The Victims of the Hitch-Hike Murderer

On a chilly December night in 1972 just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, what might have been just a routine traffic stop took an unexpected turn when two police officers trailed a mysterious man in a dark Cadillac and their pursuit spiraled into a high-speed chase and a shoot out.

When officers finally caught up to the vehicle and apprehended the driver, the past four months of fear and torment through the greater Boston area would finally come to an end. These are the stories of Kathleen Randall, Deborah Rae Stevens, Ellen Reich, Sandra Ehramjian, Damaris “Synge” Gillispie and Ruth Hamilton.

Boston, Massachusetts is the biggest city in New England, a place where the past echoes through every cobblestone street, the future reflects off each towering skyscraper, and everything is blanketed with the salt air of Massachusetts Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a city where history and innovation converge to create a captivating urban tapestry.

But what sets Boston apart from other east coast cities is its reputation as a thriving hub of education. It’s a haven for knowledge seekers, a vibrant epicenter for learners of all ages with renowned institutions like Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern and Tufts, to name a few. These institutions infuse the city with a youthful energy and a genuine enthusiasm for learning that reverberates through the very streets. And in 1972, Boston was the historic, educational city that beckoned 19-year old Deborah Rae Stevens.

Debbie, as she was called by her family, was a sophomore physical therapy student at Boston University and she also took classes at Northwestern University, which occupied the same general area as BU. On a typical day, Debbie would take the train or bus to get to class from home in nearby Lynn, Massachusetts, but on the night of September 14th 1972, she decided to borrow her sister’s car.

Debbie chatted with her friends around 9:30 p.m on the campus of Northwestern University but it seemed like she didn’t actually go to class as intended that night…and this is where things get a little foggy – her movements couldn’t be traced after she was seen chatting with her friends.

When Debbie didn’t make it home by 10 p.m. as expected, her family tried to track her down themselves. They didn’t immediately involve police in their search because they didn’t have any cause for alarm…not yet anyway. Until at 6 a.m. on September 15th, when police received a call from a man who said he’d just found a body in the lilac bushes on his street…and this body was identified later that morning as Deborah Rae Stevens who was laying only just 75 yards away from her own home. Police believed that she had been killed elsewhere and her body was dumped there, but it’s not clear how they made this determination. The medical examiner’s initial examination was that Debbie had been strangled and possibly sexually assaulted, and likely died between 2 and 3 a.m.

Not long after her body was discovered, Police located the car that Debbie had driven to class the night before blocking someone’s driveway two blocks away from her house. Anthony Pearson wrote for the Boston Globe that the dashboard and front seat of the car had at least two bullet holes and traces of lead were found inside the vehicle, but what’s kind of strange is that there was no blood inside the car and Debbie did not have any gunshot wounds.

As investigators were speaking with friends and family members who could provide insight into who Debbie was and her habits, a theory emerged. Maybe Debbie picked up a hitchhiker.

Hitchhiking was very common in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, specifically among the Baby Boomer generation who was coming of age in that era. It was so prevalent that the FBI ran campaigns against the practice, warning drivers that the innocent looking stranger on the side of the highway could be a quote-unquote sex maniac or a vicious murderer. According to a New York Times op-ed by Ginger Strand, the author of, “Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate”, one particular anti-hitchhiking campaign by Rutgers University included police officers handing out cards to female hitchhikers that read, “If I were a rapist, you’d be in trouble.” Just a side note, the language of these campaigns oozes with victim shaming.

According to reporting by Jim Steadman for The Daily Item, Debbie’s mother told investigators that Debbie was a trusting person, and she always wanted to help. If someone possibly asked for a ride as Debbie drove to or from campus that night, it wouldn’t have been surprising for Debbie to swing open the car door and welcome a seemingly harmless stranger inside.

Only 12 hours passed between Debbie not returning home, the discovery of her body, and the launch of the investigation into her death. But at the time, investigators had no idea that another Boston University student had also disappeared under alarming circumstances, and they’d soon have a second homicide to investigate.

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