The road was dark and quiet.
The only sound was the whir of my car engine, the glow of my headlamps the only light. It was my junior year of high school, and I was venturing out to Crawford Road for the first time, under the guidance of a friend.
Crawford, the winding, secluded two-lane road that runs through Newport News and York County, has inspired ghost stories for generations. And these tales almost always incorporate the creepy, graffiti-covered bridge the road passes under.
The legends are many, each with as many variations as there are storytellers. There’s the one about how the Ku Klux Klan used to meet here, hanging hundreds of victims from the bridge. There’s the one about the woman who hanged herself from the bridge in her wedding gown, choosing death over marrying a man she didn’t love. There’s the rumor that this is where they hanged slaves who attempted to escape.
If you park underneath the bridge and turn off your car, it’s said, the ghosts will reveal themselves. You’ll see a teenage bride swinging in the breeze, or hear the cries of babies from another century. In the bridge’s shadow, your car might shut itself off, or your stereo might suddenly malfunction.
Naturally, the prospect of seeing a ghost held quite a thrill for two bored teenagers with nothing but time on their hands. We parked under the bridge, turned off the car, and waited for our friends from the other side of the void to appear. And we waited. And we waited some more.
While the road was sufficiently eerie, the ghosts apparently weren’t interested in scaring a couple of high school juniors that night. I turned the car back on, and we headed home a little disappointed. It would be years before I’d learn that the ghost stories that brought us to Crawford Road that night obscure a history just as deadly.
Frank Green has heard the stories.
For 25 years, Green served as a deputy with the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, driving down Crafford Road in the dead of night hundreds, if not thousands, of times. And each time, he came up empty-handed.
“I have not personally seen anything down there,” says Green, who is also past president of the York County Historical Society. “I rode down there at various times of day and night, and have yet to see anything down Crawford Road or the bridge or anything like that. It’s a creepy old road, but I think the stuff you hear is more of an urban legend.”
According to Green, discussion of ghoulish tales on the road began in the 1970s, and the legends have only grown in popularity since. The Haunted Commonwealth, a blog that chronicles supernatural events across the state, asserts, “There have been more stories told about what happens around Crawford Road in Yorktown than any other road in Virginia.”
Adding to the Crawford’s mystique is the fact that the street has different spellings at different points in the road, either “Crawford” or “Crafford.” Though most signs read “Crawford,” Green insists the other spelling is correct, named for a turn-of-the-century schoolteacher named Helen Crafford.
Much of the road runs through watershed and Yorktown Battlefield property, meaning there aren’t many homes or streetlights around. While undeniably spooky, some ghost believers are still skeptical about whether the road is “actually haunted.” Before he passed two years ago, I interviewed local ghost expert L.B. Taylor Jr. about the road. Taylor authored 25 books about ghosts in Virginia, but said his investigation of Crawford Road was unsuccessful.
“I think it’s more of an urban legend than an actual haunting,” Taylor told me in 2013. “I think it’s teenagers that have wild imaginations. They just go down there half-scared to death to start with.”
Of the slave hangings, Green says the bridge is too recent for the tale to be true. There’s no known documentation of a bride hanging herself on her wedding day, but there is some truth to accounts of the Ku Klux Klan in the area.
“There was KKK in York County, but as far as I know, all they did was meet right where Tabb High School is at,” in the 1930s, says Green. He brings up another legend he heard, perhaps inspired by the nearby Colonial Parkway killings in the 1980s. In those cases, three couples were murdered and another went missing and is presumed dead. The perpetrator still hasn’t been identified.
“You hear about the couple parking and then somebody trying to open their door, then they look to see a bloody hand,” says Green of the Crawford Road rumor. “I heard another one of these things—if you wrote your name on the bridge, you would die. I guess there’s a lot of dead people I haven’t heard of.”
The road’s proximity to the battlefield that effectively ended the Revolutionary War has also played into the stories.
“Some people say it’s the soldiers that are haunting the bridge, some people say that it was the place where they killed slaves in the past, and other people think it’s just an evil road,” says Lt. Richard Moore of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office. “It just depends on which group they talk to and which story they heard.”
While he’s never seen anything paranormal on the road, Moore says the real-life incidents he’s witnessed on the road have been gruesome enough.
“It’s a very bad road,” he says. “A number of people have been killed on that road, which only adds to the rumors of it being haunted.” And he’s not talking about car crashes.
In the 1950s, Green says a cab driver was murdered on Crawford. In the ’60s, some children died in a house fire along the road.
But the murders that took place there in the 1990s would draw national attention.
Standing in the parking lot of the Omni Hotel in Newport News, J.C. Jiles cut quite a figure. Dressed in a wool coat, yellow shirt and red tie, Jiles was an insurance executive who had recently transferred to the area from Atlanta. Or, at least that’s the story he told Jimmy and Joyce Johnson.
The Grafton couple had placed an ad in the Daily Press to sell their silver 1989 Mercedes-Benz 300SE. The man who identified himself as Jiles agreed to purchase it for $46,500, if his wife liked the car.
The next day, Jimmy Johnson drove back to the Omni so Jiles’ wife could test drive the car. He was never seen alive again.
On Feb. 6, 1990, a week after his disappearance, Johnson’s body was found in a wooded area off of Crawford. There was a bullet wound in his chest; his wrists were handcuffed and his legs were taped together.
The case remained unsolved for three years until it was profiled on the FOX TV show America’s Most Wanted. After the program aired, police received 64 tips, leading them to a man named Juannito Edwards.
Edwards was arrested and charged with both the murder of Johnson and that of a Newport News woman name Tanya Marcia Lane. She had testified against Edwards’ brother in a murder case in New York, and apparently Edwards wanted revenge.
Lane disappeared on June 5, 1989, after dropping off her 3-year-old at a babysitter’s house. Two years later, her body was discovered less than half a mile from where Johnson’s had been found. She had also died of a gunshot wound.
Though the defense argued that Johnson’s wife had hired someone to kill her ailing husband to collect insurance, the jury disagreed, and Edwards was sentenced to two life terms plus 22 years.
For Eric Nesbitt, his unlucky move was stopping at a Hampton 7-Eleven around midnight to buy a snack. The date was Aug. 16, 1996, and Nesbitt had just gotten off of his part-time job at Advance Auto Parts when Daryl Atkins and William Jones forced their way into his Nissan pickup at gunpoint. Nesbitt was an airman stationed at Langley Air Force Base, but he would never make it back to post.
Atkins and Jones had spent all day drinking and smoking marijuana and decided to rob Nesbitt so they would have more beer money. Unsatisfied with the $60 in Nesbitt’s wallet, they drove him to an ATM, where he withdrew $200.
Against his pleas, the duo took Nesbitt to Crawford Road and shot him eight times. Because of how he was positioned, the bullets entered and exited his body multiple times, creating 18 bullet holes. His body was found face down on the asphalt the next day.
Footage from the ATM showed Jones and Atkins in the vehicle with Nesbitt, and they were quickly found and arrested. Each claimed that the other was the triggerman, but Atkins was convicted of capital murder.
In the penalty phase of the trial, the results of an IQ test were released, stating that Atkins had an IQ of 59, and the defense argued that he was “mildly mentally retarded.” Still, Atkins was sentenced to death.
The case was appealed, eventually heading to the Supreme Court of the United States. Atkins v. Virginia established that executing the intellectually disabled counts as cruel and unusual punishment, but also read that states could define who qualified as mentally disabled.
Atkins’ sentence was eventually changed to life without parole, and Jones received a sentence of life in prison plus three years.
In 2007, a 32-year-old Newport News man was beat up and kidnapped by his friends in Huntington Park. The group then drove the victim to the Crawford Road bridge, beating him again and stabbing him all over his body with various knives. The mob took his cell phone and leather jacket, covered him in lighter fluid and set him on fire.
The victim was found by two recreational bikers the next morning and taken to Riverside Regional Medical Center. Though his friends had left him for dead, he lived.
To curb illegal activity on the road, the sheriff’s department drives down Crawford multiple times an evening, but this hasn’t stopped crime.
“We have found empty pocketbooks, we have found stolen cars, we have found safes that have been cracked open on that road,” says Moore, who’s been with the sheriff’s office for 25 years. “It just seems to be a dumping ground for criminals, and, of course, that adds to the excitement of people thinking it’s haunted.”
Locals aren’t the only ones who come here to experience a taste of the wicked.
“I know we’ve had groups as far away as Richmond and as far away as Virginia Beach come all the way up to Yorktown because it’s on the Internet that it’s haunted,” says Moore. “It’s a road that attracts criminals and that behavior, in my opinion. People go down there looking for something, and they end up finding the wrong thing, if you know what I mean.”
The stories have also inspired mischief on the road. On one occasion, a group of teenagers dropped a mannequin from the bridge to scare oncoming drivers. Another night, a driver honked his horn at some teens walking down the street at night. When they shouted back at the man, he stepped out of his car and began shooting at them. The teens took off into the woods.
“We later found out he was intoxicated,” says Moore. “It’s a horrifying event, but they’re wanting to be scared, they’re wanting to go down this road in the nighttime and be scared, and all of a sudden, look what happens.”
Green has a similar summation of the people he found along the road.
“Most of them were kids looking for ghosts,” he says. “We used to tell them, ‘We don’t know of any ghosts down here, but if you hang around long enough, you’re liable to become a ghost.’”