According to the FBI Highway Serial Killings Initiative
homicidal truckers have left more than five hundred victims scattered along America’s interstates.
Though the ubiquity of these motoring maniacs goes unmentioned in AAA travel brochures the peril is undeniable:
at highway rest stops predators outnumber clean toilets,
and a cross-country traveler is far more likely to encounter a budding Ted Bundy
than a roadside restaurant serving vegan meals.
If Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road today it would be a blood-soaked penny dreadful.
The words on the Nevada Highway Patrol dash cam recording are faint yet still intelligible: “I’ll never drive at night again.”
The date is April 13th, 2011 and Patrick Carnes, age eighty-six,
has been pulled over on Interstate 80 near Wells, Nevada
for failing to change lanes while passing a parked police cruiser.
Heading home after a family visit to Ohio,
the Reno resident is on the last leg of a 2000 mile journey;
though he has but 350 miles left to travel the spry retiree’s trip will soon veer into uncharted territory.
One of our nation’s most important thoroughfares,
I-80 slices through Nevada like a ribbon of caramel through a scoop
of butter pecan;
by daylight this vital asphalt artery bustles with activity,
but by night the road’s tumbleweed-strewn backdrop and sparse traffic
have earned the poetic sobriquet “The Big Lonely.” Loneliness, however,
is not an affliction riding shotgun on Pat Carnes’ journey;
in the background of the dash cam footage a large tail can be seen
waiving gaily—Lucky, a 100-lb Akita mix, often described as resembling
“a coffee table with legs,”
is along for the ride.
It is approximately 9pm when the NHP trooper issues a warning for the lane change violation
and sends Pat Carnes and his portly hound on their way;
just another traffic stop in the endless procession of vehicular misdeeds and mishaps
which comprise the workload of our highway peacekeepers.
With time, however, this interaction will prove far from routine—this encounter marks the last earthly sighting,
dead or alive,
of Patrick Carnes and his canine companion.
Approximately nine hours later and 150 miles away
Patrick Carnes’ green station wagon was spotted at a rural,
little-used off-ramp outside Winnemucca—Pumpernickel Valley Exit 205.
No signs of foul play were evident and no occupants visible;
the 2005 Subaru Forester
appeared to have been abandoned. When the car remained in the same position for 48 hours police opened an investigation,
and soon learned the vehicle’s owner had failed to return
from his cross-country jaunt;
Pat Carnes and his furry passenger had seemingly vanished into the arid wasteland like a fleeting desert mirage.
Evidence was scant;
the car was found to be in perfect working order
and devoid of useable fingerprints. Patrick Carnes’ possessions were intact,
as was a map on which he’d plotted his route and indicated chosen rest stops
for Lucky’s toilette—the Pumpernickel Valley off-ramp was unmarked.
Perplexingly, though the seasoned traveler had been heading west to his home in Reno his car was found on the opposite side of the highway, heading east.
Although these peculiar inconsistencies fail to constitute irrefutable evidence of foul play
there was an additional consideration which gave detectives pause;
despite being rarely used, Exit 205 was no stranger to mystery.
Patrick Carnes’ Subaru was not the first missing persons’ vehicle found jettisoned at the out-of-the-way off-ramp.
Five years earlier, February 14th, 2006; it was Valentine’s Day, but love was dead.
Cold Springs Nevada resident Judith Casida left her husband a billet-doux bereft of sweet nothings;
weary of marriage, she was leaving him forever, she wrote.
The sixty-two year old matrimonial refugee then hit the road;
although her planned destination is unknown she may have intended to travel to Oregon to visit family.
The last known sighting of the hotfooting hausfrau
occurred later that day at a McDonald’s franchise in Lovelock,
approximately a hundred miles from her home; three weeks later her white 1991 Mazda truck
was discovered at Exit 205. Like Patrick Carnes’ station wagon, Judith’s pickup was in perfect working order and the scene lacked overt signs of homicidal violence.
At the time Judith’s disappearance received little media attention—depressed
over finances and chafed by the bonds of matrimony, it was believed
she had either walked away to begin life afresh
or wandered weeping into the desert
to end her pain forever.
The discovery of Patrick Carnes’ car at the very same off-ramp
shed perhaps a more sinister light on Judith’s disappearance;
it seemed a curious coincidence
for the vehicles of two missing people to be abandoned
at the exact same location,
especially a desolate rest stop which features no services, no lights, and limited access to the surrounding landscape.
So what calamity befell these vanished travelers at the inhospitable Pumpernickel Valley off-ramp? Massacre? Or misadventure?
Patrick Carnes may have dropped a tantalizing clue to his ultimate fate
during his final traffic stop—his prescient promise to never again drive at night
is not the sole statement the octogenarian utters in the Nevada Highway Patrol dash cam footage.
“I’m only following him because he’s going to Elko,” Patrick tells the trooper.
To whom was he referring?
Had Patrick Carnes been traveling in tandem with someone, perhaps a trucker?
The idea was not farfetched; he had once worked as a truck driver in southern California,
and reportedly had great admiration for those in the freighting industry.
Patrick Carnes’ family believes he would have implicitly trusted anyone behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer.
Furthermore, a big rig can be seen traveling immediately in front of Patrick’s Subaru
in the NHP dash cam footage—as an investigator told KLAS-TV Las Vegas,
“(There was) nobody else on the road. He is right behind that rig.”
Tragically, in the video the truck’s logo is too blurry to be identified; despite repeated pleas the driver of the semi has not contacted law enforcement.
At least one person is certain the driver of the phantom big rig
knows exactly what happened to Patrick Carnes and his wooly wingman—Humboldt County Undersheriff
Curtis Kull has been tasked with investigating the vanished
golden-ager’s disappearance and is convinced
Patrick Carnes fell into the clutches of a roadway executioner.
The trucker-friendly senior citizen had likely become acquainted with the killer at a rest stop
further east, the Undersheriff theorizes,
and then was lured to his doom with an invitation to rest
in the semi’s sleeping berth: “Hey old man, come on and get up in the cab because you’re tired.”
Patrick Carnes’ disappearance isn’t the only highway mystery on Undersheriff Kull’s radar;
death, the investigator believes, prowls the Big Lonely
on eighteen wheels—a handful of other suspicious cases,
including that of missing homemaker Judith Casida, show a sinister pattern
most likely attributable to a serial killer. A big rig-driving madman
has turned Interstate 80 into his personal killing field—loneliness is no longer the biggest threat to unwary travelers once the star-strewn cloak of darkness falls.
Although Undersheriff Kull believes he knows what happened to the missing travelers
the location of their remains is as mystifying as the identity of their killer;
investigators have repeatedly searched the area around Exit 205,
even using cameras to examine area mine shafts—no trace of Patrick, Judith or Lucky
has ever been found.
If a roving killer stalks the lonely I-80 corridor take heed, for he travels ever onward.
Patrick Carnes’ disappearance resonates with me
because I too share my life with a canine butterball—my own personal “coffee table with legs”
who has been a steadfast copilot on many a memorable interstate excursion.
My dog is in her twilight years now, and I know the road we travel together,
in this world at least, is growing short.
As I mull our final separation I can’t help but think of Patrick Carnes and Lucky,
their final moments and the inevitable pain of love and loss—regardless of what transpired,
I hope they were together,
as inseparable in death as they were in life.