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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM EAST ST. LOUIS

Few Leads in Slayings of 13 Women

Crime: Most of the victims, killed in the last two years, were addicts or prostitutes. But officials call the cases unlinked homicides.

November 14, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — The first body was discovered nearly two years ago in an abandoned house shrouded with roof-high weeds. The next was found three months later in a desolate field. A search for clues netted a third body stuffed into a trash bag.

And that was only the beginning.

In the last 23 months, the corpses of nine women have turned up in this battered riverfront city--including two last month. Four more female victims have been dumped in nearby communities. The bodies have been found mostly by gruesome happenstance: a construction worker wandering past a decomposing corpse, a pedestrian spotting motionless feet in the weeds, a neighborhood dog gnawing on what turned out to be a human leg bone.

Nearly all 13 victims were prostitutes or drug addicts. All but one--the first--were black. At least seven of the bodies were found nude or nearly so. Four had been crammed into plastic bags, several had been strangled and at least four showed signs of having been bound hand and foot. Five of the corpses had been dumped within a few blocks of one another.

Given those common threads, police from several local agencies have suggested that a serial killer, or perhaps more than one, could be at work. They even have a suspect in mind for four of the murders, although there's not yet enough evidence to charge him. But here in East St. Louis, which is taking the lead on most of the cases, officials angrily turn back suggestions that a multiple murderer is on the prowl.

"I don't know anything about a serial killer," Police Chief Delbert Marion said. "At this point, we're not associating any of [the cases]. We're investigating them one at a time, as they come."

A Shrinking Police Force

Marion has promised vigorous detective work. But he concedes he is woefully short-staffed. More than two dozen veteran officers quit when the city offered an early retirement package in 1999. And the turnover rate remains disastrously high.

There were 98 sworn officers on the force three years ago. Today there are 61. That works out to one officer for every 500 residents. By comparison, across the river in St. Louis, there is one officer for every 250 citizens. (Los Angeles has one officer per 400 residents.) The force here is so overextended that Mayor Debra Powell has declared a policing "emergency."

Marion himself says his force can do little other than respond to 911 calls. For instance, he can spare no officers to crack down on the prostitutes, pimps and drug pushers who strut through the city's "strip areas"--including the decaying industrial neighborhood where 41-year-old Lolina Collins, one of only two victims not believed to be a prostitute, was found strangled earlier this month.

"We don't have the manpower to be a proactive department," Marion said.

The FBI repeatedly has offered to help. After the fifth body was found in the spring of 2000, local agents suggested calling in FBI experts on serial killers. But Marion's predecessor as police chief rebuffed that offer.

Marion, who took office last month, said he would welcome federal help. Now that the city is open to collaboration, however, the FBI is otherwise engaged. "Everyone in this country realizes that with what has happened on Sept. 11, this [case] is not going to be a priority right now," said FBI agent Reginald Joseph, who is based in nearby Fairview Heights, Ill.

Local detectives are collaborating with the Illinois State Police and other law enforcement agencies in the region. They have identified all 13 of the women, who ranged in age from 28 to 61. And they have determined that several of the victims frequented the Princess Motel--a grubby cinder-block establishment where rates start at $10 for two hours and vodka is sold behind bulletproof glass at the front desk.

Yet beyond those basics, progress has been slow. Some of the bodies were so decomposed that it was impossible to determine the cause--or even the approximate month--of death. Authorities are not even sure whether the nine victims found within city limits were killed here or just disposed of here.

"East St. Louis has historically been used as a dumping ground because there are so many derelict areas," Powell explained.

The mayor is struggling to change that reputation, pushing for a $500-million development of a golf course, theaters and a convention center on the city's waterfront along the Mississippi River. She also has ordered cleanups of the head-high weeds in vacant lots.

Yet such efforts are hampered by continual financial crisis in this city of 31,500, where 1 in 5 families lives in public housing and more than half the children live in poverty.

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