Verner Dilts knows that someday he will have to tell his grandson the story of his mother’s life.
He will say she loved her little boy very much but struggled with addiction. That she had some trouble with the law and felt the need to escape their small Pennsylvania town. That in the end, she was working to get better.
The grandfather knows, too, he will eventually have to tell the boy about his mother’s death. How Molly Dilts, just 20 years old, was discovered in a water-filled ditch, the victim of a suspected serial killer who preyed on Atlantic City prostitutes.
For now, those stories can wait. Verner Dilts says he is just thankful his 3-year-old grandson, Jeremiah, is part of his family.
“Molly left me this child, which is just great, because she lives on through him,” Verner Dilts said. “He means everything to me. He’s my life.”
Jeremiah, precocious and blond, is one of five children left motherless by the Atlantic City killer, who struck four times over a month. The bodies were discovered Nov. 20, 2006, on a forsaken strip between the Atlantic City Expressway and the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township. Two years later, the slayings remain unsolved.
“I hope to God it never happens again,” said Verner Dilts, 49, who is raising Jeremiah with his daughter-in-law, Linda Taylor. “No person should have to go through this, least of all a child.”
In one respect, Jeremiah is fortunate. He’s too young to comprehend the void in his family, the grandfather said. The children of the other three victims are older.
Kim Raffo, 35, a Brooklyn native who became a PTA mom in Florida before drugs upended her life, left behind a son and a daughter. Both are teenagers.
Tracy Ann Roberts, 23, who came to Atlantic City from Delaware, had a daughter who is now 7.
The daughter of Barbara Breidor, 42, of Ventnor, has been legally adopted by Breidor’s sister in Florida. She’s now 11.
For a time, the victims’ families stayed in touch with one another, trading sympathies and updates. Breidor’s sister, Valerie Anstey, and Verner Dilts were particularly close, speaking once a week.
But as the months passed, that contact has grown less frequent, Verner Dilts said. He’s heard even less from investigators, leaving him to wonder about the status of his daughter’s case.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Theodore Housel declined to answer questions about the probe. In a statement released Friday, Housel said the investigation remains “active” and that his office continues to “expend time and resources” on the case.
“It is not considered a ‘cold’ case, and we are treating it with the level of importance it deserves,” Housel said.
A FAMILY PULLS TOGETHER
Nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, Black Lick, Pa., was once a thriving coal-mining town. When the mines closed, hard times followed. Nearly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to Census data.
Jeremiah lives with his grandfather, his aunt and two cousins alongside the highway that runs through town.
It’s a modest home, but Verner Dilts, who never learned to read or write, earns enough as a driller for a natural gas company to meet the bills and save a little. Recently, he bought a piece of land in the woods, and he plans to install a triple-wide mobile home on it, giving the family more room away from the drone of the highway.
Taylor, the aunt, does most of the child-rearing. She was married to Verner Dilts’ son, Thomas, who died by his own hand in 2005. She has two children of her own — a 13-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son — but gives Jeremiah the same affection. He calls her “Mommy.”
“I raise him like he’s one of my own kids,” Taylor said. “Molly would have wanted that.”
Verner Dilts lost his wife, Nikki, to a heart condition in 2000. He said he and Taylor are making the best of the difficult circumstances life has dealt them.
“I’m helping her, she’s helping me, and we’re one big happy family,” he said. “I just wish the others could be with us.”
He calls his dead family members — wife, son, daughter — his “angels.” Their funeral urns sit on a living room shelf. Two are empty.
“My wife knew she was dying, and she told me, ‘When I go, I want to be on this mountain,’ and she showed it to me. I put her ashes there,” Verner Dilts said. “When my boy passed away, I put him there, too. But I got Molly still at home. I can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t let it go right now. I feel like she’s here with me.”
He sees his daughter in Jeremiah, who never seems to get a cold, just like his mother, and who flashes the same spirited attitude.
“He’s doing so great,” Verner Dilts said, his voice filled with a grandfather’s pride. “He’s going to Head Start every day, and he’s learning. When he’s older, all the girls are just gonna love him. They’re gonna eat him up.”
Verner Dilts works overnights, but he makes sure he’s up in time to share dinner with his grandkids. He clowns with them and wrestles with them. He doesn’t complain if he takes a foot or a knee to the face.
He speaks openly about his family’s struggles, including his own drug use as a young man.
“I’m clean,” he said. “I had the chance to change. Molly, she had a rough life with losing her mom and only brother. She hit the drug scene pretty hard. But she was so young, she didn’t have the chance to change.”
There had been a handful of arrests. Underage drinking. Drug possession. In the most serious incident, she tried to run down a man in a parking lot after a fight. She was released on bail and sent to rehab. It didn’t stick.
When Jeremiah was born in June 2005 — the birth certificate lists his father as unknown — Molly Dilts willingly signed the boy over to her father. For the next year, she bounced between Black Lick and North Philadelphia. Verner Dilts says he wired her whatever he could afford, usually $100. Like clockwork, she called home once a week.
In early October 2006, she was back in Black Lick for a visit. She told her father she was turning it around. She was off the “hard stuff” — crack cocaine — and was only occasionally using marijuana.
“She acted real nice,” Verner Dilts said. “She said things were going good. And all of a sudden she ended up on a bus and left.”
She called home one last time, on Oct. 7. She told Taylor she was fine. Verner Dilts didn’t get the chance to talk to her. Later, he learned the call had been placed from a pay phone in Atlantic City.
Sister Jean Webster noticed the newcomer right away. Molly Dilts didn’t have the look of a hard-core drug user. She seemed a little lost, a little afraid.
For 28 years, Webster has run the soup kitchen at Victory Presbyterian Deliverance Church, at Pennsylvania and Pacific avenues. She knew Kim Raffo, Tracy Roberts and Barbara Breidor, all of whom had arrest records for selling themselves on the streets.
“They were nice girls, respectful girls,” Webster, 73, said last week. “What they did to earn money was none of my business.”
Molly Dilts asked Webster if she knew of a place to stay. Webster told her to go to Covenant House, not far away on Atlantic Avenue.
“She didn’t go,” Webster said, a note of regret in her voice. “The next thing I knew she was dead.”
Verner Dilts is not convinced his daughter worked as a prostitute, noting she was never charged with soliciting.
But in the months after the killings, other prostitutes and local business owners said Molly was clearly working the streets. Like the other victims, she was known to stroll the northern end of Pacific Avenue, between Bally’s and the Showboat.
The details of how and where she met her killer remain unknown. What investigators have determined with certainty is that she was the first to die. The killer took Breidor about two weeks later. A week after that, Roberts was killed. Raffo, the final victim, is believed to have died early Nov. 19, a Sunday.
About 3 p.m. on Nov. 20, two women walking behind the Golden Key Motel, a $15-a-night flophouse on the Black Horse Pike, spotted Raffo’s body in a narrow drainage canal. Police discovered the other victims nearby. Their phones, pocketbooks, identification and shoes have never been found.
Authorities determined Raffo had been strangled and that Roberts died of asphyxiation, perhaps by strangulation, perhaps by another means. Because of decomposition, the medical examiner could not pinpoint a cause of death for Breidor or Molly Dilts.
Since then, investigators have worked thousands of hours and conducted hundreds of interviews. They examined a self-styled street preacher who railed against prostitutes and a petty criminal who confessed to the killings; he was later referred to a psychiatric facility.
The one man known to have come under intense scrutiny is Terry Oleson, 36, a handyman who had been living in the Golden Key when the murders occurred.
For more than a month, investigators kept Oleson under 24-hour surveillance, said a former law enforcement official who worked the case. During that time, Oleson didn’t so much as run a stop sign, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the probe’s sensitive nature.
Authorities searched the handyman’s home in Salem County, impounded his truck and took samples of his DNA.
Though he ultimately served nearly a year in jail for another crime — videotaping his girlfriend’s teenage daughter in the nude — Oleson was neither charged nor named a person of interest in the killings. He also has never been publicly cleared.
Today, unable to find a job, he is living in a Salem County motel, said his lawyer, James J. Leonard Jr., who contends Oleson deserves an apology.
“This will be a stain he will carry with him for the rest of his life,” Leonard said.
Verner Dilts said he would like the case to be solved, but he can no longer summon anger at his daughter’s killer.
“I pray to God this guy gets cured,” he said. “Some people say, ‘I hope he does it again and gets caught.’ I don’t. For some reason in this person’s life, someone hurt him, and I feel for him in my own way. I pity him, because as he gets older, he’s going to have to deal with this, and he’s going to have to go before God with this.”
On Thursday, there will be no memorial ceremony, no special prayer, to mark the anniversary. Verner Dilts says it’s a day he’d rather forget.
He will instead focus on Jeremiah.
When the time is right, he will tell the boy the story of his mother’s life. And when Jeremiah is old enough, the grandfather said, he will take him up to that mountain with his mother’s ashes.
They will spread them together.
Read the story at NJ.com (Nov. 16, 2008)
➽ Streetwalker killings are a daunting case in A.C. (Dec. 21, 2006)
➽ The Atlantic City victims: Four lives of lost youth (Dec. 1, 2006)