Boss describes alleged serial killer as ‘meek,’ a ‘good runner’

| 7/13/2007

Bruce Mendenhall wore jeans and a slightly rumpled shirt to work most days. His medium-length hair was often messy, according to Danny Davis, Mendenhall’s supervisor at Quality Oak Products.

But Mendenhall was quiet, unassuming and reliable, having passed several drug tests this year. He had children and had even taken his handicapped wife in the cab with him a few times, Davis said.

Police, however, announced late Thursday, July 12, that Mendenhall had been arrested in connection with the deaths of several women at truck stops from Indiana to Tennessee to Georgia.

That’s a much different portrait than the Mendenhall that Davis knew.

“He was just the meekest, mildest person you’d ever want to run across – never lost his temper about anything,” Davis told Land Line Magazine on Friday. “He was just a good runner.”

When Davis talked to him Wednesday, July 11, Mendenhall requested more miles.

Nashville police arrested Mendenhall Thursday in connection to the slaying of a woman in late-June. A chance encounter by a detective who saw blood splattered on Mendenhall’s truck’s bright yellow cab door spurred the arrest.

Mendenhall, 56, of Albion, IL, was charged with criminal homicide Thursday after police said he “implicated himself” in the death of 25-year-old Sara Nicole Hulbert.

Hulbert’s body was found at 12:40 a.m. on June 26 along a fence at a Nashville TravelCenters of America parking lot. A news release also stated that Mendenhall admitted a role in the death of Symantha Winters, 48, of Nashville, two killings in Indiana and single homicides in each of Alabama and Georgia.

Winters – who The Tennessean newspaper reported had been arrested multiple times on drug and prostitution charges – was found shot and in a trash container at the Pilot Truck Stop in Lebanon, TN.

Authorities do not believe, however, that Mendenhall is linked to the same string of  killings tied to truck stops along Interstate 40. Those cases remained unsolved, however, authorities have questioned incarcerated former trucker John Williams.

Evan Marshall, producer of the television program “America’s Most Wanted,” said he has unfettered access to the John Williams investigation. He said detectives are taking their time working to piece together that case as Williams remains in a Mississippi prison.

“Sadly, this goes on all around the country,” Marshall told Land Line on Friday. “For the women who are thrust into this kind of world, it’s incredibly dangerous. You’ve got women who aren’t missed when they go missing, and the truckers are so transient – one stop and two days later they can be a thousand miles away. They’re hard cases to solve.”

Truckers and truck stops have had the misfortune of figuring into serial homicide investigations, said Marshall, who produced one segment of an “America’s Most Wanted” episode linking Williams with the death of Casey Jo Pipestem in Grapevine, TX.

“Murders usually happen for three reasons – money, drugs and sex – 99 percent of all murders have one of those three components,” Marshall said. “The vast majority of truckers don’t solicit these truck stop prostitutes and none of them wish anything ill. It’s just these few crazy people who tarnish reputations.”

Mendenhall usually drove his company truck home, and called back to Davis about work issues. He did stop in at the company’s Noble, IL, mechanic shop last weekend because his turn signals weren’t working.

Davis climbed in and noticed a funky smell and trash scattered in the cab, he said. He told Mendenhall to clean it up.

“I said, ‘it’s starting to get pretty ratty in here,’ ” Davis said.

Since Mendenhall’s arrest, Davis has been keeping Mendenhall’s wife and family apprised of the investigation, he said.

Mendenhall’s wife, who is handicapped, is “beside herself” about the arrest, Davis said.

“She doesn’t have a clue about any of this either,” Davis said. “She’s just flipped out.”

The arrest also has turned Davis’ five-truck company upside-down, he told Land Line. Mendenhall’s 2000 International has been seized for investigation, along with a trailer loaded with office furniture Mendenhall was to deliver at 4 a.m. Friday in Buford, GA.

Instead, Davis awoke Friday to do a 5:30 a.m. interview with CNN, and employees are calling to chat about their former co-worker and whether they saw signs of his dark side.

“A couple of them said he was a little weird, but I never thought he would try something like that,” Davis recounted.

A trucker himself, Davis’ Quality Oak Products manufacturing company has made china cabinets for 25 years. In 2001, he started the trucking side of his business to offset shipping costs and diversify.

Davis said he believed police had the wrong man until they shared more information about the blood in Mendenhall’s cab.

“I said, anybody could have cut their hand, blood splatter could have gotten on the door,” Davis said he told a Nashville detective. “He said it wasn’t just on the door panel. He said, ‘there’s a lot more inside (the cab).’ ”

Davis said Thursday’s news has made him physically sick, and he left the office Friday morning to avoid media inquiries and more chatter from his drivers.

“This guy is probably one of a million out there, and I happened to draw him for some reason,” Davis told Land Line the morning after Mendenhall’s arrest. “We never saw it coming. That’s all I can say. If we would have, I would have tried to do something about it. But I never saw anything coming like this.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer