It was 3am when my phone rang. My deputy called to report a slashing in a backyard of West Hanover Township, a peaceful, suburban area, west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—a place people go to experience a little bit of country. The fact that there was a murder there seemed highly unusual.
The victim, Darlene Ewalt, was a 42-year-old female who had been sitting on her back patio, having a conversation with a man on the phone, around 2am. Suddenly, she cried out, “Oh my God!” The man on the line heard the phone drop and then silence. It was so sudden and her voice was so filled with horror, that he immediately called 911. Police were dispatched for a welfare check. Her husband, who didn’t know exactly where his wife was in the house, allowed police full access to the home for a search. The police found her dead body in the back patio.
When I arrived, I found her slumped over in a chair. An incandescent patio light shined an eerie a spotlight on the gruesome scene. Her left leg was sprawled out and her right leg bent. In front of her on top the white patio table was a notebook and a full ashtray. I could see that the attack had been swift, purposeful and skilled. I sensed that the stealthy killer had come out of the darkness of the backyard, and not from inside the home.
In a case like this, however, it is common that someone who knew Darlene was the killer. Both her husband and son were in the house at the time of death. Who was the man she was talking to at such an hour? What was her marriage like? Who would have known that she would be on the patio in the middle of the night? Why was the attack so clean, with no real confrontation or struggle from the victim? It seemed more like an assassination. This case didn’t fit any profile for domestic violence nor was this kind of assault even remotely expected in the realm of West Hanover violence. Inductive reasoning seemed to reach a standstill.
As it turned out, the murderer was a statistical outlier, outside the bell curve. He was a married truck driver. For reasons unknown to anyone, he hunted women. Not for sexual assault, only to plunge a Rambo-style knife into the victim. A video was found in his possessions on how to hunt humans.
The murderer was a serial killer, later known as the "Highway Killer." He had no connection to Darlene whatsoever. She was randomly chosen. Sporting dark, almost Ninja-type clothing, he had gone into a cul-de-sac, checked doors and sniffed out his prey. At the end of the street, he heard the voice of a woman talking on the phone. He climbed over a split-rail fence and entered Darlene’s backyard.
Darlene was prey simply because she was female, alone and vulnerable. He mostly likely enjoyed stalking her, the quick, quiet attack—just one plunge and then the slash. I imagined he felt the warmth of her blood on his hands. I imagined him standing there a second afterwards, watching her slump back into the chair, the slow decent of her arms towards the ground. I imagined him stepping back, just two or three feet into the curtain of darkness, admiring his handiwork.
I imagined him slowly walking away, occasionally glancing back at the lit stage, and what he considered a magnificent performance.
All it takes is an instant for horror to ensue. Death does not discriminate.
This case is closed, but there is always another story . . .