TV & Movies

This New ABC Thriller Exposes A Terrifyingly Real Phenomenon

Big Sky follows a serial killer who targets "lot lizards."

ABC/Darko Sikman

David E. Kelley's shows are about crimes covered up by insular communities. In Big Little Lies and The Undoing, it's upper class white suburbia. In his new ABC show Big Sky, it's a woodsy, tight-knit town in Montana. The series follows private detectives Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury) and Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe) as they team up with Hoyt's estranged wife Jenny (Katheryn Winnick) to search for a truck-driving serial killer. It's an adaptation of The Highway by C.J. Box, which tells the terrifying story of Ronald Pergman, aka the Lizard King. He lures in and kills truck-stop sex workers, who he disparages as “lot lizards.” Cody only becomes aware of him because the Lizard King breaks from his M.O. and abducts Cody's son's girlfriend.

Big Sky itself is not based on a true story, but "lot lizard" is a real term that came up during Box’s extensive research for the novel. As the author explained to Wyoming's Casper Star Tribune, the book is based loosely on a real FBI investigations team — likely the Highway Serial Killings Initiative — that focuses on catching serial killer truck drivers. Per the FBI website, it's scarily easy for a serial killer to mask his crimes as a long haul driver. The victims are often sex workers living high-risk, transient lifestyles who have few if any social networks. Meanwhile, the suspects are constantly on the move, and the "significant distances, multiple jurisdictions involved, and the scarcity of witnesses or forensic evidence" often make the cases difficult to solve.

While not a well-known topic to the general public, most truckers are aware of the prevalence of "lot lizards." Box said he frequented online forums and even rode with a trucker and his wife, which helped him learn more about the culture at truck stops. He explained to the Tribune that truckers uninterested in sex workers' services hang bras from their rearview mirrors to signal that they're married. Many of them likely realize the dangers the women face, but it's often easier for them to ignore it.

It's a sensitive topic explored more in Alexander Perlman's documentary Lot Lizards. As Perlman explained to Mother Jones, both long hauling and prostitution are isolating jobs that "wear you down emotionally" yet are hard to break away from due to the pay, so it's unsurprising to find both in close proximity to each other. Still, it's important for truck drivers to recognize that many sex workers are in precarious situations (poverty, abuse, and/or substance misuse) who are putting themselves in even more potential danger.

"The first step to helping the sex workers is humanizing them," Perlman said. "The next step is treating the sex workers as victims as opposed to criminals. There needs to be more of an emphasis on rehabilitation as opposed to criminalization. It’s also important to educate truck drivers. They have the potential to become the front-line of help and rehabilitation."

There are currently several organizations working towards helping sex workers who are victims of trafficking and abuse. Per a 2019 New York Times article, the organization Truckers Against Trafficking teaches truckers, their companies, and the government agencies and law enforcement that intersect with drivers how to spot sex trafficking and intervene. They've trained more than 700,000 truckers so far. Members put a T.A.T. sticker on their window that reads “Do you need help?” with contact information for the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Before T.A.T.'s founding, the hotline had received only three calls from truckers; as of last year, it was 2,250. T.A.T. training is now required in eight states, with the hopes that it will eventually expand to the rest of the nation.

Big Sky may be a fictional thriller, but it helps shed light on a real issue — and with awareness comes the hope that we can stop the real Lizard Kings of the world too.