The night I was almost murdered by a truck stop serial killer: One woman tells her story of survival
23:48 GMT, 26 October 2012
Survival story: Vanessa Veselka, 43, the author of critically acclaimed book, Zazen, recalls the most terrifying moments of her life
During the summer of 1985, a 15-year-old girl suffered the most terrifying moments of her life after she hitched a ride with a truck driver who later threatened to kill her at knife-point, before she made a daring escape.
Six weeks prior, Vanessa Veselka had run away from her New York City home with her 21-year-old boyfriend. But after they parted ways, she was left alone with nothing but $60.
At a truck stop heading south on I-95 through the Carolinas, she was picked up by the man who, after searching for clues 27-years-later, she believes was serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades, who pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder before a West Texas judge this March.
First jailed in 1990 for killing a
14-year-old runaway girl in Illinois, he avoided the death penalty by
accepting life prison sentences for the two new charges, with no chance
Returning to the scenes of her terrifying memories, Ms Veselka, the author of critically acclaimed novel, Zazen, relived the moments in an essay for GQ magazine.
The 42-year-old wrote: 'He wore a cotton button-down with the
sleeves rolled neatly up over his biceps and had the cleanest cab I ever
saw. He must have seemed okay or I wouldn't have gotten in the truck
'Once out on the road, though, he
changed. He stopped responding to my questions. His bearing shifted. He
grew taller in his seat, and his face muscles relaxed into something
both arrogant and blank.
'Then he started talking about [a]
dead girl in [a] dumpster and asked me if I'd ever heard of the Laughing
Death Society. “We laugh at death,” he told me.'
Ms Veselka, who had left home because of fights and 'emotional violence' with her mother, recalls how a few minutes later, the driver pulled the truck onto the shoulder of the road surrounded by woods.
Truck stop killer: Robert Ben Rhoades, described by authorities as a sadistic killer, was first jailed in 1990 for killing a
14-year-old runaway girl in Illinois (left), also pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder this March
She wrote: 'He took out a hunting knife, and told me to get into the back of the cab.
'I began talking… I said I wouldn't go to the cops if nothing happened to me, but it was his choice – until he looked at me and I went still
'He wasn't nervous, angry, or excited. He was grave and methodical as if preparing to dress a deer. There was going to be no more talking. I knew in my body that it was over.
'Then he said one word: Run.'
'There was going to be no more talking. I knew in my body that it was over'
Without thinking twice, she did. And unsure if the man was chasing her, she ran one hundred yards without looking back before she turned and hid.
'I crouched on netted twigs and breathed into my shirt to muffle the sound… I
stayed there until I saw the truck pull onto the interstate.
getting dark. I was still in shock, so I walked back out to the same
road and started hitching south. I never went to the police and didn't
tell anyone for years.'
But after Mr Rhoades, already in prison for pleading guilty to the killing of 14-year-old Regina Walters, was also charged with the
1990 abductions and slayings of hitchhiking newly-weds Douglas Scott Zyskowski, 28, and
Patricia Walsh, 24, Ms Veselka came to think she encountered the same man.
Serial murderer: Mr Rhoades was involved in the BDSM and swinger scene in his hometown of Houston in the Eighties
She wrote: 'I had not told… anyone
else how I felt about failing to go to the cops [27 years ago]. These
were my private feelings. The idea that I might have been responsible
for what happened to girls like Regina was devastating.'
She added: 'What if the man who pulled the knife on me really did murder the hitchhiker Why did he let me go … Why didn't I go to anyone I needed to understand what my responsibility was and to find my own answers, if nobody else's, so I began to look.'
She flew to Austin, Texas, to meet with two retired FBI men, special agents Mark Young and Robert F. Lee, who had both worked on Regina Walters' case.
From reading about Mr Rhoades, Ms Veselka knew he targeted hitchhikers rather than prostitutes, who frequently went missing during the Eighties at truck stops.
Mr Rhoades, described by authorities as a sadistic killer, specifically targeted runaway girls, and Ms Veselka had learned he liked to force his victims into the back of his sleeper cab, which had anchor points for shackles.
She got in touch with Mr Rhoades ex-wife, Deborah, who he met in 1983, and later married in 1987 before she divorced him in 1989.
According to her, in the summer of 1985, Mr Rhoades was driving for a trucking company based in Georgia that has an office right on I-95.
Ms Veselka wrote: 'I ran my story past her. When I got to the part about the sudden switch in his behavior, she got excited. “That's him! That's exactly like him!” she said.'
Much like Mr Young and Mr Lee, Deborah said she had never heard of the Laughing Death Society, but she told Ms Veselka, 'Bob was fascinated by secret societies.'
After weeks on the Appalachian trail following threads of clues, no one would talk to Ms Veselka about the 500 bodies, according to the 2009 Highway Serial Killings Initiative, found over the past 30 years along interstates in the area.
'I crouched on netted twigs and breathed into my shirt to muffle the sound'
Mr Rhoades' trucking logs placed him in the area of 50 unsolved murders in the three years prior to his arrest alone.
She wrote: 'I was in the one place where
I knew for certain women had been found, one less than a hundred yards
away from where she was standing. “No,” [a woman] said, “I never heard
of anything like that anywhere.”
On the advice of Mr Young and Mr Lee, Ms Veselka wrote a letter to Mr Rhoades.
When she returned home from West Virgina after weeks of searching for clues and retracing her 15-year-old steps, a letter from Mr Rhoades was waiting.
Invisible victim: Mr Rhoades' pleaded guilty to the 1990 abduction and murder of Regina Walters, 14, a runaway from Pasadena, Texas (left); he shaved her head before making her pose for images, calling her invisible (right)
'It said he would see me if I promised never to say that I had seen him or what had passed between us. It was just the kind of promise a sexual predator or child molester would try to extract. He also wanted $500,' Ms Veselka wrote.
'I wrote him back and told him that journalistic standards wouldn't allow me to pay for interviews. I expected that to be the end of it, but I got another letter. Young was right. Rhoades liked to think of himself as an “expert,” and now Rhoades suggested he be paid as one.
'But an expert in what, I thought, killing At the bottom of the yellow legal paper, scrawled in all caps, he wrote, “IT WASN'T ME!!!” I looked at the letter. He may be right, but certainly not because he's innocent.'