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The Case of the Vampire Trucker

Why is it so easy for long-haul truck drivers to get away with violent crimes?

by Eric Peterson
08 July 2016, 4:00am

Timothy Jay Vafeades (left) and the road leading up to the Red River weigh station, where he was arrested in 2013. Photos courtesy of the Clay County, Minnesota Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Department of Transportation

Timothy Jay Vafeades (left) and the road leading up to the Red River weigh station, where he was arrested in 2013. Photos courtesy of the Clay County, Minnesota Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Department of Transportation

It was just after 5 PM on November 26, 2013, when Timothy Jay Vafeades rolled up to the Red River weigh station outside of Moorhead, Minnesota. The surrounding farmland in the Red River Valley is peaceful, for the most part—fields of beet, soy, and corn spilling across North Dakota and Minnesota for miles. It's only here, just off I-94, that the stillness is disturbed by the downshifting diesel engines and hissing air brakes of 18-wheelers pulling into the weigh station. Approximately 1,300 rigs pass through this station each day, according to figures from the Minnesota Department of Transportation obtained by VICE.

By the time Vafeades arrived that night, the pair of commercial vehicle inspectors on duty had already checked the paperwork for hundreds of drivers, many of whom were bleary-eyed from logging hundreds of miles. But not Vafeades. The man couldn't stop talking, as one of the inspectors, Cynthia Harms, would later recall in court testimony. Amid all the jabber, she couldn't help notice the tips of something sharp inside his mouth—something that looked like fangs.

Vafeades gave the inspectors an uneasy feeling, and so did the teenage girl sitting next to him, who refused to make eye contact and appeared to have bruises on her face. When the inspectors ran a computer check on the driver, they found a protective order filed in 1999, which barred Vafeades from making contact with the girl in the passenger's seat. Harms called the Minnesota State Patrol.

But that was just the beginning for Vafeades, now 56, who would soon gain notoriety as the "vampire trucker," for the years he enslaved and tortured women in his long-distance truck.

That evening, while Vafeades was booked at the Clay County jail, the girl—identified in court filings only as Victim A—told local detectives the harrowing tale of the past six months with Vafeades. By her account, he had promised her an easy and lucrative summer job but instead repeatedly raped and tortured her in the sleeper berth of his truck, which he called the Twilight Express. He had also forced her to wear a set of fake vampire teeth, and later, used a Dremel power tool to file some of her teeth down to points.

When Vafeades was arrested in 2013, the news made national headlines. It also brought forth another victim—referred to in court documents as Victim B—who met Vafeades at a truck stop in Salt Lake City in 2012. She alleged Vafeades told her he would take her to dinner and instead held her hostage aboard the Twilight Express, where she faced months of physical and sexual violence, including being stripped naked and beaten with a belt. (Vafeades's public defender refused multiple requests to speak with VICE for this story.)

"If there is such a thing as an ideal profession for a serial killer, it may well be as a long-haul truck driver." — FBI

In March 2014, Vafeades was charged with multiple felony kidnapping and sex trafficking charges relating to Victim A and Victim B. By November 2014, court filings show that prosecutors had met with four other alleged victims, one of whom reported being sexually assaulted by Vafeades as early as 1994 (though not in his truck). Two of the new victims had stories almost identical to those of Victims A and B—from being duped into traveling with him, to the beatings and rapes, down to having their teeth filed down into fangs.

Which begs the question: How did a drill-wielding, vampire-obsessed trucker, who carried his victims with him in his truck, fail to appear on law enforcement's radar for almost a decade?

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation

In 2004, the FBI started to notice a troubling pattern: Dead bodies were turning up, with relative frequency, alongside the stretch of Interstate 40 that connects Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The bodies belonged mostly to transient women, often prostitutes, with few commonalities other than their dangerous lifestyles and their final resting place in ditches close to the highway.

The FBI and local investigators shared notes on dozens of cold case murders, and by 2009, analysts had identified 500 murder victims—mostly along the nation's highways. The collaboration was in part thanks to a digital reboot of the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP, a cross-jurisdictional database of information on violent crimes. ViCAP had existed since the 1980s as an unwieldy, paper catalog of case notes from across the nation, but in 2009, it was brought online to help trade valuable information about serial crimes, homicides, sexual assaults, and cases of missing persons and unidentified remains, allowing cops to connect dots between cases across multiple jurisdictions.

Christie Palozzolo, an FBI analyst with ViCAP, told VICE the program was designed with violent, serial crimes in mind—especially hard-to-crack cases, like the source of the dead bodies on the highway. In 2009, ViCAP introduced the Highway Serial Killings Initiative, a program targeting highly mobile serial crimes, specifically those committed by long-haul truckers. As the FBI acknowledged in a statement about the initiative, "If there is such a thing as an ideal profession for a serial killer, it may well be as a long-haul truck driver."

While there's no evidence to suggest truckers are more likely to become serial killers or rapists than anyone else, they may be more likely to get away with their crimes because they're constantly on the move.

"They know their routes, they know where to pick their victims up, and where to drop them off—or whatever euphemism you want to use—for when they're finished with them," Palozzolo told VICE. "And where they picked them up and where they dropped them off is a location they have no ties to other than on one route, on one day, they pass through that area. Because of that, it breeds anonymity."

Eric Witzig, a veteran homicide detective who joined ViCAP's Critical Incident Response Group in 1995, said the combination of mobility and anonymity makes these highway killings incredibly challenging for investigators.

"If the suspect is now six hundred miles away and you don't even know where your crime scene is, many people in law enforcement at that point would say, 'We got nothing except a homicide victim,'" Witzig told VICE.

And since these crimes usually happen inside the truck, according to Palozzolo, the driver has total control of the crime scene from start to finish.

"They know their routes, they know where to pick their victims up, and where to drop them off when they're finished with them." — Christie Palozzolo

These kinds of challenges explain why so many trucker killers are apprehended only by their own confessions, or sheer luck on the part of investigators.

In 1998, long-haul trucker Wayne Adam Ford walked into the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office in California and confessed to killing four women. As proof, he brought a severed female breast in his pocket.

Keith Hunter Jesperson, another long-haul trucker, also turned himself in during the mid 90s with a voluntary confession of his crimes. At the time, Jesperson claimed to have killed more than 160 victims, though he later recanted and confessed only to the murder of eight women across five states. He followed a simple method, according to media reports: strangle the life out of a stranger, dump the body in a strange place, then get back on the road.

He only broke his own rules a few times, like when he let a female hitchhiker use his credit card to make a personal call at a truck stop. Later that evening, the hitchhiker woke him from slumber, at which point, Jesperson "got angry and she died," according to an account in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Given that the earlier phone call tied her to him, he destroyed the evidence by strapping her body to the underside of his rig and dragging her remains across a dozen miles of Interstate 80, until there was nothing recognizable left.

Read: Inside the Bizarre, Unsolved Case of the Long Island Serial Killer

The offenders, however, are only half of the equation. Palozzolo says the victims of these crimes are often runaways or truck-stop prostitutes, which can make it harder to identify who's missing. These complications can confound even seasoned law enforcement, making programs like ViCAP even more important.

But ViCAP itself is neglected, according to those who have used it. Witzig told VICE most law enforcement don't even know the program exists, and by the FBI's own estimates, only half of the nation's law enforcement agencies were expected to submit any information to the database this year. Without data in the database, it's impossible for law enforcement to make headway on mobile crimes, leaving more victims left to rot on the roadside.

Robert Ben Rhoades (left) and Keith Hunter Jesperson (right). Photos via the Millard County, Utah Sheriff's Office and the Oregon Department of Corrections

In July 2015, an article published by investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica took the agency to task for its ineffectual database. The article pointed out that the agency received input from only 1,400 out of approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, with less than 1 percent of the nation's annual number of violent crimes getting entered into the system.

The article also highlighted a major failing of ViCAP—it's completely voluntary. Similar programs, like Canada's Violent Criminal Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS), require all law enforcement in the country to enter information on violent crimes, which ensures more data overall. In Canada, the system has reportedly helped connect the dots between 7,000 unsolved crimes since 1995 and holds over half a million criminal case profiles, compared to ViCAP's 89,000.

Palozzolo said that since the ProPublica investigation last year, the agency has done more to train local law enforcement on using ViCAP. "That's something we are constantly trying to improve upon, the participation in our database, but we really have picked up in terms of the trainings we do," she told VICE.

Other documents, however, tell a different story. Reports from the FBI show that in 2016, the agency estimated only 5,000 ViCAP submissions by law enforcement—less than half of the expected submissions estimated in 2010—and that "of the approximately 18,000 government law enforcement agencies that are eligible to submit cases, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent will actually submit cases to ViCAP." In 2010, the FBI reported the program would cost $976,029 plus the salary of approximately 20 full-time employees annually; in 2015, the FBI told ProPublica the staff was roughly 12 and the budget approximately $800,000.

Read: Inside the Infamous Forest Where a Serial Killer Left His Victims

According to Gregory Cooper, a retired FBI criminal behavior analyst, the agency has shifted focus toward other concerns, like terrorism. "Violent crime outside of terrorism is no longer what you would call a priority," he told VICE.

During his time in the FBI, Cooper oversaw the ViCAP program and says he isn't surprised the database has had so few results, since "the database is only as good as the data you put in it," and officers simply aren't submitting data.

Especially with highway killings, clues can be so few and far between that different jurisdictions need to communicate or there's no chance of putting the pieces together. Plus, Cooper pointed out, the majority of cold cases don't occur in federal jurisdiction, and so the FBI rarely gets involved without local law enforcement asking for help.

One case in particular explains how ViCAP should work, as Cooper sees it: Long-haul truck driver Robert Ben Rhoades was arrested in Casa Grande, Arizona in 1990, after a state trooper happened to shine a light in the back of his truck. The trooper found a woman chained and screaming, naked except for a pair of Lion King slippers. Authorities would allege she was the last of potentially more than 50 women picked up for a ride in Rhoades's traveling torture chamber, where victims were chained, whipped, beaten, and raped.

Rhoades was sentenced to life in prison in 1992 for the murder of Regina Walters, a teenage hitchhiker who was found dead and decomposing in an Illinois barn. Investigators found pictures of her in Rhoades's possession, including one of a pale Walters standing in the same barn in a long black dress with a terrified look on her face and two hands held up as if trying to stop what was coming.

As part of the FBI profiling team, Cooper spoke to Rhoades from prison in the hopes of gleaning information about other possible victims, but was stonewalled. When a frustrated Cooper told Rhoades he knew more victims would surface, Rhoades threw the prison phone across the room and stormed out.

A year later, though, when Cooper discussed the Rhoades case in a presentation for Utah law enforcement, a local sheriff mentioned an unsolved murder in his county that seemed to coincide with Rhoades's travel records. The local sheriff hadn't known about Rhoades, and the FBI hadn't known about the unsolved murder case. According to Cooper, collaboration between the local sheriff and federal authorities led to the necessary evidence to connect the cold case to Rhoades.

Cooper says that case showed how collaboration works across jurisdictions. How else would the local and federal authorities have pieced together the relevant details about the murder of a woman from Texas, dumped in Utah by an Illinois-based trucker, who was originally arrested in Arizona? ViCAP was designed to promote this kind of cross-jurisdiction collaboration, to solve cases that otherwise couldn't be cracked. If ViCAP worked the way it should, Cooper said, it could be revolutionary.

The Red River weigh station, where Vafeades was first arrested in 2013. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation

Vafeades was scheduled to go to trial in a Salt Lake City federal court this month, but just days ahead of his trial, he took a plea deal. By pleading guilt to two charges of "transportation for illegal sexual activity"—referring to the rapes of victims A and B and crossing state lines with them in tow—the kidnapping charges were waived.

There's an eerie photo on the internet of Vafeades during his trucking days, with tanned arms, silver rings on his fingers, and the tips of his fangs protruding from his lips. But in the courtroom during a preliminary hearing in May, Vafeades's skin was pale and waxen, his shoulders slumped forward. If it weren't for the gray-and-white stripes, the shackles, and the suggestion of sharply pointed fangs, he could pass for a mild-mannered court clerk rather than the infamous "vampire trucker."

While Vafeades won't go to trial, the preliminary hearing painted a grim picture of what Victims A and B experienced during their time on the Twilight Express. Written statements from Victim A indicated regular assault, sometimes while Vafeades wore silver rings on his wrist that he called his "slave bracelets." Victim B alleged to have suffered similar beatings, and had contemplated taking her chances jumping out of the moving diesel truck.

But strangely, in both instances, the victims appeared to develop a close relationship with Vafeades. Victim A had even clung anxiously to Vafeades's arm in the moments before Minnesota state troopers separated them, according to legal documents. Dr. Frank Ochberg, a trauma specialist and the expert witness for the prosecution, called this "trauma bonding," caused by months of violent control.

"One [victim] referred to him as 'that asshole,' the other as 'that monster,' but then later they talked about positive feelings [toward Vafeades]," Ochberg said in the court proceeding. Their torment he said, made the victims "irrationally compliant" to Vafeades's demands.

"They blame themselves more than their perpetrator," Ochberg testified.

"For every offender that commits a crime successfully, the chances of him going out and committing another one rise significantly." — Gregory Cooper

Since 1980, more than 216,000 Americans have been the victims of unsolved homicides, according to the Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit that uses FBI crime data to encourage better homicide reporting, which is run by former homicide detective Witzig. That's a higher number than the combined death toll of all US military actions since World War II.

For Cooper, the retired FBI agent, that's unacceptable. He's joined with several colleagues to form the Cold Case Foundation, a nonprofit that brings retired forensic experts together to help law enforcement departments clear their most challenging cold cases through training, case consultations, or whatever they need, free of charge. Witzig is also trying to relieve the backlog of cold cases by using the FBI's publicly available crime data to map out killings, so members of the public can see if there might actually be a serial killer operating in their area and demand renewed focus from law enforcement.

"This is not meant to embarrass the police—it's quite the reverse," Witzig told VICE. "It's to get police the resources they need to close murder cases."

"It's not getting better, and it actually gets worse as we fail to solve more crimes," Cooper told VICE. "For every offender that commits a crime successfully, the chances of him going out and committing another one rise significantly." He says this is especially true for mobile offenders, like truckers.

Vafeades, at least, will be staying put for a while. On November 2, the vampire trucker will be sentenced in federal court and could spend the next 20 years behind bars, in a prison cell not much bigger than the sleeper berth of the Twilight Express.

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