(This story is by Mark Mueller, Tom Feeney, Mary Jo Patterson and Brian Donohue. It was published in The Star-Ledger on Dec. 1, 2006. Additional reporting by Jeff Diamant.)
Like so many in Atlantic City, they came from someplace else.
Kim Raffo, 35, arrived four years ago from Florida, where she once had a family of her own and an upstanding life. Molly Dilts, 20, hailed from western Pennsylvania and had been in Atlantic City for only a few weeks.
Tracy Ann Roberts, 23, grew up in Delaware, a high-school dropout in search of direction. She landed in the casino town within the year but had soured on street life. She wanted out.
Barbara Breidor, 42, was the closest one to a local among the four, having settled near Atlantic City from eastern Pennsylvania almost two decades ago. Family members called her the smartest of her siblings and a sure “Jeopardy!” winner if only she had tried.
Despite their diverse backgrounds, the four women found slain last week in neighboring Egg Harbor Township — their bodies dumped face-down in a watery ditch — had more in common than might be expected.
All were mothers. All came from homes riven by divorce or by the death of a loved one. And all had fallen into heavy drug use.
More than anything, family members and friends of the victims said, it was drugs, particularly crack cocaine, that bled their lives of promise. They lost jobs. They often lost touch with the people who cared most about them.
On the streets of Atlantic City, they found themselves broke. With nothing to sell, they sold themselves. All but Dilts had arrests for prostitution in the city, and local streetwalkers said she, too, had resorted to turning tricks for cash.
Perhaps the least street-savvy of the four, Dilts was the first to die, her body placed in the ditch as long as six weeks ago, authorities said.
Breidor was killed next. An autopsy found she had been in the water between two weeks and a month. Because of decomposition, a cause of death for Dilts and Breidor could not be determined.
Roberts died up to a week before the bodies were discovered. She had been asphyxiated, perhaps by strangulation, perhaps by another means. Raffo, the first discovered, was the last killed. She had been strangled.
All four women, barefoot but otherwise fully clothed, had been placed about 320 feet apart in the water, their bodies positioned with their heads to the east, toward Atlantic City.
Some three dozen investigators from the FBI, the State Police and the Atlantic City and Egg Harbor police departments are working the case full time. No arrests have been made.
As authorities work to determine whether the women were victims of a serial killer, a portrait of their lives – and their descent into addiction and prostitution – has begun to take shape.
Kim Raffo almost made it, almost broke the cycle of teen pregnancy, divorce and substance abuse that marked her family’s history.
She had two children, a solid marriage and a breezy Florida home with a swing set out back and a giant flowering cactus rising from a Bermuda grass front lawn.
“She worked like a dog to get that house in shape,” said Ray Carlisle, 79, Raffo’s former neighbor in Pembroke Pines, Fla. “For a long time, she was just like anybody else. Then, wham!”
In 2001, Raffo began a drug-fueled extramarital affair that friends and family say sparked the spiral that took her to the streets and seedy hotels of Atlantic City.
Raffo’s story begins in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, where her father, Robert, recalled meeting her mother, Joan Daniels, in the drug heyday of the early 1970s.
Kim was born in 1971, when her mother was 17. Her parents married and had a second daughter, Marie, six years later. Marie Santos said her father’s drinking and drug use “terrorized our entire lives.”
Robert Raffo admits battling addiction throughout the girls’ childhood. But he says his ex-wife stole from him and “tore this family apart” with her own drinking, a charge Daniels denies.
The couple split in 1988. Daniels moved to Florida with Marie. Kim Raffo and her boyfriend, Hugh Auslander, followed them south and started fresh a year later.
They married and had two children, a girl in 1992 and a boy in 1994, family members said. The couple bought the four-bedroom home in Pembroke Pines, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, in 1996.
While Auslander worked as a carpenter, Raffo minded the kids and her sister’s two children. It was a life centered on Girl Scouts, carpools and PTA meetings.
Arts and crafts and backyard birthday parties were a constant. For her daughter’s seventh birthday, Raffo hired an animal trainer who wowed the neighborhood kids with snakes, lizards and an orphaned lion cub, her sister recalled.
“From the time they moved in to the time they left, there was no better neighbor,” said Ernesto Rodriguez, who lived next door.
Kim Raffo, meanwhile, emerged as the family pillar.
When Marie, then 15, learned she was pregnant, she ran straight to her big sister for advice, she said.
By the late 1990s, Raffo had gotten her parents – along with their new fianc s – to sit down peacefully for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners she cooked. When her mother’s new husband died of cancer, Robert Raffo recalled, Kim Raffo carried her distraught mother up the stairs to her apartment.
“I don’t know if she just tired of being the one everyone always relied on,” her sister said. “I don’t know if she just got fed up with being supermom or the superwoman of the family. We don’t know. I wish I could have my final words with her.”
Everyone – friends, family, neighbors – agree something snapped in 2001.
Kim enrolled in a culinary arts course at the Sheridan Technical Center in Hollywood, Fla., where she met Kenneth Bilecki, described by his own mother, Lana, as a chronic drug addict. Raffo and Bilecki began an affair.
When Auslander found out, he attacked Bilecki with a baseball bat while Bilecki was sitting in his car at a red light, Lana Bilecki said.
“He nearly killed Kenny,” she recalled.
Raffo’s family blames Bilecki for introducing her to crack cocaine. Lana Bilecki concedes her son was a terrible influence on Raffo. But she added, “It takes two to tango.” Kenneth Bilecki could not be reached for comment. His mother said he is jailed on drug charges.
Raffo and her husband separated. Auslander sold the house and moved with the couple’s children to Ocean City in New Jersey. Desperate to be near her children, Raffo moved with Bilecki to Atlantic City.
After another fight between Auslander and Bilecki, family members said, authorities intervened and placed the children in foster care, where they remain today.
Auslander moved back to Florida after only a few months in New Jersey, family members said.
In Atlantic City, friends said Kim Raffo occasionally held steady waitressing jobs, including a stint at Mama Motts, a popular Italian restaurant between the casinos and the Boardwalk.
But her drug habit worsened. On the streets of Atlantic City, she became well-known. To fellow prostitutes. To police. To drug dealers.
“She was sick, and she needed help,” said Steven Cicero, a friend who sometimes allowed Raffo to stay at his Atlantic City apartment. “It might have been a person who killed her, but it was the drugs that brought her to this.”
Back in Florida, Raffo’s mother and sister shudder at news accounts depicting Raffo as a strung-out streetwalker.
“That’s not who she was,” said Marie, digging through a cardboard box of photos.
Inside the box, there are pictures of Raffo cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Raffo pushing giggling nieces on the backyard swings. Raffo beaming a wide, toothy smile.
“This is who she really is,” her sister said, clutching a handful of photos, her eyes welling with tears. “Can’t you see?”
Tracy Roberts called home from the Atlantic City Medical Center on Nov. 8 and asked her mom to come get her. She’d been working as a prostitute to feed her appetite for crack cocaine. A john had beaten her up, she told her mom, and she wanted to come home to Delaware.
Joyce Roberts made the 90-minute drive from her home in Bear, Del., to rescue her daughter.
She was five minutes too late.
Roberts had decided not to wait around for her getaway car. Before her mom arrived, she checked herself out of the hospital and returned to the streets in the company of two unidentified men, the mother said.
Her body was found less than two weeks later.
“We are good people who had a daughter who had a disease,” Joyce Roberts said during an interview this week at her home in Bear. “She had a drug addiction. It was cocaine. She wasn’t just a prostitute in Atlantic City. This was somebody’s daughter.”
Roberts grew up in Bear, a flat, sprawling, unincorporated section of New Castle County not far from the college town of Newark, Del.
“She was just a skinny little thing with blond hair,” said Don Salyer, a retired railroad worker who lived across Cassandra Road from the Roberts family.
Joyce Roberts, who is now divorced, said her daughter was a good kid who loved to ride her bike, roller-skate and hang out with her friends.
“Everyone loved her, and she loved all of her friends,” the mother said. “She was very much into being with her friends. All of her life. Even in high school, she did volleyball, but it was just to be with her friends.”
The first signs of trouble for Tracy Roberts appeared when she was 14. She began experimenting with drinking, drugs and boys, her mother said.
At 16, she dropped out of Christiana High School. She eventually found a job in telemarketing for a mortgage brokerage. She began dating a co-worker, Brian Rossello. Five years ago, when Roberts was 18, she and Rossello had a baby girl, Joyce Roberts said.
Rossello, who lives in South Jersey, has had primary custody of his daughter since she was 5 months old. He declined to discuss his relationship with Roberts.
After the baby was born, Roberts enrolled at a trade school, the Harrison Career Institute, and was trained as a medical assistant. She found work at a doctor’s office in Bear. With help from the Delaware Housing Authority, she bought a town home in a development called Pine Woods for $105,000 in January 2002. Rossello and the baby moved in with her.
“It was one of the happiest times of her life,” her mother said. “She really loved her job. She had her own home, the baby. But the doctor she worked for moved after about 10 or 11 months, and she lost the job.”
Unemployed, Roberts could not keep up her mortgage payments. Homeownership turned out to be more of a nightmare than a dream. She and Rossello split. Records show the bank began foreclosure proceedings on the house 11 months after she moved in.
“There were always cars pulling up and people going in and out,” said John Skilton, who had sold his townhouse to Roberts. “She kept the place in pretty bad shape. When I talked to the neighbors, they told me they weren’t very happy having her there.”
Roberts began using cocaine heavily during that time, her mother said.
Over the past few years, Roberts lived mostly away from Delaware, in Philadelphia and more recently in Atlantic City. She talked to her mother regularly but visited sporadically.
Judith Finoci, a former neighbor from Cassandra Drive, said she saw the three generations of Roberts women – Joyce, Tracy and the little girl – in church one Sunday about two years ago.
“I was always happy to see her,” Joyce Roberts said. “But when we talked, she would always say she didn’t want to talk about Atlantic City: `It’s better that way, Mom.'”
Roberts had been a regular presence on the streets in Atlantic City for less than a year, according to several other prostitutes.
Those women recalled her as quiet, pretty and even generous. Zandra Kiesel, 32, remembered Roberts sharing crack cocaine with her as the two women sat on the front steps of a Pacific Avenue church a few months ago.
“Ain’t a damn son of a bitch who does that,” Kiesel said. “I thought she had a good heart.”
Life on the streets in Atlantic City changed Roberts, her acquaintances said. She began to look haggard as her addiction deepened. The girl who once lived for her friends began to keep mostly to herself.
The other women would sometimes eat together during the day and share stories about their “dates” from the previous night, while Roberts was alone, hands in the pockets of her sweatshirt, eyes to the sidewalk, a hood tight over her head.
“She was very isolated,” said Denise Hill, 43, who has worked as a prostitute for 12 years. “She seemed lonely.”
The four bodies were found in the ditch 12 days after Joyce Roberts made her drive over the Delaware Memorial Bridge and across the Atlantic City Expressway to bring her daughter home.
Roberts said she braced for the worst possible news as soon as she heard one of the women was about 5-foot-9 and had a butterfly tattoo on the small of her back.
“Her whole family loved her,” Joyce Roberts said as she wept and touched her fingers to a gold cross hanging from a chain around her neck. “Whatever happened, we loved her.”
One little pill.
It was a prescription painkiller, Stanley Frizzell remembers, meant to ease his girlfriend’s menstrual cramps. Barbara Breidor told him she had taken it from his stash when he arrived home from work that day in 1988.
Frizzell said he warned Breidor, then a cocktail waitress at the Tropicana Casino and Resort, that the pills were addictive. He was in a position to know. Frizzell had been hooked on painkillers himself since undergoing back surgery some time earlier.
Breidor soon took another. And another. Before long, Frizzell said, she was addicted, too. When doctors cut off Frizzell’s supply, the pair turned to heroin, he said.
Over the next 18 years, Breidor’s life fell apart as if in slow motion. Five years ago, she agreed to give up custody of the daughter she had with Frizzell. A year later, she was working as a prostitute on the streets of Atlantic City.
For Breidor’s family, her death was a terrible end for a woman who once seemed certain of success.
“My sister didn’t deserve to die the way she died and then to be thrown like a piece of trash in a muddy ditch,” said Francine Lentes, one of two sisters living in Oviedo, Fla., near Orlando. “I hope they get the SOB that did this.”
That Breidor had even fallen so far remains a shock to the sisters, who grew up together in Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
Breidor’s father was a school counselor who “came home with a briefcase in his hand every day,” Lentes said. Their mother was a homemaker. A half-brother, their mother’s son from a previous marriage, lived with them.
All four siblings attended Catholic schools. Lentes remembers growing jealous of Breidor, the oldest sister, who was adored by younger kids in the family’s neighborhood. They’d flock to Breidor and beg her to pick them up.
She remained popular through high school, known for her quick wit and broad smile. Even into adulthood, her sisters said, she had an affinity for kids.
She seemed to know a little bit about everything, too, and could awe her sisters with her speedy responses to questions of all kinds when “Jeopardy!” was on TV.
It was in Breidor’s last year of high school when she lost her father, who died of aortic valve disease, Lentes said. Later, in 2000, the sisters’ half-brother died. Lentes wouldn’t discuss him.
After high school, Breidor attended community college in Pennsylvania for two years before briefly studying at Penn State, Lentes said. Over one summer, she traveled to Europe.
By the late 1980s, Breidor decided to move to New Jersey. She already knew the southern stretch of the Jersey Shore. The sisters had spent summer vacations with their grandmother, who owned a duplex in Margate. They had other cousins who lived in the area.
It was there, while working as a cocktail waitress at the Tropicana, that Breidor met Frizzell. Soon they were living together in Atlantic City.
“When I met her, she was an angel,” Frizzell said. “She was bright and funny.”
At the same time, Breidor went to work for her mother, also named Barbara, who launched the Sante Fe Trading Co., a small chain of stores selling Native American art and clothing. One of the shops stood on the Boardwalk. Breidor was quickly managing the firm.
By now, she was regularly using drugs, Frizzell said, but she was still functional, still quick-witted. She hadn’t yet lost her smile.
It was after her mother sold the business, retiring to Florida in the late 1990s, that Breidor plunged deeper into heroin. Her sisters don’t believe Breidor held a steady job again.
“There’s a reason heroin has ruined a lot of lives,” Frizzell said. “That drug was treacherous.”
Breidor gave birth to the couple’s daughter in 1997, but it was clear even to Breidor and Frizzell that their escalating drug habit made them unable to raise a child. Four years after she was born, the girl went to live with Breidor’s sister, Valerie Antsey, also of Oviedo.
There were still occasional visits and phone calls between mother and daughter, but Lentes and Antsey eventually cut them back, fearing the contact would traumatize the girl. Breidor would break into sobs at the end of a phone conversation or cling desperately to her daughter when it was time to say goodbye, Lentes said.
About 3 1/2 years ago, Breidor agreed to turn over custody of the girl. Antsey formally adopted her niece just weeks ago, the sisters said. “It was hard for my sister to do that, but she knew she was doing the right thing for her daughter,” Lentes said.
Breidor and Frizzell remained together until 2002, when Frizzell was arrested on burglary and drug possession charges. He served more than a year in prison. It was while at Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont that Frizzell first heard from friends that Breidor was using crack cocaine and working as a prostitute in Atlantic City, he said.
The news stunned him.
“She used to look at prostitutes like she couldn’t believe they were doing it,” said Frizzell, who is now off drugs and living in Mays Landing with a new wife.
Last year, Breidor was twice arrested for soliciting a police officer in Atlantic City. More recently, she had been staying off and on with a man in neighboring Ventnor.
A cousin in Margate, worried she hadn’t heard from Breidor in some time, reported her missing to Atlantic City police late last month. Lentes said she’s frustrated police didn’t do more to find her sister. She hopes, too, investigators catch the killer, though she says an arrest will bring only so much comfort.
“Even if they catch him, it’s not going to bring her back,” Lentes said. “This is a life full of pain.”
Molly Jean Dilts disappeared from her boyfriend’s house in Black Lick, Pa., in mid-October.
The boyfriend, Jeremy Clawson, said he gave her $10 before leaving for work that day and told her to wash the dishes while he was gone.
When he returned, Molly, a chubby 20-year-old high school dropout, was gone.
She’d lived in Black Lick, a faded coal-mining town of 1,438 some 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, all her life. But no one was terribly surprised at her sudden departure.
Dilts was a sweet girl but had problems, friends said. There was a baby son she wasn’t raising, an outstanding warrant on an arrest for drug possession, and no income.
Still, no one expected her to turn up dead six weeks later in a ditch outside Atlantic City.
No one was prepared to hear she had become a prostitute, either.
“I don’t know how she got there. She talked about Philadelphia more. She had friends there. She wanted me to go with her, but I said `No, I’m a working man,'” said Clawson, 27, a natural gas driller whom Molly considered the father of her 18-month-old son.
Clawson says he’s not convinced of his paternity.
“She kind of, I don’t know, she flirted on a lot of people. She would go out and talk to anybody. But I can’t see her being a prostitute,” he said. “She might have gotten into crack. She had done that before.”
Black Lick Township once housed a booming coal mine and a busy downtown, but a post office and gas station are about all that remain of its commercial and manufacturing past. The town is located in a hilly landscape whose main feature is the coal-fired Homer City Generating Station, which belches clouds of white-gray steam visible for miles.
Black Lick is the kind of small town where “everybody knows everybody,” said Sylvia Kosalko, who works in the post office.
So most people in Black Lick knew – or knew of – Dilts, and those who knew her say her problems started after her mother died about five years ago, when Dilts was around 15.
“What girl doesn’t want her mom around?” asked Shari Shirley, a greeter at a Wal-Mart in nearby Blairsville who knows the Dilts family.
But Dilts lost more than her mom, Shirley said. Dilts’ aunt died the same week, in some kind of accident. Then Dilts’ stepbrother was found dead of a gunshot wound.
Family friends said Dilts’ father Verner, a gas driller, took in her baby soon after the boy’s birth and is raising the child with the help of relatives.
“I want everyone to know Molly was a good woman and a good mother,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier this week.
At Blairsville High School, Molly Dilts was remembered as a special-education student with a spotty attendance record who dropped out in her junior year. She was considered a tomboy and a loner.
After her mother’s death she became a heavy drinker and smoker, her cousin Elizabeth Dilts, 22, said.
“She was just kind of awkward. She was just kind of weird,” said Amanda Lightbody, 24, a former high school acquaintance. “I never heard her talk to anybody.”
Ab Dettore, a physical education teacher at the high school, remembered seeing Dilts walking the streets alone during school hours.
“Molly was just one of the students you just knew wasn’t gonna be a good ending,” Dettore said.
The birth of her son did not seem to help Dilts get her life together. The baby had been conceived when Jeremy Clawson was home in Black Lick while on leave from the Army, according to Clawson. He said he was back on duty when the infant was born.
Later in 2005, a Pennsylvania state trooper investigating a report of an assault at a McDonald’s in White Township, Pa., arrested Dilts for driving her car into a male friend after an altercation. She was hit with a slew of charges, including aggravated assault and public intoxication, but agreed to enter a rehabilitation program.
By the start of this year, Dilts and a boyfriend were living at a cheap hotel in Blairsville, above Chubby’s II Restaurant and Sports Bar. The Indiana County Community Action Program, a local welfare agency helping the couple, put up $375 for one month’s rent, hotel owner Dwight Creen said.
“They didn’t cause me any problems,” Creen said. Both worked at a local Pizza Hut.
After two weeks, though, the couple disappeared.
“They left the keys hanging on the wall,” Creen said. He took the books and photos they left behind and threw them in the trash.
This March there was trouble again: Dilts was arrested in a motel room in Homer, Pa., with three others, for possession of drug paraphernalia. This time, Dilts did not appear for her arraignment. An arrest warrant was issued in July.
By this time, Clawson had left the service and was back in Black Lick.
Dilts, who had written him letters while he was away, pursued him, he said. They set up housekeeping in August.
“She was in love with me,” he said. “I wasn’t really in love with her, but I needed a girlfriend. I needed to settle down. I was trying to get something to click between us.”
Clawson said he encouraged Dilts to get involved in her son’s life. He told her he was willing to live with her and the boy as a family, and she seemed interested, he said.
“I guess,” said Clawson, who already has a new girlfriend, “she had a change of heart.”
➽ In Living Memory: children of the Atlantic City victims (Nov. 16, 2008)
➽ Streetwalker killings are a daunting case in A.C. (Dec. 21, 2006)