Nearly 70 years ago, a series of crimes targeting sleeping drivers in the cabs of their rigs spread nationwide panic for trucker drivers and travelers alike.
After three shootings took place near the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the summer of 1953, the country coined the killer, the “Turnpike Phantom,” and feared he was likely to commit more murders.
On July 26, 1953, the body of truck driver Lester Woodward, 30, was found lying in front of his rig alongside the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Woodard had been shot in the head with a .32 caliber bullet and robbed. A six-car pile-up, in which several people died, occurred around the same time, and it seemed likely that the gunman had caused the accident as he fled the scene. At first, police believed robbery to be the motive for the killing.
However two days later, on July 28, 1953, another murder occurred. Harry Pitts, 39, had pulled off the PA Turnpike in a similar way as Woodward. The next morning, a friend of Pitts recognized his rig and pulled over to find Pitts’ dead body. He had been shot through the mouth and killed with the same caliber and gun as Woodward.
On July 31, 1953, John Shepperd was robbed in his truck on Route 30, east of Lisbon, Ohio, and shot in the jaw. Shepperd survived his injuries and was able to describe his attacker as having “a high-pitched male voice.”
After the third shooting, truck drivers began moving in convoys and parked together at well-lit truck stops. Drivers kept weapons close at hand, arming themselves with guns and baseball bats.
With a pattern identified, detectives began the manhunt for the “Turnpike Phantom.” The state police increased their patrol of the roads and warned motorists sleeping on the shoulder of the interstate.
In a vintage Life picture by Ralph Morse, a Pennsylvania State Trooper warns a driver attempting to nap on a turnpike shoulder of the presence of a serial killer targeting sleeping truckers.
On August 6, 25-year-old John Wesley Wable was brought into county jail for failing to return a car he had rented on July 18. Wable bragged about being the “Turnpike Phantom” to his jailers but police dismissed his confessions as lies. He was released on September 23.
On October 9, Wable was apprehended by police in New Mexico after being connected to the shootings when he pawned the watch he had stolen from Shepperd. Wable was found driving in a stolen car with two other men and all three had recently been involved in a gas station robbery. Wable attempted to flee on foot but was caught trying to hitchhike along a Sante Fe railroad track. After being arrested, Wable tried to blame the murders on his friend Jim Parks, who he claimed borrowed the gun used in the murders.
Wable was convicted in the Westmoreland County courts of first-degree murder, March 13, 1954.
On the afternoon of Sept. 26, 1955, he was transported to Rockview penitentiary near Bellefonte, where late that evening he was executed by electric chair.
To this day, drivers opt to sleep in brightly lit parking lots and know first-hand the dangers of pulling over to sleep on the side of the road.