(Published in The Star-Ledger Dec. 21, 2006)
On the streets of Atlantic City, everyone’s got a suspect.
Prostitutes speak of creepy, threatening johns. Employees of a run-down motel talk about the Scripture-quoting guest who kept a collection of women’s shoes in his room. One woman, now jailed, points to a “white guy with a lot of money” who hosted a crack-fueled, motel-hopping sex party.
Oddballs. Loners. Drug dealers. Gamblers. All get a second glance in today’s Atlantic City, where the murders of four street prostitutes remain unsolved a month after their bodies were found just outside the city limits.
As the high-profile investigation enters its fifth week, Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey Blitz won’t comment on the myriad theories circulating on the street, saying that doing so could compromise the probe.
“I fully expect the perpetrator or perpetrators who committed these crimes are reading the papers and the news accounts, and I have no intention of placing more information in the public domain beyond that which is necessary for us to acquire information,” Blitz said yesterday.
The prosecutor, who heads a multi-agency task force formed after the killings, did say investigators continue to receive tips and develop leads. Those leads are sorted on a priority basis, with the most promising information investigated first, he said.
Working against the task force is the unwelcome fact that prostitute killings – whether carried out by serial killers, customers or street thugs – are notoriously difficult crimes to solve.
More often than not in such cases, the killer and victim don’t know each other, robbing investigators of easily identifiable suspects. Pickups often take place discreetly, in the shadows, away from witnesses. And it could be weeks or longer before a prostitute is reported missing, raising the likelihood crucial evidence will be destroyed through decomposition.
“There are unsolved murders of prostitutes in almost every major city in the United States,” said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. “They are very, very tough cases.”
In Essex and Union counties alone, more than two dozen prostitute murders dating to the late 1980s remain unsolved. In Daytona Beach, Fla., a serial killer is suspected in the deaths of three streetwalkers between December 2005 and February of this year. The toll has risen to 13 in Edmonton, Alberta, where another serial killer remains at large.
Blitz has declined to label the Atlantic City murders the work of a serial killer, saying only that the cases share certain similarities.
And while he acknowledges the difficulty of solving such cases in general, he said investigators haven’t lost confidence.
“We commence all investigations anticipating that the case will be solved,” he said.
Forensics tests could be key. The prosecutor said he was awaiting the results of tests under way at the State Police lab in Hamilton. While Blitz would not identify the tests, the lab is typically tapped for DNA analysis.
In the absence of an arrest, prostitutes and others who live and work in Atlantic City are left to wonder who killed the women, whose bodies were left face-down in a drainage ditch in neighboring Egg Harbor Township over the course of a month.
The women – Kim Raffo, 35, Tracy Ann Roberts, 23, Barbara Breidor, 42, and Molly Dilts, 20 – were discovered Nov. 20, their bodies clothed but barefoot, the tops of their heads facing Atlantic City.
One tantalizing lead has emerged at a faded motel catering to low-rollers and the poor on the resort’s casino strip. An employee at the inn, the Fox Manor Hotel, said he and other workers told investigators about a guest who had kept six or seven pairs of women’s shoes in his room during a three-week stay in October.
“When we heard the (victims) were barefoot, it rang a bell,” said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because authorities asked him to remain quiet.
The man, who recited verses from the Bible, kept high heels, sandals and sneakers, the employee said, adding that women were frequent visitors to his room. The guest had identification showing a Phoenix address but paid his $627 bill with a local debit card. The employee added that the man boasted of a martial arts background and that he could “kill somebody in a minute.”
Several prostitutes have their own suspects in mind.
With the hazy eyes and indifferent expression of the shell-shocked, Zandra Kiesel, a crack-addicted prostitute who knew two of the victims, recounted her brush with a customer on Nov. 20.
As Kiesel sat with the john in his car, a radio report announced the discovery of a woman’s body outside Atlantic City.
“They’ll never find out who those girls are,” Kiesel recalled the man saying.
Kiesel said she told the man only one woman had been found. Hours later, police announced the discovery of the other three bodies.
“He knew there were four when nobody else did,” Kiesel said. “There’s only one way he knew that. He did it.”
In recent weeks, other prostitutes have said they told police their own stories about threatening johns, about gangs looking to take control of the city’s prostitution market and about the neighborhood’s more unusual characters.
One streetwalker, 33-year-old Pamela Covelli, told the Press of Atlantic City she believes the killer to be a man who picked up her, Raffo, Breidor and an unidentified prostitute in early November.
The man fed the women crack and gradually grew abusive, prompting Covelli to leave when the group switched motels, said the woman, who spoke to the newspaper from the Atlantic County Jail, where she was held for a parole violation.
Covelli said she never saw Raffo or Breidor again.
“The only difference between me and those girls is that I went by my gut feeling,” she said. “I could be dead right now.”
➽ The Atlantic City victims: four lives of lost youth (Dec. 1, 2006)
➽ In Living Memory: children of the Atlantic City victims (Nov. 16, 2008)