Sometime on June 25, 2007, 25-year-old Sara Hulbert went to Nashville’s seedy Cowan Street with a pair of guys named Lee and Hollywood. The three scored some crack and smoked it. Then an argument broke out about divvying up what was left. Sara got annoyed and left. Lee figured she was headed for the nearby T.A.—a truck stop with a lively prostitution trade—to make some cash. He watched her disappear between a pair of empty truck trailers. He never saw her again. Somewhere in that row of warehouses, truck washes, and vacant lots, as I-24 roared by overhead, Sara Hulbert climbed into the wrong truck. Around 12:50 in the morning, the T.A. security guard found Sara Hulbert face-up in the back lot, near the sagging fence hookers used for access, a half-inch hole in her head.
Looking at the crime scene, Nashville Metro Detective Pat Postiglione thought: serial killer. Postiglione, a small, wiry man with black hair, nearly black eyes, and the trace of a Queens accent, had encountered them before, and he saw several things that said “serial killer” to him here. Hulbert was naked and carefully posed, the soles of her feet pressed together so her legs made a diamond. There was no sign of a struggle. And there appeared to be little or no physical evidence. In fact, Nashville police really had only two things to go on: a sneaker-like footprint, and a grainy T.A. surveillance tape showing trucks streaming in and out of the lot all night. One truck—a yellow cab pulling a white trailer—had stayed only 16 minutes. As a lead, it wasn’t much.
Postiglione knew that another prostitute had been killed just a few weeks earlier in Lebanon, Tennessee, about 30 miles east on I-40. That woman had been shoved butt-down in a truck stop trash can, garbage piled on her stomach. The detective contacted the FBI’s Violent Criminals Apprehension Program (ViCAP) and asked them to query their national database for similar crimes along highways connecting to the Nashville region. An FBI analyst confirmed that there were cases that looked similar, including a prostitute killed at a truck stop in Alabama. Postiglione and his partner, Lee Freeman, decided to ask for every credit card receipt from the T.A. on the night of the murder. They figured they had a trucker to find.
At least twenty-five former truckers are currently serving time in American prisons for serial murder. There’s Robert Ben Rhoades, who converted his truck cab into a torture chamber, now serving a life sentence in Illinois. There’s Scott William Cox, a trucker who pled no-contest to two murders in Oregon. There’s Dellmus Colvin, who pled guilty in five murders to avoid the death penalty in Ohio; Keith Hunter Jesperson, serving life sentences from four different states; and Wayne Adam Ford, who finally got sick of killing and walked into a California sheriff’s office carrying a woman’s breast in a plastic bag. When trucker Sean Patrick Goble was arrested in North Carolina and confessed to several murders, ten states lined up to question him about their cold-case highway homicides. It seems our interstate highway system has become our Whitechapel, with truckers its roving Rippers.
A soft-spoken woman from Oklahoma City first saw the pattern. Terri Turner is a Supervisory Intelligence Analyst with the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation. In September of 2003, a homicide case landed on her desk: a body found along I-40. Turner immediately put out a teletype seeking other female bodies found, like hers, nude, near interstates, and with signs of having been bound. Within 72 hours, two responses came back from Arkansas and Mississippi. At that point, Turner knew she might be looking at linked crimes. She had her communications specialists monitor the teletypes for further cases. In seven months, they had seven homicides. She calls them “my seven girls.”
Eventually investigators identified two of the women. Both had worked as truck stop prostitutes. This was the breakthrough moment for Turner.
“The vast majority of truck drivers are good hardworking people and without them our nation would come screeching to a halt,” she told me. “But there are very few who have found that that particular job is very suited to this particular type of crime.”
In the spring of 2004, Turner decided to have a meeting in Oklahoma City for all the investigators working on her seven cases—and any others that might be related.
“I anticipated maybe 20, 25 individuals,” she told me, “but by the time word got around about the kind of cases we were going to be talking about, I ended up having 60 investigators from seven different states show up for that meeting. That was really the beginning of the initiative.”
FBI Analysts at ViCAP had even more surprising news. When they queried their database, they found more than 250 homicides connected to I-40 in the existing files, spread out across Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. John Walsh’s show America’s Most Wanted broke the case. It aired the story of an Oklahoma City prostitute killed and thrown from an overpass in Texas. A woman called in and reported that her nephew, already in jail, had bragged about doing something similar. She gave police his name:
John Robert Williams, a 28-year-old long-haul trucker. “We had never considered the interstate highway system as a common linkage system,” ViCAP head Mike Harrigan told me. “We know now it’s been going on for years, but we had never picked out the pattern.”
* * *
“Are there more serial killers out there today than there ever have been?” Jim McNamara asked. “No. It’s just that there are units that specialize in helping catch and identify them, and through the increase in communications and technology, linkage is better.” Jim is a Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit—the profiling unit made famous in The Silence of the Lambs. We were sitting in a windowless conference room in a nondescript office building near Quantico, Virginia. There are no signs outside the building, just a sea of very clean cars; no name on the front door, just a buzzer commanding “Press here.” This is the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, where FBI agents wearing business attire and sidearms attempt to connect the dots between some of the nation’s most inexplicable crimes.
In early 2009, the FBI announced the Highway Serial Killings Initiative, focused on killers who choose their victims and dump their bodies along highways. Some of the victims are hitchhikers and stranded motorists, but most are truck stop prostitutes. In the 1980s, the FBI was accused of inflating the numbers of serial homicides, fomenting a serial killer “panic,” so they are careful not to overstate their case today. But recent studies suggest that the numbers of serial murder victims have continually been underestimated—even during the serial murder “panic.” The undercounting is because the vast majority of victims have always been prostitutes—as many as 75% according to one scholar. Research into prostitute mortality suggests that the homicide rate for prostitutes is 229 out of every 100,000. The U.S. national average is five. Press releases introducing the Highway Serial Killings Initiative included a frightening-looking map pinpointing more than 500 bodies found on or near highways and already in the ViCAP database. Represented by red dots, the bodies cluster around major transfer points in the interstate network: Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, Nashville, Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh. But no state is immune: the red dots spread along every interstate highway like a pathogen carried by car.
In 2007, its first full year of operation, the HSKI assisted in the clearing of 25 murders committed by three truckers. Excitement grew among law enforcement agencies about clearing a backlog of unsolved murders. Massachusetts has never cracked the case of nine prostitutes discovered dead along highways near New Bedford. Miami has 31 murdered prostitutes with unknown perpetrators on their books. San Diego has more than 40, all of whom vanished from truck stops. A series of bodies found along highways in four southern states is known as the “redhead murders,” because several victims had red hair. The list of around 200 suspects, the FBI press release bluntly said, was mostly long-haul truckers.
“No one here is saying. ‘Well, they’re obviously truck drivers,’” FBI Supervisory Special Agent John Molnar told me. “No, the only obvious assumption you can make is that it’s somebody using that road.”
* * *
A few weeks after Sara Hulbert’s murder in Nashville, Pat Postiglione and his partner Lee Freeman arranged to meet at the T.A. and go through the receipts. As Postiglione was driving over, he noticed a yellow truck with a white trailer cruising slowly down the Cowan Street “stroll.” It looked like his suspect vehicle. With Postiglione following, the truck passed the spot where Hulbert was last seen alive and then entered the T.A. and parked.
Postiglione radioed Freeman his whereabouts, then approached the truck and knocked on the door. After a few moments, a heavy man with stringy brown hair and glasses opened it, yawning as if he’d just been awakened. Postiglione said he was working on a murder investigation and asked to see the guy’s license. The trucker handed it over: Bruce Mendenhall. The detective noticed what looked like spots of blood on the inside of the cab door—and on Mendenhall’s thumb.
It’s a detective’s job not to jump to conclusions. Postiglione told Mendenhall that police were asking drivers of yellow cabs with white trailers to volunteer DNA samples. Mendenhall agreed to do so. Lee Freeman had arrived by this point, and he got out a consent form. Mendenhall came out of the truck to sign it. As he did, a voice in Pat Postiglione’s head told him to look inside that cab. He asked Mendenhall for permission to search his truck.
“Are you going to tear it up?” Mendenhall asked. Postiglione said no, he just wanted to look around. Mendenhall agreed, and Postiglione climbed into the cab. He was surprised at how spacious it was. He edged between the seats and into the living area behind. The top bunk was folded up; he sat down on the bottom bunk. Nearby, he could see a pair of black shoes. He picked them up. The tread looked a lot like the cast made of the shoe tread at the crime scene. There was a garbage bag near the bed, and Postiglione pulled it to him. It was filled with paper towels, women’s clothing, and shoes, all of it soaked with blood.
Mendenhall had jumped onto the running board and was watching Postiglione with an inscrutable expression. Postiglione asked him about the bloody paper towels. He had cut his leg, Mendenhall said. He pulled up his pant leg and displayed a smooth calf. Postiglione pointed out that it didn’t seem to be injured. Mendenhall switched his story. He’d had a girl from Indianapolis in the cab, he said, and she had cut herself. Postiglione asked if he had any women’s clothing in the truck. Yes, the trucker answered, his wife and daughter had some clothes there. Postiglione looked in the bag again. There was a lot of blood. Later DNA testing would link it to at least four women, all of them missing or dead.
“Bruce, am I sitting in the right truck?” he asked. Mendenhall shrugged. Postiglione asked again. “Is this the truck we’re looking for?”
“If you say it is,” Mendenhall replied.
“Are you the guy we’re looking for?” Postiglione asked.
“If you say so.”
* * *
To someone like Detective Pat Postiglione, it makes a kind of intuitive sense that long-haul truckers might be behind many of the highway killings. There were roughly three and a half million truckers on the road as of 2006, and the work force has changed along with the job.
“I’ve dealt with truckers a lot and truckers are a different breed,” Pat Postiglione told me. “A lot of them are regular good family people, but a lot of them are not.”
In the years since the interstate era began, the proportion of freight going over the road has steadily increased. After the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated trucking, the number of trucks on the road shot up even more. In the last 20 years alone, there has been an increase of 44 percent in registered large trucks and a leap of 86 percent in how many miles those trucks travel. Today, roughly 70 percent of all domestic freight goes over the road. To survive cutthroat competition, trucking has become leaner and more efficient. Unionized trucking companies have dwindled while smaller, low-wage ones have multiplied. Trucks have become “sweatshops on wheels,” with truckers driving harder, longer, and faster, for lower relative pay. Like pieceworkers, most are paid by the mile—on average around 39 cents.
As the need for drivers has expanded, the bar to entry has been lowered. Today, you don’t need a high school diploma or to go through any criminal record check service to drive a truck. In fact, beginning with welfare reform in 1996, employers could get a federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit for hiring convicted felons, and many in the trucking industry did. Most trucking companies don’t care if drivers have a permanent address. It’s possible to drive a truck with drunk driving convictions on your regular license. Annual employee turnover at trucking companies is around 100 percent.
As trucking has changed, it has attracted a new demographic: less educated, less stable, less tied to unions, less rooted in family life. Has it also begun attracting a criminal element?
* * *
“At the end of this testimony,” declared deputy district attorney Tom Thurman, “there will be no doubt that there is a cold-blooded killer in the courtroom.” It was May, 2010, nearly three years after the murder of Sara Hulbert, and day one of Bruce Mendenhall’s trial.
The accused sat impassively between his lawyers. Mendenhall is no Dexter. In fact, even as real serial killers go, he gets low marks for mediagenics—he isn’t dashing like Ted Bundy, passionately deranged like Charles Manson, or eerily normal like John Wayne Gacy. He is 59, and not a youthful 59. He has a cartoon trucker’s body—beer belly, sloping shoulders, trudging gait. He is diabetic. His cheeks sag in deep hollows and his limp hair could use a trim.
The prosecution and the defense agreed on the basics. Sara Hulbert was killed in Bruce Mendenhall’s truck with Bruce Mendenhall’s gun. But they took differing positions on who had done the killing. Mendenhall claimed it was someone else. Two guys followed him around, he said, killing women in his truck, with his gun, and leaving him to clean up the mess. That was the story he had told Detective Postiglione immediately after his arrest.
* * *
Pat Postiglione had little doubt, when he sat down to interview Bruce Mendenhall, that he was dealing with a serial killer. “We seem to have more than our share of them in Nashville,” he told me. “I think it has to do with the interstates.”
Or with the truck stops. The back row at truck stops is known as the “party row,” because it’s typically where the truckers who want sex or drugs park. Private security guards attempt to stop the sex trade with varying levels of enthusiasm, but prostitutes—“lot lizards”—arrive in cars or slip onto the property from the back, then move unseen between the trucks, rapping on doors. Truckers who don’t want to be awakened by unceasing knocks post a sign in their window—a drawing of a lizard with a circle and a bar through it.
“You go to the truck stop and you stand there and 100 percent of the girls who come around there have a pimp within 20 feet,” Postiglione told me. “The girl’s so strung out you can spot it 100 yards away. And she’s ready to get into the truck with Ted Bundy, Bruce Mendenhall.”
It clearly bothers Postiglione that young women become so vulnerable. It bothers him that he arrested Bruce Mendenhall on July twelfth. Had he arrested him one day sooner, another young woman might still be alive.
“What made this case unique,” he said, “is we were chasing him as he was killing. Because he killed a girl June twenty-fifth and a girl July first … so it wasn’t like he’d killed and he stopped. When he came back to the truck stop that night he’d killed a girl the night before. We were kind of chasing a phantom.”
* * *
Clark Fine has chased the same phantom. Fine is a classic cop’s cop, a detective in the Sheriff’s office in Hendricks County, just west of Indianapolis. Even over the phone, you can hear the ghosts of thousands of cigarettes in his raspy, unfiltered voice.
In 2004, Fine had a cold case involving a murdered prostitute named Buffie Brawley, found dumped in an abandoned truck stop on Indianapolis’s south side. She had been beaten up, strangled, and run over with a truck. Fine attended Terri Turner’s Oklahoma City confab on the I-40 killings. Indianapolis is on I-70, but truckers frequently travel up from the southwest to the midwest via I-44 out of Oklahoma City, intersecting with I-70 at St. Louis. Anything going on in Oklahoma City could easily find its way to Indy. At Turner’s meeting, Clark Fine became friends with a police sergeant from Grapevine, Texas. Like Fine, the Grapevine sergeant had a case similar to Terri Turner’s—a truck stop prostitute who had been killed and thrown from an overpass.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling how many girls get killed every year doing that,” Fine told me. Eventually, John Robert Williams—the suspect in Terri Turner’s series—confessed to the Grapevine crime from prison in Mississippi. The sergeant called Clarke Fine and told him he ought to talk to the guy too.
“Myself and a partner drove down to Mississippi and we had specific things about our case—she had certain tattoos on her—to see if this might be the guy,” Fine recalled. At the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, John Williams told the detectives he remembered Buffie Brawley. Fine asked a few questions about the crime scene, and Williams got some right and some wrong. Fine asked him if he remembered a tattoo on the woman’s buttock.
“You have to remember, I don’t have sex with them, I just kill them,” Williams said. Fine was losing interest in Williams fast. He figured he had a serial confessor on his hands, someone who got a thrill bragging to cops about all the murders he’d gotten away with. But then Williams volunteered that he did remember a tattoo on Brawley’s leg. It said Ebony, he recalled. He told the detectives he thought that was funny, since “Ebony is usually a black girl’s name.”
“But the thing is,” Fine told me, “that girl had a daughter named Ebony, and so she had that tattoo. And then I knew this asshole was the guy that did it.”
For Fine, it closed what had been a long, sad case. At the start of it, he had gone down to the local truck stop to talk to other prostitutes who might know something. One woman he spoke to was Carma Purpura. “I interviewed her down at the truck stop and I said ‘This is dangerous life.’ And she said ‘I know, but I gotta make a living.’”
On July 11, 2007, Carma Purpura got into Bruce Mendenhall’s truck at a Flying J in Indianapolis. Her cell phone and clothing were in the bag of bloodied items discovered by Pat Postiglione the very next day. Some of the blood in the truck matched DNA provided by her parents. Her body has yet to be found.
* * *
For most of the trial, Bruce Mendenhall sat impassively. He showed no emotion as forensics experts recounted Hulbert’s injuries and held up the weapons found in his truck. Then the prosecution played the video in which he told Pat Postiglione the story about the “real” killers. As Postiglione, onscreen, deftly maneuvered him into waiving his right to have an attorney present, Mendenhall shook his head slightly, then hunched down in his seat, one hand pressed to his sagging cheek. It was the only show of emotion from a man who otherwise sat very still and stared straight ahead, concentrating on where this very large machine was taking him. It seemed appropriate that his prison nickname was “Truck.”
The tape had an electrifying effect on the jury. On it, Postiglione moves quickly to the events on the night of Hulbert’s death. Mendenhall describes driving all night, coming down from Indy. He stopped to fill up and get a sandwich at another truck stop, the Nashville Pilot. But in the fuel lane, two men he knew walked up.
“Where you going now?” they asked.
“None of your business,” Mendenhall told them.
“Well, we’ll make it our business,” they said. One of them got in his truck, determined to ride with him. Mendenhall relates all of this to the detectives with the kind of over-emphasis four-year-olds use when talking about their imaginary friends. It would be disarming if the man weren’t talking about a murder.
Mendenhall says the two men then followed him to the T.A., where he went inside for a sandwich. When he came back out, they were in his truck with a dead girl. She was sprawled out in his bed, naked, a bloody plastic bag over her head.
“I said ‘You guys, what the hell …?’ ” he continues. “And they go, ‘It’s your problem, not ours.’ And they got out and left.” He figured they had killed her with his gun, he says, because “they’ve did it before.” Mendenhall describes cleaning up the mess and putting the body on the grass for the grounds crew to find. As Postiglione presses him for further details, Mendenhall interrupts.
“They do it all the time,” he declares. “I don’t know …”
“Okay,” Postiglione says. He was born in Queens and raised on Long Island, but he has picked up the southerner’s way of saying “okay,” gently, the last syllable rhyming with “lie.” “You don’t know these guys.”
“Yes,” Mendenhall says, “I know one.”
“How did they know you were at the Truck Stops in Nashville?” Postiglione asks, and Mendenhall says, “That’s what I don’t know. They … they meet me everywhere.”
Postiglione is a deft interviewer. He plays along with Mendenhall’s story like a parent indulging a child. When Mendenhall tells him that the other two men had sex with Hulbert, Postiglione carefully puts the next question in the third person: “Did Bruce have sex with her?” Bruce insists that Bruce did not. Finally Postiglione asks Mendenhall for the men’s names. Mendenhall then makes his big mistake: he names two men he really knows, men with alibis two states away, men against whom he holds grudges. In the part of the tape that the jury was not allowed to see, Mendenhall goes on to describe a number of other incidents involving these fantasy killers. They caught up with him at a Flying J on I-465 in Indianapolis the night before, he says, and just as in Nashville, they killed a girl in his truck. He ran into them in Birmingham, Alabama, and he suspects they killed someone there because his gun was gone for a while, and “wherever them two are, them, they like killin’.” And, when Postiglione prods him to think about whether he’s ever been on I-40 east of Nashville, he recalls running into the killers again at the Pilot in Lebanon, Tennessee—where the girl in the garbage can was found.
It’s the lamest story imaginable, and Postiglione plays along gently, without ever really indicating whether he believes it. Finally, he tries to get Mendenhall to back off from the lie. “We’re not going to treat you any different now,” he says “if you tell us you were the one who actually did it. And these guys … they really had nothing to do with the homicides. If you’re the guy that did these killings …”
He leaves it hanging and in the pause, Mendenhall seems to realize the jig is up. “Get me a lawyer,” he says.
* * *
On the trial’s third day, the state brought out a long line of experts from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to introduce the evidence found in Bruce Mendenhall’s truck. This included fingerprints, blood and semen evidence, a nightstick, a collection of knives, and the murder weapon, a .22 rifle. It also included the sex toys.
The defense objected before the prosecution could even mention the sex toys. The jury was sent out of the room and the haggling began. As the witness was questioned, the lawyers argued over each item. First up was the penis pump. The assistant prosecutor, a striking woman in dramatically high heels, insisted the penis pump was relevant because of the kind of genital damage the victim suffered. The judge examined the photos over his bifocals. “What does one do with a penis pump?” he demanded. “Does anyone know?”
The trial then entered a zone so darkly comic that no one dared look at anyone else. The court officers stared straight ahead, stone faced. The reporters looked intently at their notebooks. The lawyers hovered helplessly over their files. The one person in the room who could surely explain how a penis pump was used, Bruce Mendenhall, kept his eyes on the table in front of him. The prosecutor explained that this was why the jury needed to see the packaging: so they could read the instructions.
“Which box is it?” demanded the judge.
“The one with the baseball player.”
The judge read the box aloud: “Rookie of the year pleasure pump for the novice enlarger.” No one laughed, but the invisible vapor of self-control that always fills a courtroom wavered briefly into view.
The sex toys were ultimately allowed, but in truth they proved nothing. There was no DNA evidence on them. Like much of the prosecution’s evidence, they served a different purpose: to help the jury reconstruct the story. The prosecution introduced the items to make Mendenhall seem like a person who would kill, though none of these items is unusual for a trucker to have. Truck stops almost invariably sell the exact type of nightstick he had in his truck, and they frequently have large glass cases displaying an astounding array of hunting knives. Being ready to defend yourself is part of the ethos of the independent trucker. It is not unreasonable. The combination of on-the-job violence and vehicular accidents makes truckers six times more likely than average to die on the job. Driving a truck is among the top ten most dangerous jobs you can hold, according to the Department of Labor. Presumably, the statistics don’t include prostitution.
As for the sex toys, they might be seen as proof that truckers are a tribe of sex-crazed perverts, but they can also be seen simply as testimony to the fact that, after a long day of grueling driving, some kind of unwinding is desired. The defense could have pointed this out. But to do so would have asked the jury to imagine the difficult, damaging lives of long-haul truckers. And that is something almost no one wants to consider.
Consigned to the stressful world of the interstate, known to their dispatchers as a number, to the law as a license plate, and to their clients as a set of GPS coordinates, truckers are the gears that keep the machinery of global commerce running. But what’s going on in their heads? There has been almost no work done examining the mental health of the nation’s truckers. The only paper I could find on the topic was deeply disturbing. In a qualitative survey, truckers reported very high levels of stress related to time pressures, loneliness, bad health, and separation from their families. They described anxiety about their public image, and reported that the loneliness of the road led them to risky encounters with sex workers and to drug use. Some said they felt they were going insane.
I asked Pat Postiglione if he thought there might be something about trucking that could push some violently predisposed people over the edge.
“Sure,” he said. “You’re on the road for hour after hour after hour and all you’re doing is thinking. You’re not communicating with anybody. If you’re that type of person, it could evolve out of you. But it might also be that you’re a trucker because you are a serial killer type person.”
* * *
For the closing arguments of Bruce Mendenhall’s trial, Carma Purpura’s family came to Nashville. Purpura’s sister was small, with short, straightened brown hair and an easy smile. In the hallway outside the courtroom, she embraced Sara Hulbert’s like long-lost family, bonded by an unspeakable sorrow. Then they all hugged Pat Postiglione, who had also come for closing arguments. He and Lee Freeman, sharply dressed, bristled with controlled anticipation. In the courtroom, the Purpura relatives sat in the front row with Sara Hulbert’s family. The detectives sat a couple rows behind, on the same side. They had all been waiting for this day for three years.
The prosecution’s closing argument, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, outlined the most complete circumstantial case imaginable. It added up to a complete story. But—and this is one of the places where real trials differ from the ones in movies and on television—it didn’t tie up every loose end. There were gaps in the testimony, witnesses who hadn’t appeared, a tire track and a second footprint at the crime scene that had never been explained. The defense, in their summation, highlighted every loose end, then pounded the idea of reasonable doubt. Even if the jury believed Bruce Mendenhall to be guilty, it was their obligation to acquit. As the attorney spoke, you could see Hulbert’s family growing noticeably upset. Before he began talking, acquittal was like a ship sailing by on a distant horizon. As he talked, it turned and headed for shore.
“I’m asking you to do something difficult,” he told the jury in closing. “I’m asking you to follow the law.”
The prosecutor, on rebuttal, asked them to do the exact opposite. He offered them a story that made sense. He referred to the truck as a “killing chamber.” He told the jury Sara Hulbert was “doing the only thing she knew to do to support her habit.” In the final moments, he put up a slide of Sara Hulbert, a hopeful young woman, her brown hair restrained by a headband. “She had a right to live,” he declared. “She had a right to change her life and raise her children.” Sara’s relatives, and at least one juror, silently wept.
Once the jury had been charged and retired to their deliberations, the family was whisked off to the room set aside for them. The detectives headed out to get things done. The lawyers vanished into other parts of the courthouse. Only the reporters hung around outside the courtroom, unwilling to risk missing the verdict. I sat on the bench before the plate glass windows, watching the never-ending stream of cars and trucks flow around Nashville on its way toward St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Oklahoma City.
This is the world we have made. It’s worth asking what effect it might have on people who spend a long time in it. In the late nineties, an outbreak of interest in “road rage” and aggressive driving led scientists to research what happens to people at the wheel. Driving, they reported has psychological—even physiological—effects on drivers. This is your brain on the road: you are rendered anonymous, deprived of verbal interaction, body language, eye contact, your identity reduced to make and model. Frustrated in your innate desire to be perceived as human, you become paranoid, attribute hostile motives to oblivious others, see them as objects. How many times have you found yourself screaming something in your car that you couldn’t imagine saying to a live human being?
Behind the wheel, we are all psychopaths. Around 3 pm, a runner burst from the courthouse conference room. Suddenly, everyone reappeared: the families, the detectives, the attorneys, thronging down the hallway into the courtroom. The forewoman read the verdict. She paused slightly before the word “guilty.” The judge stated that Mendenhall would receive a mandatory life sentence. The trucker gave no response as he stood to leave. For Bruce Mendenhall, this was only trial number one. He has been indicted by Tennessee for another murder, as well as by Indiana and Alabama. Sara Hulbert’s family looked relieved. For them, at least, this ordeal had reached its end.