Features
Over her shoulder
Lori Young hitchhiked in an alleged serial killer's cab for days and rented his house when she didn't have a home. After learning of Bruce Mendenhall's plot to kill her from jail, she's trucking and staying on the road to protect herself.

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

 

The more you talk to Lori Young, the more sides you see.

Meeting at a diner inside a Missouri truck stop, she warmly extends her hand.

“Nice to meet you,” she says with bright eyes that don’t immediately tell you she’s been on the road for 10 weeks straight.

Escorted by husband, Ken, Lori walks to a table and takes a seat.

Dressed a little business and a little casual, her buttoned-down attire is balanced by a youthful smile.

She loves her children and spending time with grandchildren, but she hasn’t been home for more than two months.

Within a few minutes, she orders coffee and tells her story.

Many people know Lori hitchhiked in the truck cab of one Bruce Mendenhall – a former trucker charged in Tennessee over the killings of four women near truck stops. The story was told in newspapers throughout the South and even in The Chicago Tribune.

Few, however, understand the pain of having to move or to change phone numbers. Not many suspect every unexpected knock on the door as being that of a potential hit man.

But today, at this truck stop, she’s upbeat.

“I’m alive to tell the story,” she says.

A ‘gentleman’
In mid-July 2007, news reports throughout the U.S. detailed gory particulars regarding the arrest of Mendenhall – a longtime truck driver tied to the deaths of at least four women at or near truck stops in the South. Investigators found a trash bag with blood, severed body parts and adult toys in his truck cab, and later matched his logbook entries with the times and locations of the victims’ deaths.

OOIDA Member Danny Davis, Mendenhall’s boss at the time of the arrest, told Land Line in an exclusive interview following Mendenhall’s 2007 apprehension, that the suspect was reliable, and helped provide for his partially disabled wife and daughters at home.

“He was just the meekest, mildest person you’d ever want to run across – never lost his temper about anything,” Davis said in 2007. “He was just a good runner.”

Back when Mendenhall was arrested, Lori gave several interviews with newspapers and television stations. She described living on the Mendenhall family farm in Illinois, and riding in his truck for several days back in 2002.

She had met Mendenhall just weeks earlier after her pickup had broken down and was being repaired near a truck stop. While at the diner, she talked with  Mendenhall and other drivers over coffee. She told them she needed to get to Phoenix.

Mendenhall said he was heading southwest and could take her to Arkansas.

Lori, who has been around trucking and horse show circuits for most of her life, didn’t think twice about hitching a ride with Mendenhall.

“I’m now married to a truck driver,” she said. “My uncle owned a trucking company, and my dad was a truck driver.”

Mendenhall rarely started conversations and didn’t have long answers, she said. He had several large bags of potato chips – which he seemed to eat more than any other food, Lori recalled.

Other than his strange diet, Lori said Mendenhall did little to raise red flags while they trucked southwest to Arkansas.

“I never felt threatened,” Lori said. “He seemed like a nice guy. He was quiet, a little abnormally so. But I figured he had his own thoughts.”

Mendenhall didn’t seem menacing. He never made advances toward Lori, and was “basically a gentleman,” she recalled.

During their drive to Arkansas, Lori told Mendenhall she was in-between moves and needed a place to live.

He told Lori about a farmhouse he had recently inherited from his mother-in-law. The house was on Mendenhall’s family property, and came at a bargain rent of $350 per month.

It didn’t take long for Lori to notice some oddities from Mendenhall’s family. In the three months she lived there, Lori said she noticed they argued loudly and often outside. Bruce also acted “inappropriately” around his daughters and his niece, she said.

“He made sexual innuendoes toward them,” she said. “I noticed a lot of inappropriate behaviors.”

Returning from out of town one day, Lori discovered Mendenhall’s now-deceased wife Linda and the children inside the rental house. Linda said they were doing their monthly check of the property, though Lori said the family was watching a video on her TV and eating her food.

The house-check incident scared Lori. Soon after, she told Bruce she was moving out – sparking the first visible signs of anger she remembered seeing.

 “That’s when the kittens started dying,” Lori said.

First, Lori found her oldest cat shut in a storage closet without food or water. Later, three of her kittens turned up dead, apparently from poisoning. She received threatening notes at her residence.

Lori moved out and left town, soon leaving Illinois altogether.

The Mendenhall family then moved into the rental house.

Laying low
In 2004, Lori married Ken Young, a veteran driver and OOIDA member.

She hadn’t thought about Mendenhall again until that day in early July 2007, when every TV station and news site, including CNN, had stories about the trucker accused of being a serial killer. Within hours, Lori had been interviewed by local TV news reporters about her close encounter with the alleged killer.

In the interviews, Lori expressed her newfound shock. She wondered what it was that kept her alive when so many others appeared to become victims.

“Was it the fact that he could make money off me by me renting that house?” she asked NewsChannel5 of Nashville, TN.

She didn’t have long to ponder the situation.

The same day her first interview aired on TV, she was arrested in her then-home state of Indiana on outstanding warrants for two bad checks and a traffic ticket stemming from her time in Illinois – something she suspects was fueled by a long-running argument she had with an Illinois prosecutor.

“I was shackled and chained from head to toe over two checks there that were, like, $750 total,” she said. “My husband saw Mendenhall on TV that day dressed up in a suit, when I was shackled and chained up. That was unreal.”

Lori didn’t have to serve jail time. Not long afterward, however, she was contacted by police. She learned that she, two other onetime Albion, IL, residents and two Tennessee police detectives were targets of Mendenhall.

Incredibly, the accused serial killer had contacted other inmates in an alleged effort to have all five potential witnesses killed.

Lori and Ken have remained mostly under the radar since learning of Mendenhall’s 2007 plot to kill her. Lori said she’s looking forward to seeing Mendenhall’s next trial, slated for May.

“We have an address but we don’t live there,” Ken said. “Not knowing whenever we open the door whether someone is going to be standing there waiting to blow her away, or blow me away …

“This way, it’s hard for anyone to keep track of me,” he said. “Heck, my dispatcher has a hard time keeping track of me anyway.”

As news spread in early January of the first felony conviction for Mendenhall over his contract killing plot hatched while he was in jail, few were happier to hear the news than Lori.

“My heart goes out to the families of the murder victims,” Lori said by phone following the conviction. “I’m looking forward to them having peace, and some kind of closure.”

For the first time in a long time, she sounded relaxed – maybe even a little peaceful.

“I was thinking, ‘justice,’ ” Lori told Land Line. “This is one down. There is a lot to go.” LL

 

charlie_morasch@landlinemag.com

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