Sexual Sadist And Cold-Blooded Killer Robert Ben Rhoades Was A Travelin' Man, Until...
By Karen Brandel
Well, at that particular time, when I shined the flashlight inside the vehicle, the woman screamed and I saw a momentary illumination of a man's face with the flashlight. That's when this series of events started, and there was no stopping any of the events that happened.
--DPS Officer Mike Miller,
The Peterbilt semi-tractor rig was pointed toward Tucson in the dark, early morning hours of April 1, 1990. Arizona State Trooper Mike Miller wondered if the trucker was having difficulty, because the rig, its hazard lights flashing, was parked on a curb off Interstate 10, just at the city limits of Casa Grande. Those lights nagged at Miller.
His decision to stop that morning came just in the nick of time; it was the first in a horrifying chain of events.
As Miller opened the Peterbilt's cab, he couldn't imagine time depravity he was about to find, nor could he know that blood had spilled well beyond Arizona's borders. Subsequently, the details of two separate kidnappings in different states emerged, gradually fitting like transparencies over a savage homicide in yet another state. Then, evidence that was tagged for destruction in Arizona would be salvaged and yield crucial information.
Only much later would weary investigators marvel at how it all came together. They still wonder about the 50 skeletonized bodies strewn across America that they can't rule out. They only know for sure that Robert Ben Rhoades killed, and cruelly relished it, long before they ever caught up with him.
Although they're still waiting for Rhoades to talk, authorities believe his is a classic case of sexual sadism; they say this frightening psychological disorder is being seen in greater numbers.
Officer Miller took his flashlight and walked around the truck, looking for the driver. He noticed some commotion within the rig, so he stepped up on the runner to look inside the sleeper cab.
His breath caught when he saw a nude woman shackled and chained to the wall. She screamed frantically when she saw him, and Miller saw a man scramble through the curtains separating the sleeper cab from the front seats.
Trying to maintain calm as the woman kept screaming, Miller lurched to the driver's side of the truck and ordered the man out. He complied, calmly assuring Miller everything was all right. The man also informed Miller he was carrying a gun.
"It's the good guys who tell you they have a weapon," recalls Miller. "He was so smooth, yet that woman was terrified. I didn't know what I had on my hands."
The trucker's cool composure and the woman's terrified shrieks were more than Miller could attend to at once. So he went by the book: He took the trucker's wrists and handcuffed them behind his back, then seatbelted him in the patrol car. With the man out of the way, Miller returned to the woman and saw she was badly wounded. She bore mean red welts on her body and cuts on her mouth. She had a horse bridle strapped around her neck and a long chain padlocked to the horse bit. Her hands and ankles were handcuffed. Seeing all this, Miller called the city of Casa Grande for back-up.
Miller tried to cover the young woman's body until help arrived. He couldn't console her--she was terrified the trucker would return. And with good reason, Miller discovered.
The trucker had managed, Houdini-like, to get his hands down to his feet and bring them up so that the cuffs were now in front of him. In that amount of time, he'd also unfastened the seatbelt.
Unnerved, Miller realized the trucker could've killed him, climbed back into his rig and disappeared into the sparse but anonymous traffic on I-10.
Miller was relieved when Officer Robert Gygax of the Casa Grande Police Department pulled up behind him. Gygax freed the woman with the handcuff keys Miller managed to find inside the trucker's pocket. She was taken to the Casa Grande Police station.
At the station, 27-year-old Katie Ford (not her real name) finally began to feel safe. After her injuries were photographed, she readily gave information about her attacker, who'd been identified as Robert Ben Rhoades, of Houston, Texas.
In a videotaped interview, Ford told Detective Rick Barnhart that Rhoades had picked her up at Rip Griffin's truckstop, just north of Phoenix. She often hitched rides in order to visit friends, she said, adding Rhoades had been very polite at the truckstop.
She'd been asleep when he stopped the truck, shoved her into the sleeper cab and shackled her.
He took his torture items from a briefcase, she said. She'd been tortured on and off since he picked her up earlier that day. Long red welts from a vicious whipping covered her chest and back . Rhoades told her his name was "Whips and Chains," and she correctly took this to mean this was his CB radio nickname. He also told her he'd been doing this for 15 years.
Barnhart asked if she'd been raped and noted that Ford hesitated before stating she'd been rescued just in time. Barnhart doubted that, because her injuries were severe and the photos revealed her nipples and labia had been punctured with sharp objects. Before the interview ended, Ford told Barnhart that Rhoades "got off" on the torture.
It was about 3 a.m. as Barnhart prepared to question Rhoades. The detective looked over some of the evidence, especially the well-stocked briefcase.
"He took good care of the contents of that briefcase," recalls Barnhart. "There were alligator clips, leashes, handcuffs, whips, pins and dildos. It was just very well cared for and everything was placed neatly. I knew I had a serial rapist because of all that, and I suspected he might also have killed someone."
Rhoades entered the interview room while the video camera was rolling. He stretched out comfortably on the couch and yawned. He spent a long time explaining how the woman they'd found in his truck was "not playing with a full deck," that he was tired and never had the time or inclination to screw around while on the road.
Barnhart had no way of knowing that not half a month before this interview, Rhoades had managed to steal huge chunks of time for his sadism, nor did he know the extreme to which Rhoades took it. Rhoades continued to explain the term "lot lizard," or women who loiter around truck stops. "That's what that woman is," he claimed. Barnhart sensed Rhoades was trying to act chummy with him when he chortled that you just don't get involved with the women at truckstops "unless you want your dick to fall off, you know."
But Barnhart wanted an explanation for the woman's injuries. He conducted the interview carefully, frequently asking if Rhoades wanted to stop. Rhoades kept talking, like an experienced damage-control expert, all around the subject. Finally, he made a crease in the couch with his hand. "I took you up to the point where I stopped the truck. Now, I'm not gonna cross that line. I stopped the truck."
Barnhart photographed Rhoades' injuries on his arm and flank, after Rhoades asked if a lawyer would allow that. After Barnhart left the room, Rhoades took a deep drag on his cigarette and winced as he patted the bite wound on his left flank that Ford had managed to give him.
Barnhart was disturbed by the interview. Rhoades acted so normal and had a knack for persuasion. He acted as if this nasty business of the shackled woman in his truck had been her own doing, that it had been his bad luck to offer the crazy woman a ride. If there hadn't been so much physical evidence, including a live, screaming victim, it would've be easy to imagine Rhoades talking himself out of lots of questionable situations.
As Rhoades was being booked for aggravated assault, sexual assault and unlawful imprisonment, Barnhart sent a teletype nationwide, and faxed a letter to a superior court judge in Florence, Arizona, to detain Rhoades at least until some information came in. Then Barnhart called the Houston Police Department, since Rhoades lived there.
It wasn't long before Detective R. E. Bomar called Barnhart to relate the details of a similar kidnapping in Houston--a kidnapping in which Rhoades was involved. In that case, Rhoades kept the 18-year-old woman about two weeks, then clipped her hair short and shaved her pubic hair. She, too, had been systematically tortured, and Rhoades had talked to her about killing her. She escaped when Rhoades forgot to close the handcuff that kept her chained inside the truck.
The Houston victim had described the truck and its driver to the police, but when two officers brought her face to face with the detained trucker--Rhoades--the victim looked at the ground and said he was not her attacker. The officers couldn't detain Rhoades any longer. Only later did the woman tell them the man they'd stopped was indeed her attacker, but she'd been too afraid. After weeks of torture at his hands, she said, in her mind there weren't enough officers around to protect her.
That case never went anywhere because the victim seemed too iffy. Both of Rhoades' known victims were especially vulnerable: Either they'd had emotional upsets at the time they were abducted, were very young and naive, or had physical afflictions like dyslexia.
Two victims in two different states, both with similar tales of unbelievable torture at this man's hands, thought Barnhart. He called the Phoenix FBI office, and from there the growing file on Rhoades went to the Houston FBI office, where it was assigned to Special Agent Bob Lee.
When Lee reviewed the two kidnapped victims' accounts of the methodical torture they endured, and viewed the contents of Rhoades' briefcase--it was the most refined "rape kit" agents had ever seen--he saw a classic profile of a sexual sadist.
"Sexual sadists start off with a limited rape kit, as we call it," explained Lee. "Because his was so refined, we knew he'd been doing this for a long time."
Lee immediately wanted to search Rhoades' Houston apartment, since sexual sadists--defined as those who become aroused by their victim's suffering--often keep journals, photos and other items to help them re-live their exploits. He found out the apartment was leased only to Rhoades. But Rhoades' apartment manager was nosy, and had entered his apartment. What she told Lee made him more determined to get a search warrant. She'd seen handcuffs, whips, bondage magazines and women's clothing strewn over the floor. The manager also told Lee that a woman claiming to be Rhoades' wife had recently visited, saying that Rhoades had just called her and instructed her to clear everything out of the apartment.
Lee smiled. Rhoades obviously had some secrets in there. But Lee had to get a behavioral sciences expert from FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, to explain to a judge the reasons he needed a search warrant.
The search was granted. On April 6, agents swarmed into Rhoades' apartment while other agents tracked down his wife.
The agents removed all the bondage material, women's clothing, make-up, and a bunch of white towels, one of which was saturated with blood. Rhoades liked his white towels. Both kidnap victims related that he placed a white towel beneath them before starting his sexual torture.
On one wall was a large poster, a blow-up of a Santana album cover that looks like a lion but on closer examination reveals many faces of contorted agony.
Agents also seized photographs, many of a young teenager with very short hair in various stages of undress--always shackled and handcuffed. She must have been with him for some time, Lee realized, because some of the photos revealed old bruises near her breasts, and shaved pubic hair in various stages of regrowth. In some photos, she had a vacant stare, while in others she looked tearful and scared. The photos bothered Lee.
He couldn't ask for help in identifying the girl because she may have been a willing partner in the sadistic sexual acts. In that event, broadcasting her picture would violate her rights. It was a legal obstacle that Lee couldn't circumvent, but in his gut, he knew the girl was a victim and he wanted to find her.
Lee is a burly man with a serious demeanor softened only by his pleasant Texas drawl. It's clear the photos he seized on April 6, 1990, still bother him. Maybe more so, for now he knows what happened.
"Back then," Lee explains, waving his arm about the expansive Houston FBI office, "this place didn't have these dividers. It was like a bullpen, and you could hear other agents discussing their cases."
It was nearly a year after the apartment search when Lee heard Special Agent Mark Young talking about a homicide in rural Illinois. The victim was found in a barn loft, when a farmer decided to take one last look through the decaying wooden structure before having it burned.
To the farmer's horror, he discovered a desiccated body. Young had the case because it had been confirmed that the 14-year-old victim, identified through dental records as Regina Walters, of Pasadena, Texas, was last seen in February, 1990, near Houston with her boyfriend, Ricky Lee Jones.
"The FBI entered the case in early 1991 because she was apparently kidnapped from the Houston area," Young explained. "I studied the crime scene photos--she'd been strangled with bailing wire that was attached to a wooden beam. The wire had been twisted many times beyond the point needed for death. Her hair was very short, and the forensic report told me something invaluable: Her pubic hair had been shaved prior to death. This was the signature aspect of the killer I would be looking for."
Behavioral experts like Young take pains to distinguish the difference between M.O. (Modus Operandi) and signature aspect, or ritual.
The M.O., which can be anything from the approach the offender takes to lure a victim or the type of binding material he uses, is something that changes, usually every 3 to 4 months as the offender becomes more experienced. But the signature aspect--that which gives him psychosexual gratification--never changes. In this case, it was the cutting of the victims' head hair and shaving the pubic hair that served some need.
Although there are some classic sadists in custody who've talked about their criminal acts, they've never discussed the bizarre individual rituals that accompany their crimes.
"The law enforcement folks in Illinois thought their best suspect was the boyfriend, 18-year-old Ricky Lee Jones," Young said. "But based on my profiling experience, I knew her killer was older, had more fetishes, and was a traveler. The people in Illinois and I exchanged some words, there was a lot of tension. Time was passing and they understandably wanted to find the killer of Regina Walters and clear the case. They couldn't understand why I couldn't locate the boyfriend. I strongly suspected then, and still do, that he's dead."
Jones, of Houston, had some minor brushes with the law, but was described by friends as rather meek. He and some siblings were removed from their home by Child Protective Services when he was younger. According to friends, he was infatuated with Regina Walters, but didn't know she was only 14. A friend told police the two were in love, and were hitch-hiking to Mexico.
Jones has not been found, and his family never reported him as missing. It's his sad epitaph that he was charged in absentia in Bond County, Illinois, for the murder of the girl he loved--Regina Walters.
IN RECALLING THE case on Rhoades, agents Lee and Young stop a moment and look at each other, puzzled. "I don't know exactly how we teamed up," says Lee. "I heard him talking about his own case and knew that he should see the file on my kidnapping cases, including the photos I seized from Rhoades' apartment."
By October 1991, Young looked over some of the photos in Lee's file on Rhoades. He saw the red welts on Ford's back and chest. Her hair was dark brown and long. The other kidnap victim in Rhoades' file though, had short, clipped head hair. Astonished, Young saw that her pubic hair was shaved, just like the late Regina Walters' had been. Lee had to rush to court, but he assured Young there were more photos.
The other photos were of a young, nude teenager with short hair. She had a choke chain around her neck and was shackled and handcuffed. This was the girl Lee wanted to find.
Young thought she resembled the photograph he had of Regina Walters, his homicide victim, but he couldn't be sure because she had long hair in his photo. He blocked part of a photo and showed it to the girl's father, who sadly nodded it was his daughter. There were three birthmarks on her neck that also matched.
In an especially cruel twist, Regina Walters' father had received anonymous phone calls, both at work and at his unlisted home number, a month after her disappearance.
The caller told Walters, "I made some changes. I cut her hair." He also told Walters that his daughter was in a barn loft, and when Walters asked if she was alive, the caller hung up.
The calls, made over a two-day period, were traced to Oklahoma City the first day, and to Ennis, Texas, the next day. Though the phone calls will forever haunt Walters, they would also come back to haunt the over-confident Rhoades.
Among the photos of Regina Walters seized from Rhoades' apartment were a series in which she wore a black dress, oversized black high heels and a terrified expression. She was made to pose in front of and inside an old barn. Experts compared these photos with those from the crime scene in Illinois and were able to conclude it was the same barn.
Now, years later, agents Young and Lee open the photo album, Rhoades' own chronicle of the torture he inflicted on the teenager. The harsh fluorescent lights of the Houston office bring even the dimmest photos into crisp focus.
"It was eerie," says Young, "because one of the crime scene photos was taken from the same angle as one of Rhoades' photos, and the position of the body was the same."
Lee points to one of the photos in which the teenager appears in despair. "These guys usually tell their victims what they're going to do ahead of time," he says tersely, before firmly shutting the photo album.
After linking Rhoades to Regina Walters, agents Young and Lee worked together. They notified Illinois, since Rhoades would have to be tried for the murder of the Walters girl in Bond County, where the body was found.
"I called Arizona, where Rhoades had been sentenced to six years for the kidnapping of Katie Ford in Casa Grande," says Young. "He was about to begin a work-furlough program. We wanted the evidence that was seized from the truck, and to my amazement, it was tagged for destruction!"
They managed to salvage the evidence, and among the items recovered was a notebook belonging to Regina Walters. In it were the unlisted phone numbers of her father, along with the phone numbers of her mother, grandmother and friends. This explained how Rhoades was able to call her father.
The agents compared Rhoades' trucking logs with the dates of the traced phone calls. The first call to Regina's father was from a pay phone at a truckstop in Oklahoma City on March 16. On that day, Rhoades had fueled up his rig at the same truckstop. The next day, Rhoades had been in Ennis, Texas, the logs revealed. In the notebook, someone had scrawled a message "Ricky is a dead man" and crudely drawn a picture of a gun and drops of blood. There were also cryptic notations that seemed to indicate directions and other unknown meanings, such as "water tank, Fun and Hide."
Rhoades' wife was shown the handwriting and identified it as her husband's.
It wasn't until early 1992 that the Bond County, Illinois, state attorney was convinced there was sufficient evidence against Rhoades. In September, 1992, Rhoades was shown all the evidence against him by his court-appointed attorneys, who wanted to negotiate a plea agreement in order to spare him the death sentence.
Rhoades became convinced the case against him was solid, pled guilty to killing Regina Walters, and received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Rhoades' trucking log had already been analyzed at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (VICAP) at FBI headquarters in Quantico, and skeletonized bodies had indeed been found in areas where Rhoades had traveled.
"We're positive he's killed before," Young states firmly. "Killers like Rhoades often pick on vulnerable, anonymous people who won't be reported missing immediately. The skeletonized bodies are found, and nobody knows what really happened."
Along with Regina Walters and Ricky Jones, there were udoubtedly many others who couldn't imagine the truck coming around the bend was equipped for the cross-country murder binges of its driver. The task still remaining is to eliminate which bodies cannot be attributed to Rhoades.
Young thinks Rhoades increased his savage activity until he was kidnapping and murdering about three girls a month in early 1990. In late 1989 and early 1990, Rhoades had job assignments that brought him to Tucson or neighboring cities 36 times.
Sadists like Rhoades are of special interest to behavioral experts like Roy Hazelwood, formerly of the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit and now with the prestigious Academy Group in Manassas, Virginia.
The interest stems from the fact that sexual sadists are seen in growing numbers. Hazelwood, a chain-smoker in loose-fitting expensive suits, is quick to share the information experts have compiled, but only with a disclaimer of sorts: "We can give you facts. We can tell you what occupations they probably have, their marital status, what branch of the military they served in, even what kind of sexual dysfunction each one has--based on the crime scene. This is all based on cases, crime-scene investigation and experience. What we can't tell you is why, or how they got that way."
The uninterpreted facts are amazing: Nearly 100 percent of sexual sadists studied so far--only 30--have been Caucasian males. One case involved an African-American adopted at birth by a white couple. Of the sadists who'd served in the military, they'd overwhelmingly been in the ground forces. Most had occupations that involved contact with the public. Excessive driving, or driving with no clear goal, or driving long distances, characterized 40 percent of the men. Eighty-three percent collected items related to sexual or violent themes, or both. The most common collectible is pornography, followed by guns, bondage paraphernalia and detective magazines. Nearly 75 percent murdered a victim.
Close to half were married at the time of their known offenses, usually to a "compliant partner," who is the victim of many of the sadist's tortures, which he later plays out to the extreme with strangers.
Debbie was Rhoades' third wife and stayed married to him for several years. According to Rhoades' statement, that marriage was his first foray into what he considered merely kinky sex.
Debbie told agents she thought it was far more than kinky. She says she felt awful about going along with the physically painful perversions, but as her self-esteem plummeted, she just acquiesced. She now wonders, as do the federal agents, how many others died at Rhoades' hands.
"He killed a 14-year-old," she says today. "I have a 14-year-old daughter myself."
She credits Hazelwood for being the first to make her realize it wasn't her fault. But Hazelwood gave her some impressions to think about. "He told me that my ex-husband is the essence of evil. I wonder how I could have loved the essence of evil."
Meanwhile, Agents Lee and Young in Texas, and Detective Barnhart and Officer Miller in Arizona, have had time to contemplate the nature of the evil that touched their lives. Lee and Young have teamed up, not by coincidence this time, on a similar case.
Barnhart is still struck by how normal Rhoades seemed, how smooth-talking and at-ease he was even under threatening circumstances. He points to Rhoades on the video, taken right after Miller had arrested him in April, 1990. "Does he look evil to you? Not at all. That's how he got away with it."
Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Cinema | Back Page | Forums | Search
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth