There is probably no more misunderstood law enforcement duty than traffic enforcement. Cops who perform this duty often think of it as tedious and futile. And the motorists who are pulled over for traffic violations feel like they are being picked on and tapped for fines that fill local government coffers.
Yet, even though the men and women who perform traffic code enforcement get little respect either in or out of the police community, their work is critical to public safety. Speeders, reckless drivers, and most of all drunk drivers kill more Americans each year than murderers. So no matter how tedious it can become, traffic enforcement should never be taken lightly by officers. It saves lives.
And sometimes it even catches killers.
Cops in the know have sometimes referred to their vehicle code manuals as "probable cause bibles." And with good reason. After all, a traffic stop can open the doors to a legal search of a vehicle for illegal substances, stolen goods, and even dead bodies.
What follows are some examples of how alert traffic officers have helped end the careers of some of America's most prolific murderers.
Case #1: Randy Kraft
Violation: Possible Drunk Driving
On May 14, 1983, officers of the California Highway Patrol noticed that a Jeep driven by Randy Kraft was weaving in its lane on Interstate 5. They pulled Kraft over near the south Orange County suburb of Mission Viejo. Kraft got out of his car and walked to the officers.
There on the side of the freeway, the CHP officers had Kraft submit to a field sobriety test. The computer programmer and former Marine failed the test.
Kraft was taken into custody and secured in the back of a CHP patrol car. The "chippies" then conducted a search of his Jeep.
And they found a lot more than a few empty beer bottles or an open fifth of Jack. On the front passenger seat of Kraft's Jeep was the shrouded body of a young Marine, Terry Gambrel.
Subsequent investigation revealed that Gambrel had been heavily sedated and then strangled with a ligature. It was later learned that Kraft was the "Southern California Strangler," a prolific murderer who picked up young men-primarily Marines-drugged them, tortured them, strangled them, and pushed their bodies out of his car as he sped south on the freeway.
Kraft was convicted of 16 murders. But authorities believe he may have been responsible for more than 67. He awaits execution on California's Death Row.
Case #2: William Lester Suff
Violations: Illegal U-Turn/ Expired Registration
On Jan. 9, 1992, an officer of the Riverside (Calif.) Police Department spotted a 1989 Mitsubishi van making an illegal U-turn. As the officer closed on the vehicle, he also noticed that its registration was expired. He effected a traffic stop and soon discovered that the van's driver, William Lester Suff, was operating his vehicle on a suspended license and that he was the owner of many unpaid traffic tickets.
Suff was detained on the traffic violations. Which was really bad luck for him because a check of his van's plates spurred interest from investigators who were working the murders of numerous prostitutes in the Riverside area. Suff's van was the same one that had been seen at the dump sites where the murder victims' bodies were found.
Further investigation resulted in an indictment of Suff on 12 counts of murder spanning seven years. Suff was convicted of rape, murder, and mutilation in 1995. He is on California's Death Row.
Case #3: Theodore "Ted" Bundy
Violation: Too Many to List
Ted Bundy is one of the most infamous serial killers in American criminal history. From 1966 to the late '70s, he murdered more than two dozen young women and teenage girls in Washington, Utah, Colorado, and Florida. Bundy was also one of the world's worst drivers, and a number of alert cops pulled him over for numerous traffic violations throughout his life.
On August 16, 1975, Bundy was driving a light-colored Volkswagen near Salt Lake City with his lights off. This caught the attention of Utah Highway Patrol Officer Bob Haywood, who lit up Bundy's car. A chase ensued. Bundy was arrested for evasion of police and released on his own recognizance. A subsequent investigation resulted in Bundy being convicted of aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to one to 15 years and extradited to Colorado to stand trial for murder.
Bundy escaped custody on June 7, 1977, but once again his driving skills piqued the interest of a traffic officer. He was arrested on June 13 in Aspen for driving erratically in a stolen car.
But holding on to Ted Bundy was not easy. He escaped again on Dec. 30, 1977. And this time, he didn't hang around Colorado. Instead, he got out of the state, bounced around a few different locations, and came to rest in Tallahassee, Fla.
In Florida, Bundy resumed his hobby of terrorizing and murdering young women, particularly students at Florida State University. And once again, Bundy's driving garnered the attention of an alert officer. But while the officer ran Bundy's plates, the killer escaped, returned to his apartment, wiped it clean, and stole yet another Volkswagen.
Bundy fled to nearby Pensacola. There, a patrol officer spotted Bundy's VW, ran its plates, and learned that the vehicle was stolen. Bundy was arrested, and this time he didn't escape. He was tried and convicted for several murders of Florida State coeds. He sat down in "Old Sparky" on Jan. 24, 1989, and he didn't stand back up.