Home » Episodes » Episode 67 – New Castle, DE & Kyiv, Ukraine (Route 40 Killer & Lyudmila Pavlichenko)

Rachel shares the story of the Route 40 Killer, Steven Brian Pennell then Emily talks about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the most successful sniper in WWII.

Story 1 – The Route 40 Killer

It’s November, 1987.  

But it is the ‘80s, and people are still hitchhiking. A couple of teenagers are walking along Route 40 in Delaware, you know, being youths, probably looking for a place to make out, when their adolescent shenanigans were interrupted by a horrible discovery – it was the brutally murdered body of 32-year-old Shirley Ellis. She was a nursing student and former sex-worker, found partially-clothed with her legs spread apart. She had been bound at her feet and ankles, and black duct-tape was found in her hair, most likely used to keep her screams from being heard. There was no evidence of sexual assault. Shirley was killed by strangulation and repeated beatings from a hammer.

Shirley had been walking along route 40 the previous evening with a Thanksgiving platter for a patient at Wilmington Hospital undergoing treatment for AIDS. More than likely, she’d accepted a ride from someone, in order to escape the rainy weather and bring joy to the patient more quickly.

In 1987, the population of all of New Castle County was only 422,474 people. For our international listeners, Delaware is the second-smallest state in the country – this is a small community, and locals were shocked. No one had any motive to hurt Shirly, so police’s early theory was that a trucker picked up Shirley while she was hitchhiking, killed her, and continued along his way. Many thought the case would go unsolved.

Within the next 10 months, 2 more victims would be discovered along Route 40. On June 28, 1988, 31-year-old Catherine DiMauro was seen walking down the highway around 11:30 at night. She was a sex worker, however, it’s unclear whether she was working that evening or just looking to catch a ride. At 6:25 the following morning, construction workers found her naked body. Like Shirley, she had been beaten with a hammer and strangled. There were no signs of sexual assault. Her mouth had been covered with duct tape. But, unlike Shirley, her body was covered in blue carpet fibers.

Delaware had never had a serial killer before, but luckily, they identified the pattern early. The State police as well as the New Castle county PD formed a task force with about 60 members. They contacted the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, and they started to connect the dots: There was a serial killer lurking around route 40.

Steven Brian Pennell’s victims

Undercover female officers began to dress as sex workers and walked along the route, hoping to find a suspect. They would talk with men, but never get into their vehicles. At the same time, other members of the taskforce spent their time attempting to figure out the origin of the fibers that were found on Catherine DiMauro.

On August 22, 1988, 27-year-old Margaret Lynn Finner disappeared. She was a sex worker, last seen getting into a blue ford that was driven by a white man. 3 months later, Margaret’s body was found by a hunter near the Chesapeake-Delaware Canal. Her body was badly decomposed, so her cause of death could not be determined conclusively, however there were signs of torture. Margaret was able to be identified only because of her dental records.

I’d imagine Margaret’s murder would be like pouring gasoline on the already brightly-burning fire of the task force. And on September 14, 1988, one of the undercover officers walking along route 40, Renee Taschner, noticed something fishy.

Renee was dressed as a sex worker. She had been talking with multiple men, none of whom fit the description of the one they were looking for. Then, a blue Ford van drove past, stopped, and turned around. And then, this creepy van drove past Renee again, and again, and again. Renee recalled the van driving past her seven times within 20 minutes. 

Spidey-senses tingling, Renee moved to a more secluded location, to entice the driver of the van to come closer so she could get a better look. It worked. The van stopped, and a white male opened the side door, exposing the blue carpet that lined the floor.

Renee felt an off-putting vibe from this man. She stated, “He was different than any other person who stopped for me. It was hard to get into a conversation. He wasn’t in the moment. He was looking right through me.” 

So. Creepy.

Nevertheless, Renee continued to flirt with this creep. She playfully rubbed her hand along the van’s floor, pulling out some of the fibers from the blue carpet to be tested against the fibers that were found on Catherine DiMauro’s body. The suspect became impatient, demanding that Renee get in the van, but she quickly made up the excuse that she was tired from partying all day and that she needed a nap. Frustrated, the man drove away. 

While Renee was thinking quickly and being an all around baaadddd biittttcccchhhh, another officer was taking down the license plate number for this sketchy blue van with its sketchier driver. The van was registered to Steven Brian Pennell, a local electrician without a criminal record.

While the fibers from the van were sent to a lab for testing, the task force received a search warrant to follow Steven.

I’m not really sure why he wasn’t being followed literally all of the time, but apparently, he wasn’t, because 2 days after Renee had come face-to-face with the killer, 22-year-old Michelle Gordon went missing. Michelle was a sex worker who was last seen getting into the passenger seat of a blue Ford panel van. And there was a witness. Remember how I mentioned Delaware is small? This woman recognized both Michelle AND Steven, and she knew his vehicle.

Steven Brian Pennell

Three days later, on September 19, 1988, 26-year-old Kathleen Meyer went missing while hitchhiking along route 40. An off-duty police officer saw Kathleen accept a ride from a man in a blue Ford van. I don’t know if this cop was part of the task force, but he knew that this type of van was connected to the murders, so he wrote down the plate number, and again, found that it was registered to Steven Brian Pennell.

At this point, the task force kicks their surveillance into high gear, monitoring Steven 24/7. Renee Taschner even sat near Steven at a Moody Blues Concert. I don’t think she had any interaction with him, however Steven’s daughter approached Renee, asking her for a donation for a school fundraiser. Renee would describe this moment as heart-breaking when she looked back.

On September 20, Michelle Gordon’s body washed up on the banks of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Her death was slightly different than the previous victims. Like the others, she had been tortured, however Michelle suffered from cocaine addiction, and, instead of dying from strangulation, she died during the torture of being beaten by the hammer. Her heart gave out due to the drugs in her system.

Finally, a search warrant was granted to look through Steven’s van. I’m not sure why they needed to do these legal gymnastics, but police pulled Steven over during a routine traffic violation. He came to court to pay his ticket, which allowed them the opportunity to search his van.

Of course, there was the blue carpet, which is gross, but not necessarily damning yet. More damning? There was hair and blood in the van that police took samples of. They also found a “torture kit” – the same brand of duct tape that was found on the victims, as well as pliers, handcuffs, knives, needles, restraints, and a whip.

On November 29, 1988, exactly one year after Shirley Ellis’ death, Steven Brian Pennell was arrested and charged with the murders of Shirley Ellis, Catherine DiMauro, and Michelle Gordon.

This asshole used his right to remain silent. Upon questioning, he did not admit to the murders. He was a married man and a father with no criminal record. Although the evidence against him was enough to prove his guilt, Steven continued to deny that he had any involvement in the murders of these woman.

Margaret Lynn Finner’s body was also found around this time near the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, however, her body was so badly decayed that no cause of death could be determined.

Steven almost had a lucky break when his attorney questioned the legality of the fibers Renee took from his van being tested, as they did not have a search warrant, however, because Steven opened the door to the van and the carpet was in plain view, a judge ruled that it was legal. 

The hair and blood found in the van was tested for DNA, which was a big deal in 1988, as only 2 other criminal cases in the US that had used DNA. It was still very new, and there were a lot of questions as to its validity. Of course, the blood and hair DNA matched the DNA of the victims, but Steven said under oath that he just picked up Catherine DiMauro for oral sex.

He coldly stated that he paid Catherine $25 for oral sex, and then he dropped her off. He joked that she gave him $10 back. The jury was horrified by Steven’s demeanor, though they did deliberate for 8 days on the three murder charges. This was the longest deliberation in the history of Delaware.

On November 23, 1989, which happened to be Thanksgiving that year, the jury foreman stated that they found Steven guilty of the deaths of Shirley Ellis and Catherine DiMauro. They were deadlocked on the death of Michelle Gordon, as well as on whether or not Steven should receive the death penalty.

Steven was sentenced to 2 life terms, which he then tried to appeal. His lawyer continued to argue that the seizure of the fibers was unconstitutional – he was trying to get Steven off on a loophole. The state did look at the appeal, and Steven asked to proceed without an attorney, which was weird. He showed up in front of the Superior Court and pled “no contest” to the murders of Shirley Ellis and Michelle Gordon. And then he asked to be sentenced to death. He never plead guilty.

In my opinion, Steven was a true psychopath. He was given a psychiatric evaluation while imprisoned in 1991, and he was described as “a pleasant, attractive, friendly 33-year-old man who related well to the examiner.” But he was never given a mental-health diagnosis. Actually, he fit into society, which is terrifying.

So, he argued that he should be put o death based on bible verses, essentially saying that if a man spilled blood his own blood should be spilled, which was extra weird because he essentially said, “well, you know, the jury found me guilty of murder so I guess I should be put to death.” But still, he did not admit guilt.

Steven got his wish on Halloween, when he was sentenced to death. When this happens in Delaware, the case automatically goes to the Supreme Court for appeal. And on February 11, 1992, Steven self-represented in front of the Supreme Court, being the only person to do so and the only person to ask for death. Apparently, he only spoke about the crimes in third person, continuing to avoid any admission of guilt. For example, he said, ““The perpetrator must have sensed a pleasure in the killings, since he did not commit just one, but continued in the same depraved manner on the others, this pleasure is evident.”


But the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Steven should be executed.

The date was set for March 14, 1992. Steven was pleased, but others tried to appeal. A couple of these people did not know Steven personally, but his wife, Katherine Pennell, tried to argue for a stay of execution, arguing that Steven couldn’t understand the charges and he should be considered mentally incompetent. But the Supreme Court put the kibosh on that.

Steven was executed in March of 1992. He never stated a motive, admitted guilt, or shared where Kathleen Meyer’s family could find her body. But, he was the first man to be executed in Delaware in 46 years.

And he seemed like a normal 30-something-year-old husband and father of 2. The FBI could not get Steven to open up and talk about any reason he might feel triggered to murder. And so much about him remains a mystery, though many believe his asking for death is his way of admitting guilt.

Of course, I did a hard google search to try to find any information on his childhood, trauma, what kind of father he was, any of it. And nothing. 

All I could find was his last meal. That’s what he talked about before his execution. In case you’re curious, it was crab cakes, steaks, corn on the cob, french fries, bread and butter, and a Coke.

And that is the story of Steven Brian Pennell, the Route 40 killer, Delaware’s only known serial killer.

Story 2 – Lyudmila Pavlichenko

So, today, I am going to the Ukraine. Yep. I’m going there. It’s the middle of March, the middle of Women’s History Month. As of this recording we’re still in the middle of a world crisis – Russia is still attempting to invade Ukraine and take away their sovereignty, and so I’m going to tell you a story about a bad ass woman from the Ukraine. A woman who fought for the allies in WW2 and was known to her enemies as the “Lady Death.” I’m going to tell you the story of Lyudmila (Lewdmeila) Pavlichenko (Pavleechenka).

So first, the background. Obviously I’m not going to talk in entirety about World War II. But, let’s set the stage a bit at least. I am an ignorant bitch about things – so I had to google information about exactly how Ukraine and Russia interact, what the USSR was, etc.

Here’s the timeline:

  • Most of Ukraine fell to the Russian Empire under the reign of Catherine the Great; in 1793
  • Ukraine tried to break free from Russia after the February 1917 revolution in St. Petersburg. 
  • The Ukrainian War of Independence of 1917 to 1921 produced the Free Territory of Ukraine, but then a famine hit…
  • And then the USSR / Soviet Union formed, a socialist state that spanned Eurasia. It existed from 1922 to 1991.
  • In December 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, signed the Belavezha Accords, which declared the Soviet Union dissolved.

This was important to understand because I was really confused as to how it was possible that the Russians were allies in World War II or how the Ukraine was involved yada yada yada. Anywho, leading up to World War II, the Soviet Union supported Germany in the war effort against Western Europe through the 1939 German–Soviet Commercial Agreement and larger 1940 German–Soviet Commercial Agreement with supplies of raw materials that were otherwise blocked by the British naval blockade.

Before the German invasion, Ukraine was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, inhabited by Ukrainians with Russian, Polish, Jewish, Belarusian, German, Romani and Crimean Tatar minorities. It was a key subject of Nazi planning for the post-war expansion of the German state.

Then, twist, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched a massive surprise attack on the Soviet Union and at that time, modern-day Ukraine fell under German occupation. The Nazi occupation of Ukraine ended the lives of millions of civilians in the Holocaust and other Nazi mass killings: it is estimated 900,000 to 1.6 million Jews and 3 to 4 million non-Jewish Ukrainians were killed during the occupation.

So, a lot of Ukrainians fled east to aid the Soviet Red Army in resisting the German advance, while others stayed behind and formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which waged military campaign against Germans and later Soviet forces as well against Polish civilians.

So I tell you all of this so that we can understand the state of the world that we’re in as I tell you this story.

And the story starts in 1916 – so let’s rewind – when Lyudmila was born in Belaya Tserkov, a large Ukranian city south of Kyiv. As a little girl, Lyudmila was a tomboy. She was not a girly girl. She wanted to prove a feminist point and let everyone around her know that girls… they’re just as good as boys. In fact, better.

Lyudmila once said that a neighbor boy boasted about how good he was at the shooting range so she literally set out to show that a girl could do as well and just practiced a ton!

So, when she and her family moved to Kyiv when she was 14 she enrolled in a sharpshooter class. Which, I’m like, how badass? She is not going to do ballet or pretty, pretty princesses, she was going to get her mother effing gun and shoot things! She even earned her Voroshilov Sharpshooter Badge, which is a marksman certificate. This bad bitch also took a job at a local arms plant and in 1937 enrolled herself at Kyiv University. She wanted to study history and become a teacher. She was on the track team and started taking courses at a sniper school. Just in general, a total boss.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko

So, in 1941, Hitler launched a thing called Operation Barbarossa, which was when he essentially decided to start attacking his axis allies – beginning with the Soviet Union. Such a frenemy thing to do. Fun fact: Operation Barbarossa was named for Frederick Barbarossa, a 12th-century Holy Roman emperor and German king who  challenged papal influence and sought to establish German supremacy in Europe.

At the time, Lyudmila was 24 years old and in her fourth year of college. She was a patriot, so the second she heard about the invasion, she went to the recruiting office to enlist. Of course, they were like “the line for nurses is over there ma’am” – but she wanted to join the Soviet infantry. She knew that she was better than the dudes in line to be sharp shooters, so she was like, “let me show you what I can do.”    

She went to the lines and she took out two Romanian collaborators from a Soviet-defended hill, and they were like… yes, ok, here is a gun, please help us, and they enrolled her into the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division as a sniper. She became one of the 2,000 female Soviet snipers to serve, of which only 500 survived.

For two and a half months, Lyudmila fought on the frontlines during the Siege of Odessa. While there she recorded 187 kills and that got her a big fat promotion to Senior Sergeant.

Then, October 1941 hit and the Romanian Army gained control of Odessa, so Lyudmila and her unit withdrew to Sevastopol to defend the city. Lyudmila fought there for eight months, and it was a very intense eight months. A lot of Soviet soldiers were killed, but Lyudmila just kept dominating. Her kill count rose to 257 kills and, you better believe they promoted her again. This time to lieutenant.

Of course, the more Germans she killed the more the Soviets were like “to the frontlines!” Her missions started getting more and more dangerous – she would have to do something called counter sniping. This is essentially DUELING with enemy snipers.

Luckily Lyudmila won every duel she fought, including one duel that lasted three days. For that one, she said something like.. the enemy made “one move too many.” She ended up taking out 36 enemy snipers.

Even the German Army knew who she was and feared her name. They even attempted to bribe her. They would send messages over radio loudspeakers stating, “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”

Near the end of her time on the front line, the German bribes became threats. One message stated, “If we catch you, we will tear you into 309 pieces and scatter them to the winds!” Hearing this threat, all Lyudmila said was that she was happy they accurately knew her record.

In terms of who she was and what she was like… well, she was not a shy woman, and loved to be the life of the party. She was loud, she loved to dance, she came off as intimidating because she didn’t seek to impress the men around her — rather, she demanded they impress her instead.

AND she committed what many thought was a cardinal sin when she dated men of a lower rank than she was. A rebellious woman, she had no interest in being owned, and a relationship with a higher-ranking officer frequently implied ownership. She did have a romantic partner who died on the frontlines, in her arms, in early 1942 and that kind of messed her up emotionally and stopped her from wanting to date others.

In June 1942, Lyudmila was wounded after shrapnel from a mortar round struck her in the face. She was not seriously hurt, but she was such a valuable asset that the military pulled her out of battle because they didn’t want to risk her getting killed. At this time, she had 309 confirmed kills and her reputation as a sniper earned her the nickname “Lady Death.” After she healed they pulled a full Captain America kind of set up and decided to use her as propaganda instead of sending her back to the frontlines.

They sent her to America – to Washington, DC, as a highly decorated Soviet lieutenant to attempt to rally American support for a second front in Europe. They were suffering big casualties and Stalin wanted this second front to divide the German forces that were moving deeper and deeper into Soviet territory. So Lyudmila arrived and was welcomed to the White House – she was actually the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed!

SO, she got there and she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. These two bonded and quickly became BBBFFs. – Bad Bitch Best Friends Forever. Eleanor actually asked Lyudmila to join her on a tour of the United States so that she could speak to Americans about her experience as a woman in combat.

At this point, by the way, Lyudmila was only 25 years old, she’d been wounded in battle four times, and she did not speak English. But off she went to tour the US and give speeches around the country making the case for an American commitment to fighting in Europe, often in front of thousands of Americans who gathered to see this battle-hardened woman in uniform.

But, of course, in good ole America, everyone was more interested in her STYLE or lack of makeup than anything else. Articles were written in papers that completely belittled her achievements. The New York Times  dubbed her a “Girl Sniper,” while other columns mostly talked about the fact that her uniform had a long skirt that was “lacking style.” Which, I’m like, it’s a UNIFORM. She didn’t even choose it!

One reporter even went as far as to tell her that, in America, women wore short skirts and her long, olive green skirt made her look fat. She was asked by another reporter – a women – if she was allowed to wear makeup on the front lines. Which, of course, baffled Lyudmila. She was like… Uh… I don’t think there are rules AGAINST it, but who the hell has time to think about that when there is a BATTLE happening.

Soon, the Soviet sniper had had enough of the press’s sniping. “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

Luckily, Lyudmila was able to start trying to push aside the absolutely horrible and outlandishly sexist questions and find her voice. In a speech she gave in Chicago, she said: 

“Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”

Her statement was met by applause and an uproar of support. During her tour in America, she often spoke of the lack of racial segregation within the Red Army and gender equality. She made an impression on Americans, and even inspired American singer Woody Guthrie to write a song about her in 1942, titled “Miss Pavlichenko.”

Here are some of the lyrics:

Miss Pavilichenko’s well known to fame
Russia’s your country, fighting is your game
The whole world will love her for a long time to come,
For more than three hundred nazis fell by your gun

In your mountains and canyons quiet as the deer
Down in your bigtrees knowing no fear
You lift up your sight And down comes a hun
And more than three hundred nazidogs fell by your gun

In your hot summer’s heat, in your cold wintery snow,
In all kinds of weather you track down your foe
This world will love your sweet face the same way I’ve done,
‘Cause more than three hundred nazzy hound fell by your gun

I’d hate to drop in a parachute and land an enemy in your land
If your Soviet people make it so hard on invadin’ men
I wouldn’t crave to meet that wrong end of such a pretty lady’s gun
If her name was Pavlichenko, and mine Three O One

Eventually Lyudmila tour continued to Canada and Great Britain, she continued to promote a second Allied front. Despite her efforts, she and Stalin would have to wait two years before the Allies opened a second front in Europe with Operation Overlord, which was the Allied invasion into Normandy.

This got her another promotion and she got the best title ever: Hero of the Soviet Union. This is the country’s highest military distinction. She also received the Order of Lenin twice, the country’s highest civilian designation. 

After that, Lyudmila never actually returned to combat, but instead trained other Soviet snipers until the war’s end in 1945. And then, like the boss she is, she went on to complete her studies at Kyiv University and became a historian.

Unfortunately, as with many soldiers, Lyudmila suffered from many years of PTSD and depression. On October 10, 1974, she passed away after suffering from a stroke.

Two commemorative Soviet postage stamps were printed in her honor, one in 1943 following her battle career, and the second in 1976 following her death. Today in Russia, she’s remembered as a military hero and is known as the most successful female sniper in history.


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