated case, Nashville detective Pat Postiglione spotted Mendenhall's truck pulling into the truck stop. He noticed that the truck matched that seen on the surveillance footage taken on the night of Hulbert's murder. As he approached the truck and knocked on its door, Postiglione noticed blood in the cab and on Mendenhall's hand. Upon getting permission from the driver to take a further look inside, he found a garbage bag stuffed with bloody clothing. These findings led police to suspect that Mendenhall may have killed someone just prior to his arrest.

A search warrant revealed evidence even more disturbing and incriminating; over 300 items were found inside the truck, including tape, a rifle and cartridges, knives, handcuffs, a razor blade, condoms, sex toys, latex gloves and a nightstick. Also found was a .22-caliber handgun. When police identified the blood of at least five different women in the cab of the truck, Mendenhall emerged as a potential interstate serial killer, who, having been a truck driver for eighteen years, could be linked to countless unsolved cases across several states. He was given a court-appointed attorney and held without bail at a Nashville jail.

Bruce Mendenhall
Bruce Mendenhall

Neighbors from Albion, a southeastern Illinois town of only 2,000 residents described Mendenhall as temperamental and loud but, at the same time, private and somewhat standoffish. Mendenhall had once run for mayor of Albion, because, according to Albion Police Chief Doyle Judge, he had been angry with the city for ordering him to remove junked vehicles from his yard. He lost, with only 49 votes in his favor. But being easily provoked and not friendly to neighbors are not crimes, and Mendenhall did not have a known criminal record, so his arrest came as a shock to his tight-knit community. His wife Linda, sick with diabetes which had rendered her nearly blind, stayed with her sister Judy Kohler as the shockwave spread through town, and refused to speak with reporters.

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