This story appeared in The Star-Ledger and NJ.com on Nov. 20, 2016. It can be found here.
At 11 years old, Jeremiah Dilts is too young to know the terrible details of his mother’s death.
He’s been told a “bad man” took her. And that the man killed her. And that the man has never been caught.
The boy has few memories of Molly Dilts. He said his grandfather, Verner Dilts, tells him she was nice.
On Sunday, the Dilts family, along with other families they have come to know through shared loss, will mark an unwelcome and frustrating milestone.
It has been 10 years since a suspected serial killer prowling the streets of Atlantic City claimed Molly Dilts, 20, and three other women, Kim Raffo, 35, Barbara Breidor, 42, and Tracy Ann Roberts, 23. The women, whose lives had unraveled under the weight of drug addiction, worked as prostitutes in the shadow of the resort’s neon-lit casinos.
Over five weeks, the killer took them one by one, dumping their bodies in a brackish, trash-strewn drainage canal that runs between the Atlantic City Expressway and the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township, just over the Atlantic City border.
Two women walking behind the Golden Key Motel, a $15-a-night flophouse, discovered Raffo’s body on the morning of Nov. 20, 2006. Police found the other victims in the hours afterward.
The killings spawned lurid headlines around the nation for months, stoked fear among streetwalkers in the casino district and gave rise to a tabloid nickname for the shadowy killer — the “Eastbound Strangler” — because of the way the tide had positioned the women’s bodies, with their heads pointed east, toward Atlantic City.
For the families, the discovery was far more personal, marking the final, tragic step in the slow-motion decline of their loved ones.
Raffo, a Brooklyn native, had once been a PTA mom in Florida. Breidor, of Ventnor, worked as a cocktail waitress at the Tropicana and helped manage her mother’s clothing shop before she became hooked first on prescription pills, then on heroin. Her daughter graduated from high school earlier this year.
Roberts, a high school dropout from Delaware, wanted out of the life she had made for herself. On Nov. 8, 2006, she called her mother to pick her up in Atlantic City, The Star-Ledger previously reported. Then she changed her mind. Within days, she was dead. She also left a daughter.
Dilts was a newcomer to Atlantic City, moving there from rural Black Lick, Pa. Her mother died young. Then her brother. Verner Dilts says the deaths were tough on his daughter. He last heard from her Oct. 7, 2006. She called from a pay phone in Atlantic City. She, too, would soon be dead.
Verner Dilts, who is raising his grandson in Black Lick, said he fears the killer will go unpunished. He said he has not heard from law enforcement in three or four years, a sign, he suggests, that investigators have written off the case.
“As long as they got nothing to go on, I guess they got nothing to say,” he said. “I think they just screwed everything up.”
Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Diane M. Ruberton declined a request for an interview. In a brief statement, Ruberton said the case “remains and will remain under active investigation by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office until the case is solved, and the perpetrator identified, charged, and convicted in court.”
She said no additional information would be released. She declined to say whether investigators have ruled out a link between the Atlantic City killings and the discovery of 10 women’s bodies along a stretch of shoreline on Long Island in 2010 and 2011.
The Suffolk County Police Department, which is leading that investigation, said last week it believes the cases are unrelated.
Inside the investigation
Some killers leave behind breadcrumbs — hair, skin, semen or blood — that give investigators a clear trail to follow.
In the Atlantic City case, detectives didn’t even have a crime scene.
Raffo, Breidor, Roberts and Dilts were believed to have been killed elsewhere before their bodies were dumped, leaving precious little to examine, authorities have said. In addition, the water hastened decomposition and likely washed away trace evidence.
A former high-ranking law enforcement official who worked on the case recently provided NJ Advance Media with an inside account of the investigation in its early days, including details never before disclosed. The official spoke on the condition that he not be named because he did not want to damage relationships with his former colleagues.
Among the disclosures:
* Raffo had no defensive wounds on her body, suggesting she could have been drugged or attacked while incapacitated. The other women had no discernible defensive wounds, but because of the state of decomposition, wounds could not be ruled out.
* An autopsy found another person’s DNA under Raffo’s fingernails, but it could have been from incidental contact and not connected to her death. The DNA did not match anyone in law enforcement databases.
* One day before her death, Raffo was with a customer, a North Jersey doctor, who had a room at the now-shuttered Trump Taj Mahal. At about 5 a.m. on Nov. 19, the law enforcement official said, Raffo told the man she was going out to buy drugs and would return. When she did not, the doctor called her several times, receiving no answer.
Using Raffo’s cell phone records, investigators tracked down and interviewed the doctor, ultimately clearing him of suspicion because surveillance video from the hotel and casino appeared to confirm his account.
The man’s calls to Raffo were routed to a cell tower on the Black Horse Pike, not far from where the bodies were discovered.
“We don’t know if she was alive or dead at that point,” the official said.
The official was critical of the investigation’s structure, saying four separate teams of detectives were assigned to investigate each killing independently, as if there were four killers, because he said the prosecutor’s office was hesitant to label the slayings the work of a serial killer in a city so dependent on tourism.
As a result, the official said, one team often duplicated what another team had already done, and communication between teams was not as fluid as it should have been despite daily meetings.
“They just didn’t want to start with the premise that one person did all of this,” the official said. “That was their fatal mistake.”
It would be months before prosecutors acknowledged to reporters the killings were likely the work of one person.
In another misstep, the official said, the investigation did not immediately include veteran Atlantic City vice officers because the women were found in Egg Harbor Township. Those officers, deeply familiar with the resort’s streetwalkers, could have provided insight and worked their contacts on the street, the official said.
A multi-agency task force ultimately was formed a month later.
In the months and years after the killings, investigators interviewed hundreds of people, from a man who had a collection of women’s shoes in his Pacific Avenue hotel room to a local petty criminal who confessed while jailed. He was later found to have an alibi and referred to a psychiatric facility.
Investigators gave their closest attention to a Salem County handyman who had been living at the Golden Key Motel when the murders occurred.
The man, who at one point was placed under 24-hour surveillance, later pleaded guilty to an invasion of privacy charge for secretly videotaping his girlfriend’s daughter in the bathroom of the couple’s home.
But authorities could find no connection to the Atlantic City case, and he was never publicly declared a suspect. Though his name was widely reported at the time, NJ Advance Media is not naming him now because he has not been charged in connection with the killings.
The man voluntarily provided DNA samples. No match.
“It’s been 10 years. With all the DNA they’ve had for all that time, the fact that he was never charged speaks volumes, in my opinion,” said the man’s Atlantic City-based lawyer, James J. Leonard Jr. “This isn’t a case where he’s the guy and they can’t prove it. He’s not the guy, period.”
The attorney said he has no doubt investigators want to find the killer and have worked hard toward that goal, but he said he believes detectives were so convinced his client committed the crime they neglected to pursue other avenues.
He said he also was troubled that authorities never offered a reward for information leading to an arrest, a move he said might have appealed to those most likely to see something: the drug users and prostitutes who spent their days and nights on and around Pacific Avenue.
A $25,000 reward was ultimately offered last year by a private company that specializes in criminal profiling.
“It’s 10 years old now,” Leonard said. “People move. People die. People forget. It’s a cold case.”
A child’s solace
The Golden Key Motel is gone now, ripped to pieces by a backhoe, its soiled carpets and tobacco-stained walls carted away load by load in the summer of 2015 as part of a community revitalization effort.
The four handmade wooden crosses that once stood beside it — a tribute to the victims — are gone, too.
What remains on the lot are bits of broken concrete, the odd floor tile and discarded plastic water bottles.
The drainage canal, flanked by reeds and trash, continues to flow on the narrow strip, an eerie, desolate place.
In Atlantic City, prostitutes still work the corners, though in far fewer numbers than they did a decade ago. The city had 12 casinos then, attracting a seemingly endless flow of men with money to spend.
Today, with just seven casinos operating, the city is not as much of a draw, said Leonard, the attorney. Some of the decline in streetwalkers, he said, can be attributed to the rise of websites like Backpage.com, where prostitutes advertise their services, and to increased enforcement by police.
Even so, he said, the killings continue to hang over Atlantic City like a haze.
“Within a certain element, meaning people who are involved in the street life, it absolutely still resonates, because to them, there is a fear that this person is still out there,” he said.
In Black Lick, an urn containing Molly Dilts’ ashes sits on a mantel above the fireplace in Verner Dilts’ home.
He talks to Jeremiah about the child’s mother occasionally, reminding him that no matter her struggles, Molly Dilts loved her son.
Jeremiah embraces the sentiment. He takes solace in what his grandfather has told him.
“She’s in a better place,” the boy said.
➽ In Living Memory: Children of the Atlantic City victims (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)