‘Lost Women of Highway 20’: A Terrifying Case and The Docuseries That Inspired It

In an age where true crime has become a favorite of viewers everywhere, many have become informed about the dangers of our world, as well as the people who work hard to put these cases to rest. Of course, the victims are ones who should never be forgotten, and being able to shine a light on them helps to preserve their memory.

A new docuseries has come out just recently to return the dignity to those lost on Highway 20. I’m talking about Lost Women of Highway 20, narrated by executive producer and Oscar-winning actor Octavia Spencer and directed by Arianna LaPenne.

Aired on November 5th, the docuseries is heavily based off of an award-winning 2018 multimedia project from The Oregonian/OregonLive, Ghosts of Highway 20. If you’ve never seen it, the series covers the rapes and murders committed by convicted serial killer John Ackroyd along the Oregon highway. It focuses on the victims, the timeline, friends and family of the victims, law enforcement tied to the case, a survivor of the killer, and puts a spotlight on an admittedly flawed justice system that failed to listen to one of the victims. The series was split into five parts, separated thusly:

  • Part one focused on Marlene Gabrielsen, who was sexually assaulted by Ackroyd, but managed to survive the attack. Police did not believe her story, and because of their lack of action, Ackroyd was able to go on to murder others along Highway 20. She’s the only known survivor out of all of Ackroyd’s victims.
  • Part two turned its attention to the death of Kay Turner, Ackroyd’s first known murder (though there are suspected to be more) and the one he was convicted and found guilty of years later.
  • Part three is about the disappearance of Rachanda Pickle, who was Ackroyd’s stepdaughter at the time she went missing. It details a history of abuse by Ackroyd’s hands, and he pled no contest to killing her years later.
  • Part four brought its focus on Melissa Sanders and Sheila Swanson, who also disappeared. Ackroyd was never convicted of their murders, but investigators are certain he is the culprit, as the victims knew him and he was infatuated with them.
  • Part five covered Ackroyd’s eventual arrest, conviction, his death, and the final thoughts of those most affected by Ackroyd’s actions.

The story is harrowing, but a good and informative watch nonetheless. I highly suggest you give it a look if that’s your type of thing — you can watch the two hour documentary for free on Youtube.

The series was put together by Enterprise reporter Noelle Crombie as the narrator (and the person who conducted countless interviews, read thousands of pages of police reports, and spent many hours on the titular highway where the killings took place), multimedia journalist Beth Nakamura as the photographer, and video editor Dave Killen. All three assisted in writing the series. The senior managing producer and project editor was Margaret Haberman.

Octavia Spencer described the series as “illuminating and scary”, and that she felt kinship with the women who were Ackroyd’s victims. In an interview with OregonLive, Spencer recalled having never heard of the case, the victims, the killer, or the circumstances that allowed him to get away with it until she watched the 2018 series. She found that she could identify a lot with the case itself. “I’m from rural Alabama, so I spent a lot of time on dark highways.”

Like the series that inspired it, Lost Women of Highway 20 will include interviews from friends and family of the victims, along with the law enforcement who were close with the case and, of course, Marlene Gabrielsen, Ackroyd’s first victim and the only known survivor. They also bring in and interview The Oregonian journalist Noelle Crombie, who was the main writer and researcher for the original series that this new documentary is inspired by. The docuseries aims to focus more on the victims of Ackroyd instead of the killer himself, wanting to bring back dignity to those Spencer says were forgotten. “I knew that we really wanted to tell this story,” Spencer said in the interview with OregonLive. “We really wanted to restore some of the dignity that was taken from these women.”

Another thing the documentary will harp on is the importance of listening to victims. There were obvious instances of victims speaking out, like Gabrielsen and Rachanda Pickle, who were ignored by those who were supposed to protect and support them. If these people were listened to, the harm to the victims could have been minimized to just the rape of Gabrielsen. “Because these women were from backgrounds that were often overlooked or ignored,” said LaPenne, director of Lost Women of Highway 20. “To really come to terms with that is devastating.”

In the interview, Spencer said, “I hope that we remember that the best way to protect a community is to listen to victims when they come forward.”

The docuseries is a fantastic look at the case that shook the state, and like the series it was based off of, I highly suggest you give it a watch.

If you’re looking to watch Lost Women of Highway 20 for yourself, the three-part, three-hour series aired its back-to-back episodes on November 5th on the Investigation Discovery network. You can also stream series through the Philo streaming service, which if you’ve never tried it, offers a free trial.


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