As a journalist you often hear of a story idea that captures your attention. You know, the kind of story that you can't get out of your mind. Like an itch, you have to scratch it. This was the case on my latest video assignment for TIME.com. The subject matter dealt with serial murder and long-haul truckers preying on women alongside America's roadways: since 2004 the FBI has reported that over 500 victims have been attacked or gone missing. These numbers are considered to be only the tip of the iceberg.
© Mark Allen Johnson
I'm on a video assignment for TIME.COM dealing with serial murder and long-haul truckers preying on women alongside America’s roadways. Since 2004 the FBI has reported that over 500 victims have been attacked or gone missing.
Since most, if not all, of the crimes reported involve women and sex it made sense to interview truck-stop prostitutes. I felt the most appropriate thing to do was show up in the middle of the night at the largest truck stop I could find – in my vicinity, that's in Ontario, Calif. This truck stop is huge, one of the largest in the country, where some 600 trucks rest for the night on this barren slab of pavement. I wandered up and down the aisles of trucks looking for women soliciting their services. With the rumble of diesel engines and exhaust fumes in the air I would catch the glimpse of silhouettes in short skirts scurrying off into the night. Always one step ahead of me, the girls were able to elude meeting me face-to-face. The first night I left empty-handed.
The second night I returned with my thoughts in order. I hid in the shadows of the trucks out of plain sight. I realized the truckers were all in communication with each other, chattering on CB radios. As they sat perched in their trucks, high above the pavement, they watched and reported every move on the parking lot. The night before I stuck out like a sore thumb as the truckers called my moves, play-by-play, like Monday Night Football. They were helping the girls avoid me. Soon a girl emerged from the darkness; I stepped in front of her and promptly introduced myself and requested her cooperation. Almost immediately I was labeled as the police and was told how insulted she was that I thought she was a prostitute. I pointed out the obvious – she was walking around a truck stop at midnight on a Tuesday evening wearing nothing except a pair of panties and tank top! She told me it wasn't safe in the open and that we would need to get inside the cab of a truck to speak further. Moments later we climbed into the cab of a 'big rig,' drew the curtains and began to talk.
© Mark Allen Johnson
Prostitute working the truck stop in Ontario, Calif. This truck stop is huge, one of the largest in the country, where some 600 trucks rest for the night on this barren slab of pavement.
She opened up to me with stories of her being beaten, raped, tied up and almost kidnapped. To my surprise the trucker, in the cab, corroborated her stories with experiences of his own. How over the years he has seen some of the most disturbing and violent crimes against women occur, in plain sight, in truck stops across the country. As I climbed out of the cab the trucker gave me a heads-up that the over-the-radio trucker talk regarding my presence was not good. It seems the other truckers were not keen on or comfortable with my story and I was not welcome. "Watch your back," he said.
Moments later, crossing the parking lot, a truck pulled quickly in front of me, blocking my path. As the driver jumped down from the cab, three other men suddenly appeared from the darkness. They threatened to beat me, shoot me and dispose of my body if I did not leave the truck stop – immediately! "We are the backbone of America!" one trucker shouted. "Everything you consume comes on a truck one way or another! This is our world and you're not welcome." Standing my ground, I refused to leave and said, "You must have something to hide if you're not comfortable with my asking questions." Just as things seemed certain to get worse two other truckers leaned out their windows and shouted down, "Looks like the reporter is out-numbered. Maybe we should come down and even out the playing field!"
And, just like that, I was on my way chasing the story and the girls back into the darkness.
See the video story: