Robert Rhoades: Council Bluffs’ homegrown serial killer
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Robert Rhoades: Council Bluffs’ homegrown serial killer

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In the predawn hours of April 1, 1990, Arizona Highway Patrolman Mike Miller spotted a semi-truck parked on the side of Interstate 10.

He stopped to see if the driver needed assistance, but the cab at first appeared to be empty. Miller stood on the sideboard and shined a flashlight into the cab, revealing a shocking scene: a woman bound, gagged, and chained to the ceiling of the truck’s sleeper cab; her naked body covered with cuts and bruises.

This chance encounter on an Arizona road ended the 15-year career of terror for trucker Robert Ben Rhoades — a prolific serial rapist, torturer, and murderer. The log books recovered from Rhoades’ truck would tie him to dozens of unsolved murders leading back to 1975 — back to when he first started trucking from his home town of Council Bluffs.

Early Life in Council Bluffs

Robert Ben Rhoades was born in Council Bluffs in 1945. He lived with his mother, Fay Rhoades, and several siblings in a two bedroom home at 2400 Avenue D.

Robert’s father, Ben Rhoades, returned to Council Bluffs after serving in World War II, and everything was seemingly normal. The Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil published accounts of their family vacations to Colorado, an anecdote about young Robert wanting to operate the lawn mower, and stories of Ben Rhoades’ daring work as a driver for the Council Bluffs Fire Department. Young Robert, the future serial killer, was on the cover of the Nonpareil in 1957, laughing as he attempted to get his pet dog to pull him on his sled.

Robert’s father was apparently well liked in the Fire Department — he gave to charity, played horseshoes, and at Christmastime he prepared baked beaver for the men at Station 2.

After being injured while fighting a fire, Ben was promoted to Captain; he often appeared in the newspaper, smiling from behind the wheel of a fire truck. Young Robert’s life was, by all appearances, similarly normal. A student at Thomas Jefferson High School, Robert’s yearbook shows he participated in choir, wrestling, football, Glee Club, and French Club.

However, signs that everything was not perfect in the Rhoades’ family became apparent in late 1960’s. Robert was arrested twice as a teenager; once for fighting and once for tampering with a vehicle, according to the book “Roadside Prey” by Alva Busch.

After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1964, Robert joined the Marines and went to San Diego for basic training. That same year his father was arrested and pleaded guilty to committing lascivious acts on a 12-year-old girl, the Daily Nonpareil reported on May 5, 1964.

Ben Rhoades was fired from the Council Bluffs Fire Department, received a suspended sentence, and was placed on parole. When a second girl came forward, a Municipal Court Judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Two days later, Ben Rhoades was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Fairmount Park, the Daily Nonpareil reported on Feb. 25, 1966.

Robert’s career in the Marines ended when he was dishonorably discharged for taking part in a robbery, the book “Roadside Prey” stated. He moved back in with his mother. Robert worked several odd jobs in Council Bluffs, moved out, got married and divorced twice, according to Council Bluffs city directories — which can be found in the Council Bluffs Library’s special collections — fathered a child, and moved back in with his mother. In 1973, the Council Bluffs City Directory listed his occupation as “Truck Driver.”

Rhoades’ mother, Fay, moved from Council Bluffs to Houston sometime around 1978, after she retired as an office manager for a local jewelry store. Rhoades followed, moving into a house north of Houston. The FBI believes his serial murders began in or around 1975.

The Truck Stop Killer

Truckers knew Rhoades by his CB handle, “Whips and Chains.” This self-appointed moniker was a reference to his favorite activity — sexual bondage and sadomasochism, stated “Roadside Prey.” The information was confirmed to be his handle by the FBI. Rhoades also went by the name “Dusty.”

Rhoades was a smooth-talker and an out-going guy who wasn’t at all shy about his hobby. A photo from the early 1980’s — given to law enforcement by a family member — shows him beaming, dressed head-to-toe in leather and chains. Rhoades married a third wife in Houston. She later explained to detectives how Robert often organized orgies, and how he relentlessly pressured her to perform in increasingly masochistic sexual fantasies. She reportedly told the FBI that strange men began appearing at her house, explaining that Robert had hired them to be her sex slaves.

A young woman had escaped Rhoades in 1989 and went to the police, describing how she had been held captive and repeatedly tortured and raped. When Rhoades arrived at the police station to answer for the accusations, he was calm and quietly dismissive — the woman was a prostitute, he claimed, and clearly crazy. The woman recanted her confession, fearing for her safety, and thinking the police would not trust the word of a sex worker.

Robert Rhoades’ first confirmed victims came the next year. Newlywed hitchhikers, Patricia Candace Walsh Zyskowski and Douglas Zyskowski were going to Georgia to attend a religious workshop. Robert shot Zyskowski immediately and dumped his body in Texas. He kept Walsh for over a week, repeatedly torturing and raping her. Hunters found her desiccated body in Utah several months later, but the remains would not be identified until 2003.

Traffic Stop

On April 1, 1990, on the side of Interstate 10, the terrified woman with a horse bridle in her mouth was shrieking for Patrolman Miller’s help, when Rhoades quickly emerged from the sleeper cab to the driver’s seat, closing the curtains behind him. He calmly explained that things were not as they appeared, assuring the officer everything was normal. Miller put Rhoades in handcuffs and called for backup which arrived just as Rhoades somehow wiggled free of his restraints, mere feet from a gun stored in his truck.

At the station, the 27-year-old woman explained how she was hitchhiking to visit friends when she accepted a ride from a seemingly polite stranger. Grateful for some rest, she fell asleep in the passenger seat and woke up being shoved in the sleeper cab.

Everywhere Rhoades went, he brought a meticulously organized briefcase containing leashes, whips, handcuffs, alligator clips, pins, fish hooks, and sex toys, Det. Rick Barnhardt told the Tuscon Weekly in February 1996. The woman Miller found chained on Interstate 10 detailed to detectives how her kidnapper had laid down a white towel before torturing and raping her, and how he bragged that he had been doing it for years — and how he had always gotten away with it.

At the police station, Rhoades was calm and quietly dismissive, claiming the woman chained in his truck was a “lot lizard” — a consenting prostitute who was “not playing with a full deck.” Rhoades acted chummy with the officers as he tried to persuade them that the nasty business of the shackled women in his truck was not a big deal — that it was all her idea. This tactic of sewing doubt had worked for him before, but this time the victim was not afraid, and would not back down. Rhoades was booked for aggravated assault, sexual assault, and unlawful imprisonment.

When the detectives viewed the evidence obtained from Rhoades truck, they knew they were dealing with a prolific serial rapist. It was common for serial offenders to have a “rape kit,” and Rhoades’ briefcase was the most elaborate kit they had ever seen, FBI Special Agent Bob Lee told the Tuscon Weekly in Feburary 1996. Agents searched Rhoades’ Houston home and recovered photographs, women’s clothes, and white towels stained with blood. The abused women in the photographs had two things in common: they all had extremely short hair and they were all bound or handcuffed.

Despite the evidence obtained in the investigation, Rhoades was not immediately tied to other crimes; while the women in the photos certainly looked distressed, it was unclear who they were, or if they were consensual sexual partners.

14-Year-Old Victim

Rhoades was serving time in a Texas prison and was about to be let out on work-release when the FBI called. A farmer had discovered a decayed body bound to a beam in a barn in rural Illinois. Identified by dental records, the body belonged to a 14-year-old named Regina Kay Walters who had been kidnapped from the Houston area.

This was considered to be an unrelated case, everyone suspected the girl’s boyfriend who had disappeared at the same time as the girl, but Houston detectives knew better. The victim’s hair had been cut short, and she had been bound and pierced and tortured before being strangled to death with bailing wire, twisted many times beyond the point needed for death.

Among the evidence seized from Rhoades’ home was a series of photos of a terrified girl, her hair cut short, standing in front of an old barn. Eerily, the FBI’s crime scene photos matched exactly — the same barn, photographed from the same angle, with the body in the same position. The only difference was in that Rhoades’ photos she was alive, and in the FBI’s photos she was not.

The photos were shown to the girl’s father who confirmed her identity. The father told detectives that, shortly after Regina’s disappearance, he had received anonymous phone calls from a man bragging that he had cut his daughters hair off.

Among the evidence recovered from Rhoades’ home was the diary of Regina Walters and the father’s phone number. The dairy told a story of a girl who wanted to run away to Mexico with her boyfriend. Court documents indicated they planned to hitchhike to start a new life across the border. Both were killed by Rhoades.

Investigations revealed Rhoades’ crimes followed a similar pattern. If someone was looking for a ride, he would offer them one. The men were immediately killed and the women were held captive for days or weeks in his mobile torture chamber.

A law enforcement official interviewed by the Tuscan Weekly estimated that Rhoades had kidnapped, tortured, and killed as many as three women a month. His truck logs placed him in the area of 50 unsolved murders, but Rhoades’ transient nature, and the transient nature of his victims, made it hard to come up with an exact number. Investigators believed he had likely tortured, raped, and killed at least 50 women, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sept. 12, 1992.

It is uncertain whether Rhoades victimized anyone in Council Bluffs — the place he called home for the first 33 years of his life.

There certainly was no shortage of unsolved missing persons and rape cases in Council Bluffs during the time Rhoades lived here. In a Nonpareil article from 1978, Det. Dan Larsen noted that most rapes went unreported, and only 5% of reported rapes were prosecuted. Describing a particularly violent rape scene, Larsen said, “It’s the kind of rape where we could have a homicidal maniac running lose.”

Another Nonpareil news article from that era profiles officers tasked with listening to the CB radio chatter of Council Bluffs truckers. One officer said, “Most people don’t even realize what’s going on, it’s a completely different world out there.”

Rhoades, now 74, is currently serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole at a prison in Illinois. He was convicted of the first degree murder of Regina Kay Walters in 1994 and sentenced to life without parole at a prison in Illinois. He was extradited to Utah in 2005 to be tried for the deaths of Walsh and Kyskowski, then to Texas for the death of Ricky Lee Jones. In exchange for dropping the death penalty, Rhoades pleaded guilty to murdering Jones and received a second life sentence.

It is unclear what will happen to Rhoades’ body when he dies — if it will stay in Illinois or be brought home to lie beside the bodies of his parents at Fairview Cemetery in his home town of Council Bluffs.

— Ben Johnson is the Adult Services Manager for the Council Bluffs Public Library.

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