GHOSTS OF HIGHWAY 20
Over two decades, four women disappeared and one was raped off the same stretch of road in rural Oregon. Their stories have another connection: One man is linked to all five crimes.
Story by Noelle Crombie Photography by Beth Nakamura Video by Dave Killen THE OREGONIAN | OREGONLIVE
PART 1 OF 5
Trigger warning: This story includes details of a rape. If you have experienced sexual violence and need support, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. Resources and contacts also are listed at the end of the story.
Then Rachanda Pickle went missing from the desolate highway compound where she lived, never to be seen again. She was 13.
It wasn’t long before teenagers Melissa Sanders and Sheila Swanson disappeared from a camping trip to the coast. Their bodies were found off a logging spur.
It now appears their killer was the same man. The breadth of his crimes has never been revealed until now.
In its final 170 miles, U.S. 20 passes through the Cascade foothills, the Willamette Valley and Oregon's Coast Range before ending at the Oregon coast.
John Arthur Ackroyd was a longtime state highway mechanic whose route along U.S. 20 wound through some of Oregon’s most spectacular scenery from the Cascade foothills to the coast.
From the outside, Ackroyd seemed to lead an ordinary life: Raised in small-town Oregon, he hunted and fished, held a steady job and married a woman with a couple of young kids.
But detectives long suspected Ackroyd preyed on women who disappeared along or around Highway 20 from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. They could prove only a single case -- Turner’s 1978 murder. The rest haunted investigators who had pursued him through the years.
This is an undated photograph of John Ackroyd. “He was a big burly man,” Marlene Gabrielsen said. “He reminded me of a logger or somebody that worked in the woods.”
They were still after him when Ackroyd died alone in his prison cell two years ago.
By then, The Oregonian/OregonLive also was investigating Ackroyd.
We interviewed key witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of police and court records, some of them previously secret, to hold Ackroyd accountable and give some measure of justice to the women he attacked.
We went back to 1977.
That’s when Ackroyd picked up a woman from the side of the road, dragged her into the woods and raped her. The young mother managed to survive.
She was his first known victim.
If police had believed her, she might have been his last.
Sisters, oregon • 1977.
She hadn’t been out since her daughter was born three months earlier. It was late spring. She and her husband planned to spend a night at the Sisters Rodeo. Marlene found a friend to care for her baby, pumped breast milk and wrote out a napping schedule.
That day, she tied her hair back and pulled on her green Levi’s. She wore the buckskin boots her husband bought her even though the couple couldn’t afford them.
“Mommy loves you too much,” she whispered to her daughter, asleep in a bassinet. “Be a good girl.”
In the summer of 1977, John Ackroyd picked up Marlene Gabrielsen, shown here with her baby girl, at a campground outside Sisters.
In the summer of 1977, John Ackroyd picked up Marlene Gabrielsen, shown here with a baby girl, at a campground outside Sisters.
The couple drove about 90 miles from their home in Lebanon and set up camp near the rodeo grounds. They sat around the fire drinking beer. Later that night, Marlene and her husband argued when he said he wanted to head off with a couple of friends.
Marlene, then 20, got up to leave. She wanted to go home to her baby.
It was dark, around midnight. She was looking for a ride and wandered out of the campground onto Highway 20, the route that leads through the heart of Sisters, back then little more than a dusty outpost amid pine forests in central Oregon.
She returned to the campground, where a stranger said his buddy, John Ackroyd, could give her a lift. Marlene had hitchhiked plenty and didn’t think twice as she squeezed into the front seat between the men.
As the truck motored west, the man in the passenger seat wanted out. Marlene, dizzy from alcohol, watched as he reached through the open window to unlatch the door from the outside. He rolled up the window and slammed the door.
Marlene glimpsed a .22-caliber rifle on a rack in the cab and a hunting knife stuck in the lid of an old coffee can near the driver’s seat.
She was alone with Ackroyd, a big man who reeked of sweat and freshly cut wood. A thought skittered across her mind as she drifted to sleep: The inside door handle was gone.
She was trapped.
Marlene was still asleep when, about an hour into the drive, Ackroyd turned off Highway 20 and onto an old wagon road.
She woke to find his fingers squeezed tight around her legs as he dragged her out of the truck. Her head slammed into the door frame. She gasped.
She felt the cool blade of Ackroyd’s hunting knife against her neck.
“You’re going to do what I tell you,” Ackroyd said, speaking for the first time, his low, raspy voice laced with a bit of a drawl.
He ripped off her jeans with such force, the pants split from the waist to the ankle along the inseam. He sliced off her boots and her underwear and threw her to the ground.
Marlene was Ackroyd's first known victim. “I knew he was going to kill me just by the way he was treating my body so I just didn’t say anything,” she said.
After the rape, Ackroyd slapped the knife against his grimy jeans held up by orange suspenders. Marlene slowly stood, wearing only her T-shirt and jacket.
He glanced around the dark woods.
“I’m not sure what to do with you.”
“You could take me home,” she said.
“I don’t know if I want to do that.”
“I have a baby that’s not even a year old,” she pleaded. “Please take me home.”
Ackroyd considered her for a long moment, then reached into the back of the truck and held out a dingy pair of plaid pants. Marlene put them on, holding tight to the waist to keep them from slipping off.
They climbed back into the truck and continued west on Highway 20.
He made a brief stop at the house he shared with his mother in Sweet Home, his hometown. He went inside to get a soda and use the bathroom.
Marlene waited in the truck, afraid to move. She’d need evidence so police could find him later. She couldn’t see the house number from the truck.
When he returned, she asked for his phone number to help identify him but also to make him think she liked him. She wrote it down on a pack of cigarettes.
“Maybe we can see each other again,” Ackroyd said.
He drove another 12 miles down the road and stopped in front of her mother-in-law’s house in Lebanon, where she’d asked him to drop her off.
Marlene flew out of the pickup, a blur moving toward the house. He drove off as she banged frantically on the door. She clung to her boots, which she’d grabbed from the clearing. Her hair was matted with sticks and dirt.
“Oh my God,” her mother-in-law said, opening the door. “What happened?”
“Call the police,” Marlene said.
"I hear I’m the only frickin’ survivor!"
Investigators dismissed marlene gabrielsen. she was the forgotten survivor. this documentary gives marlene a chance to tell her story..
He said he gave her a pair of pants because she had torn hers while taking them off.
His mother told a detective that she’d peeked out the window that night and seen Marlene in the front seat of her son’s truck. She said her son was shy around women.
The other man in the truck told police that Ackroyd wasn’t the violent type and the woman was drunk.
Investigators talked to Marlene’s mother-in-law, too. She recalled how Marlene had arrived at her house, sobbing, saying something terrible had happened.
She handed police a brown paper bag with clothes Marlene wore on the night of the attack. At the hospital, an officer noted scratches on Marlene’s back. A doctor identified bruising on her back, legs and knee.
Still, police seemed skeptical.
Marlene and Ackroyd agreed to be polygraphed.
A couple of weeks later, Marlene sat in the back of an unmarked police car as two officers drove her to the lie detector test. They led her into a small room with a desk. An examiner asked a series of questions: Did she tell the truth about being raped? Did she feel she’d been raped? Was there a question she was afraid to answer?
This is the area where Marlene Gabrielsen was raped off Highway 20. "He picked me up by the back of my neck and my hair and threw me up against this, like, a little hill," she recalled. "I remember it was beautiful because it was all green and little flowers blooming, little tiny ones. First thing I thought of was: How can you be hurt in this kind of beauty?"
A sergeant’s conclusion went into a typed report, which was placed in a file: Marlene was lying. He offered no explanation.
Cops asked Ackroyd four questions.
“Did the girl ask you to pull over and have some fun?”
Yes, he said.
The others: Did you force her to have sex at knifepoint? Did you have a knife in your hand when you had sex? Did you tear off her bra?
No, said Ackroyd.
No deception detected, the polygraph examiner determined.
What followed likely altered the path of Ackroyd’s life, along with those of at least five young women and everyone who loved them.
The district attorney delivered his decision on whether to prosecute. It was a single handwritten sentence.
Ackroyd would face no charges.
Marlene Gabrielsen, 62, lives in Hillsboro with her husband of 42 years. Her rage over how police treated her account of rape all those years ago remains fresh. “They didn’t believe me. They went with his story.”
More than two years later, another set of investigators went looking for the police report detailing Marlene’s account.
A state police sergeant and a lieutenant from a local sheriff’s office tracked down Marlene at home. She recounted the attack in detail, how the man cut off her underwear and boots. She’d hung onto the damaged boots and showed them to the men.
The investigators left.
They noted in their report how the original officers had failed to pursue the rape case even though physical evidence corroborated Marlene’s account.
But the rape allegation wasn’t their priority that day. They were investigating the killing of a young woman on an isolated stretch of road outside Sisters.
The area was about a half-hour drive from where Marlene was raped.
The suspect: John Ackroyd.
NEXT: Runner on a winter road
The Oregonian/OregonLive’s five-part series on John Ackroyd details crimes that include sexual abuse, rape and murder. If you have experienced sexual violence and need support, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. The Oregon Department of Justice has additional information and resources for survivors of sexual violence.
COMMENT ON THIS STORY
‘Lost Women of Highway 20′ docuseries, based on The Oregonian’s stories, premieres in November
- Updated: Oct. 06, 2023, 11:04 a.m. |
- Published: Oct. 06, 2023, 10:42 a.m.
The Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Noelle Crombie is shown during the production of the documentary series, "Lost Women of Highway 20," which is based on "Ghosts of Highway 20," The Oregonian/OregonLive 2018 multimedia project. The Oregonian
- Kristi Turnquist | The Oregonian/OregonLive
The Oregonian/OregonLive multimedia project, “Ghosts of Highway 20,” has inspired an upcoming three-part documentary series , “Lost Women of Highway 20,” which will premiere on the Investigation Discovery network on Sunday, Nov. 5, at 9 p.m. The series will also stream on Max.
Oscar-winning actor Octavia Spencer will narrate “Lost Women of Highway 20,” which is part of Spencer’s development partnership with Investigation Discovery, a cable network dedicated to true-crime stories.
The award-winning “Ghosts of Highway 20″ investigation was produced for The Oregonian/OregonLive in December of 2018 by a team that included included reporter Noelle Crombie, photographer and video editor Dave Killen, and photographer Beth Nakamura.
The Oregonian/OregonLive five-part narrative series and documentary videos explored a series of crimes committed against women by a suspected serial killer. The crimes included rape and murder, and they occurred in the vicinity of Highway 20, an east-west route in Oregon.
Instead of focusing on the alleged criminal, a man named John Arthur Ackroyd, “Ghosts of Highway 20″ emphasized the stories of the women involved, and of how the justice system had failed to serve them.
“Ghosts of Highway 20″ won the National Journalism Impact Award from the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation , and also won five regional Emmy Awards.
The three-part “Lost Women of Highway 20″ will air episodes back-to-back starting at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 5, on Investigation Discovery . The documentary will also stream on Max.
— Kristi Turnquist
503-221-8227; [email protected] ; @Kristiturnquist
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