Drive-By Truckers

by Ginger Strand

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 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 a criminal background check 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, and 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, and 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.


Mendenhall at his hearing. Photo Courtesy the Nashville Tennessean.


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 by 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 a 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.

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 a 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 of person.”

* * *

For the closing arguments of Bruce Mendenhall’s trial, CarmaPurpura’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 LeeFreeman, sharply dressed, bristled with controlled anticipation. In the courtroom, the Purpura relatives sat in the front row with SaraHulbert’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 BruceMendenhall 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 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 jurySara Hulbert was “doing the only thing she knew to do to support her habit.” In the final moments, he put up a slide of SaraHulbert, 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, and 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, and eye contact, and your identity reduced to a make and model. Frustrated in your innate desire to be perceived as human, you become paranoid, attribute hostile motives to oblivious others, and 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


This story is an excerpt from Ginger Strand’s book “Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate” published by the University of Texas Press.