Fear stalks interstates as crime hits the road Caution is chief way to foil 'brigands'


When Al Daniel of Baraboo, Wis., rides his 18-wheeler on the interstates, he obeys the speed limit, parks only in well-lighted rest areas, and packs a Louisville Slugger under his seat.

He is cautious yet angry, especially after listening to some mean chatter on his CB the past few days as truckers and motorists react to a string of high-profile murders on or near America's interstates.

"You always have some concerns whenever you're out here on the road," said Mr. Daniel, a trucker with 18 years of experience. "I know truckers who have been waylaid in rest areas. Truckers held up between trucks. And then you hear about the tourists getting killed. And James Jordan getting killed. It's getting ridiculous. And it's getting out of hand."

Statistics are hard to come by, but highway crime -- including murder -- is far from isolated.

The odds that an average motorist will be struck by violence on the highway remain small. Millions of cars travel along the country's interstate system on a given day, like some giant linear city. But this cocoon of high-speed safety has been breached by a series of violent incidents.

The recent shooting deaths of two foreign tourists on Florida's highways, and the slaying of basketball star Michael Jordan's father just off a highway in Lumberton, N.C., are only the most visible incidents in what appears to be a national trend.

Tuesday in Pennsylvania, authorities extradited James Cruz Jr., 36, who is accused of killing Dawn Marie Birnbaum, a 17-year-old runaway from Poland, Maine, and leaving her body in a snowbank along a Pennsylvania highway in March. Authorities also are investigating whether Mr. Cruz was involved in similar slayings along Ohio highways.

Another man, Herminio Cruz, was convicted of second-degree murder in July for shooting to death a Lakeland, Fla., teacher at a downtown interstate exit. His attorney told the jury that his client fired at Malcolm Hester's Chevrolet Blazer only to scare Mr. Hester, who he thought was making "a homosexual come-on" across traffic.

Last winter, a main highway for Florida vacationers became a target for snipers armed with guns and concrete chunks, leading local police and the Automobile Association of America to warn motorists to avoid the road, Interstate 295.

"One of the reasons Christopher Columbus wanted to discover an all-water route to India was to outfox the brigands," said Raymond Lang, a Miami police spokesman. "It seems like we've gone back to that day of highway brigands. . . . What originally started out as a means of motoring convenience has become a gauntlet."

There is crime at rest stops and rest areas, on the road shoulders and off the exit ramps.

Burglars prey on cars while the occupants are inside highway restaurants. They stage hold-ups while passengers are parked, asleep at the wheel.

"One way of looking at it is to say the cities are bursting at the seams with criminals and the criminals are moving out on the highways," said Louis R. Mizell Jr., a security consultant in Bethesda, Md.

"The highways are perfect for the predators," he said. "They offer easy access, fast escape and a constant flow of potential targets. Highways also offer invisibility. You're just one of hundreds of thousands of cars passing by. If the predator is hunting, he not only can select people to stalk, he can take advantage of random targets, people broken down, people lost."

Prevention is key

According to Mr. Mizell, who collects information and statistics on criminals and terrorists, more than 200,000 crimes have been committed in the past 12 months on the nation's roads and highways.

"There is no question that hundreds of people are murdered every year on the nation's highways and roadways," he said. "That's all types of crimes, from carjackings to kidnappings."

Mr. Mizell's data base contains a checklist of crimes.

"Last year alone over 7,000 of these highway crimes would have been prevented if the motorists would have had his or her door locked," he said.

"At least 620 different people were victimized criminally after either getting lost or having their car break down. That's preventable. You don't have to have your car run out of gas. Three thousand people we know of were victims of the bump-and-rob technique. Thirty-one children in the last 18 months have been accidentally abducted by carjackers.

"But," he said, "there is no reason to be paranoid. There is, however, every reason to be cautious."

Take the experience of one town, Hardeeville, Ga., population 1,500, hard by Interstate 95. Last November, the town suffered its third interstate-related homicide in 10 years, when a state trooper was shot and killed.

"It's overwhelming for anybody," said Hardeeville Police Chief Richard J. Fialkowski.

"It seems to be getting worse and worse. And that doesn't even mention the people who jump off the interstate, come in here and commit a crime and then take off. As a rule, all the armed robberies we ever have here are from somebody from a different location."

The chief said tourists have also been robbed at area motels as gunmen sit in parking lots and wait for their next victims.

"The public just has to become aware that nowhere is safe anymore," he said. "It's gotten to the point where you have to lock your house and lock your car in your yard."

Gerald A. Donaldson, assistant director for highway safety with Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety, said violence on the interstate is an outgrowth of a general breakdown in motoring behavior.

"This can't be solved by traffic engineers," he said. "Drivers drive with a vengeance that they didn't have just a few years ago. There is no yielding. Excessive tailgating. Aggressive behavior that literally pushes people off the road."

Maryland isn't immune

Maryland interstates have not been immune to violence. The 1992 murder of Pam Basu, a research chemist dragged to her death by two men who had wandered into her neighborhood only after their car ran out of gas on I-95, brought international attention to the crime of carjacking.

In March 1990, Maryland state Trooper Theodore D. Wolf was executed by two men during a routine traffic stop on I-95 near Jessup.

This year, a Virginia state trooper was murdered during a traffic ,, stop on I-95 in Prince William County.

"You're dealing with thousands of people who you don't know and don't know you," said Lt. John R. Quinley, an investigator with the Virginia state police. "You don't know the propensity of evil in people."

Steve Campbell, vice president of safety for the American Trucking Association, said reports of random violence are overblown and that interstate highways are safe and secure.

"The random violence is reflective of society," he said. "But I don't see that you're any more at danger riding on an interstate as you are walking to your car from the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore at 10 o'clock at night. You use good sense. You park in lighted areas."

Mr. Daniel, the trucker who carries a baseball bat, advises all motorists to be alert, park only in well-lighted rest areas and watch for any suspicious characters.

"Like anything else and anywhere else," he said, "it's more dangerous out here. You just hope you're never in the wrong place at the wrong time."

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