It was a bit of luck that broke the murder case of Sara Nicole Hulbert for Metro police Detective Sgt. Pat Postiglione and Detective Lee Freeman.
On his way to the Travel Centers of America on First Street, just across the river from downtown, Postiglione came across a tractor-trailer truck with a yellow cab similar to one spotted on surveillance cameras from nearby businesses the night 25-year-old Hulbert was murdered.
Postiglione followed the truck as it drove up First Street, past the truck stop where two weeks earlier Hulbert’s naked body was found “displayed,” as it was later described by prosecutors — on her back, arms out to the side, bottoms of her feet flat together with knees bent out to either side.
The sergeant called Freeman, the Metro Nashville Police Department’s lead detective on the Hulbert case, and told him he was trailing the suspect truck. Postiglione followed as the truck with the yellow cab turned left on Oldham Street, then right on Cowan Street and past a truck wash there — one of the last places Hulbert was seen alive. The truck then pulled into the truck stop on First Street and parked.
Postiglione knocked on the driver’s side door. The curtains to the cab’s sleeper area had already been pulled in the few moments before. Bruce Mendenhall opened the door.
Now 59, Mendenhall’s head is capped by disheveled brown hair. His face is adorned with nondescript eyeglasses and punctuated by a tight-lipped mouth, presumably with a lot to tell. When he opened the door for Postiglione in the early morning hours of July 12, 2007, Mendenhall wore a button-up shirt undone, his shoes off.
In the course of talking with Mendenhall, Postiglione noticed a blood spot on the inside of the driver’s door and more dried blood along Mendenhall’s fingernails. The detective asked for a look inside the truck, where he spotted a blood-filled plastic bag.
“Is this the truck we’ve been looking for?” Postiglione asked Mendenhall, who just shrugged his shoulders.
Again: “Is this the truck we’ve been looking for?”
“If you say it is,” Mendenhall finally answered.
“Are you the guy we’ve been looking for?” the detective asked.
Mendenhall shrugged once more. “If you say so.”
Mendenhall, an over-the-road truck driver and one-time mayoral candidate in his hometown of Albion, Ill., was caught.
Not only had the detectives found their killer — according to the Davidson County jury that convicted Mendenhall of first-degree murder in the Hulbert case on May 14 — but in all likelihood, they had found the man police in other jurisdictions had been hunting as well.
Now, as Mendenhall faces a preliminary hearing next week in Lebanon, Tenn., on another murder charge, police and prosecutors from Indianapolis to Atlanta are lining up to get a piece of the accused interstate serial killer.
Freeman and Postiglione ran details of Hulbert’s murder — .22-caliber rifle, nude female shot in the head, found at truck stop — through a database at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. Hits came back on several similar murders.
Last April, the FBI launched its Highway Serial Killing initiative, after agency analysts in the Oklahoma bureau noticed a pattern of murdered women being dumped along interstates.
According to the FBI’s website, the victims in such cases usually led risky lives, often mixing drugs, prostitution and truck stops, while the suspects time after time were long-haul truck drivers who picked up the women and sexually assaulted them before killing them and dumping their bodies.
The FBI initiative uses the bureau’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, a database of crime information, which includes information on homicides, abductions, missing persons, unidentified human remains and sexual assaults. ViCAP processes the details of criminal activity and identifies patterns that law enforcement agencies can use to narrow their scope on a suspect or find other potential crimes committed.
In Mendenhall’s case, the detectives entered information such as the caliber of weapon used, the truck stop location and the fact that the victim was a nude female. And prior to Mendenhall’s arrest, Freeman and Postiglione were aware that he was suspected in the other similar cases in which he would later be charged.
Immediately following Mendenhall’s arrest, Freeman and Postiglione talked to other authorities who believed Mendenhall was their guy, too. In the wake of the arrest, prosecutors in Lebanon; Birmingham, Ala.; and Indianapolis would formerly charge Mendenhall with similar murders. Police in Suwanee, Ga., and Lake Station, Ind., named him a suspect in two others.
In Georgia, police found the body of Deborah Ann Glover, 43, behind a motel near a truck stop on Jan. 29, 2007. A month later, Lake Station authorities found 43-year-old Sherry Drinkard shot in the head near a truck stop there.
In March 2007, Latisha Milliken, 28, who frequented the Travel Centers of America in Nashville, also went missing. Police have yet to find her body.
On June 6 of that year, Lebanon police found 48-year-old Symantha Winters dead and stuffed in a truck stop trashcan. Then, following the discovery of Hulbert’s body on June 26, Lucille “Greta” Carter turned up dead on July 1, 2007, in Birmingham.
And in Indianapolis, Carma Purpura went missing around July 11, the night before police in Nashville arrested Mendenhall.
Davidson County prosecutors took the lead against the man who became known as the “truck stop killer,” pushing the first two cases against him — Hulbert’s murder and a subsequent murder-for-hire plot to kill witnesses and the two Metro detectives in the Hulbert trial.
In January, prosecutors secured a conviction on three counts of murder-for-hire in the latter trial. Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier sentenced him to 30 years in that case.
Cold, coarse and calculated
Freeman and Postiglione sat across a folding table from their murder suspect, who stayed slumped in his chair, head down, mumbling responses to Postiglione’s questions. During the interview, Mendenhall mentioned seven other murders of which he would later be suspected, giving the locations of six of them.
But he only confessed that the murder weapon belonged to him, and that he displayed Hulbert’s body so police would figure out who was responsible.
“I laid her out, dropped her down on the ground, and left.”
He added, “All I know is I disposed of her. You guys can do your job.”
Mendenhall told the detectives that three men — David Powell, Ritchie Keim and Terry Sanders, all of whom he knew from back home — followed him along his trucking route and broke into his truck long enough to steal his .22-caliber rifle, murder women with it and return it. Police would later clear the men as suspects.
In the interview, Mendenhall mentioned that Hulbert “had a good tattoo,” which the detectives believed referred to what prosecutors later described as a “flesh trophy,” a pair of lips tattooed on Hulbert’s buttocks they say Mendenhall cut off. Although detectives found a knife they believe Mendenhall used to cut off the tattoo, DNA evidence on the knife was insufficient to make a connection to Hulbert.
Much of the recorded interview was kept from the jury during the murder trial because of the mentions of other murders. Those other cases and the corresponding evidence were a nuisance to Davidson County prosecutors, who had to avoid any mention of the other murders or the DNA samples — from six other women — found inside Mendenhall’s truck.
During the trial in Nashville, jurors heard testimony by forensic experts from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that investigators extracted a bullet from Hulbert’s skull that matched Mendenhall’s rifle, and DNA from blood found on the gun matched Hulbert’s.
They also learned Hulbert was addicted to crack and sometimes had sex to pay for drugs. Semen found about her body contained DNA profiles of several other men, but none could be linked to Mendenhall.
Prosecutors painted a picture of Mendenhall’s truck cab as a “killing chamber.” There, detectives found the rifle, knives, razor blades and a billy club, along with handcuffs, latex gloves, plastic wrap and sex toys — including a “Rookie of the Year” penis pump, complete with an image of a baseball player taking a swing on the packaging.
Danny Davis, Mendenhall’s former employer, told jurors about a casual Friday afternoon conversation just before the trucker was arrested for killing Hulbert. The two men, whose wives were also present, got onto the topic of “lot lizards,” a colloquial term for truck-stop prostitutes. Davis warned Mendenhall: “These lot lizards be crawling all over your truck.”
According to Davis, Linda Mendenhall, who is deceased, slapped her husband on the back and told him he’d better not mess around with such women. He told her he didn’t.
“I just shoot ’em,” he said, according to Davis. That was three days after Hulbert was shot in the back of the head.
Mendenhall didn’t take the stand in his own defense. In fact, the defense called only one witness, a TBI forensic scientist specializing in tire-track comparison who testified that none of the tire-track impressions at the scene where Hulbert’s body was found matched Mendenhall’s truck.
Needed Nashville conviction first
On May 14, as jurors sat in Dozier’s courtroom with their backs to windows opening out across the Cumberland River — toward the spot where Hulbert’s body once lay and the truck stop where police arrested Mendenhall — the jury’s foreman announced a guilty verdict that carried a mandatory life sentence. It took the jury about three hours to reach its decision.
Davidson County Deputy District Attorney General Tom Thurman told The City Paper the most important aspect was to secure the convictions in Nashville first. Because of that, other prosecutors may be able to use the Davidson County convictions as aggravating factors against Mendenhall, which could open the door for a death-penalty sentence in other cases.
Where it was difficult here for prosecutors to tiptoe through a minefield of evidence they could not use, what came out in this Mendenhall trial could be fair game in other jurisdictions, as long as the law allows it.
According to Freeman, investigators linked DNA samples inside Mendenhall’s truck to Hulbert, Purpura, Carter, Drinkard, Milliken and another unknown woman. Unknown male DNA was also found on one of the sex toys.
In Milliken’s case, police found only a small drop of blood in Mendenhall’s truck — not enough for the state to prosecute without a body, according to Freeman.
It’s not yet clear which city will begin proceedings first.
A prosecutor from Indianapolis told The City Paper two weeks ago that she wanted Mendenhall next and would talk with Lebanon authorities to arrange to be on deck.
Marion County, Ind., Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Denise Robinson said she was working with both the Davidson County and Wilson County district attorneys’ offices to extradite Mendenhall to Indiana, where he faces a murder charge in the Purpura case.
An affidavit for probable cause filed by prosecutors in Marion County says the investigation by Nashville detectives found Carma Purpura’s ATM card, a Shell Station receipt, her cell phone and a multi-colored floral-print shirt in the bloody bag recovered from Mendenhall’s truck. Security video from the Shell showed the woman, later identified as the 31-year-old Purpura, wearing the same shirt.
A swatch of a bloody sweater, also found in the bag, was taken to Indiana, where investigators there matched DNA found on it with that of Purpura’s parents. The affidavit also cites former Tennessee Chief Medical Examiner Bruce Levy’s opinion that, due to the large amount of Purpura’s blood in the bag and the location of that blood on various items of clothing, he was sure “to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, Carma Purpura is no longer alive.”
But Purpura’s body has not been found, and while that would appear to be difficult for a prosecution team to overcome, Robinson said she believes there was enough evidence found in Mendenhall’s truck to prove their case.
Robinson, who traveled to Nashville along with two Indianapolis detectives following Mendenhall’s arrest, came back to watch parts of the murder trial, specifically the testimonies on forensic evidence.
“I believe we have the next strongest case [based on evidence], but I have not confirmed that with Lebanon,” Robinson said.
East down Interstate 40, about 30 miles from Nashville, Mendenhall is set to appear in court on June 21 for a hearing ahead of his murder trial for the death of Winters.
Mendenhall is charged there with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse after the 48-year-old Winters’ body turned up stuffed into a trashcan at a Lebanon truck stop on June 6, 2007.
Wilson County District Attorney Tommy Thompson said the Winters case is closely tied to the Hulbert case in that much of the evidence came from the Metro Nashville Police Department’s investigation.
Brian Fuller, assistant district attorney in Wilson County, agreed that evidence from Nashville “will be an integral part of our case,” though he declined to discuss specifics.
It’s still unclear when or if Mendenhall would go on trial for the other cases in Georgia, Alabama or Lake Station, Ind. He still faces a sentencing hearing in the Hulbert case on June 18 to determine if that sentence will run consecutive to the sentence he received in the murder-for-hire case.
Still on the trail
In May, Postiglione told reporters his work with Mendenhall may not be finished.
“There’s other cases that we’re looking at that he may be connected to in Nashville, and I’m sure elsewhere — I speak with agencies on a semi-regular basis specifically about him — so there may be other cases down the pike,” he said.
Outside the courtroom immediately following the guilty verdict in Davidson County, Hulbert’s sister Roxanna Wayman looked out a window of the A.A. Birch Building and described the rain drops of a Friday afternoon as “tears of joy.”
“Nothing will ever bring Sara back to us,” Wayman told reporters, “and that’s something we’re going to have to deal with every day of our lives for the rest of our lives. But [the verdict] brings a sigh of relief, and it’s awesome.”
Wayman said while the graphic parts of the trial were hard on her family, the verdict served them justice and opened the door for others seeking the same.
“This keeps him off the streets, and he’ll never put another friend, another loved one through the things that not only he put our family through but his other victims’ families,” she said. “And I hope that they one day get the closure that we received today.”