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Slayings Add Fear to a Florida Town's Troubles

Just as Port Salerno's economic recovery is progressing, residents are shaken by 3 killings.

June 22, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

PORT SALERNO, Fla. — The first victim turned up in March in a drainage ditch. Jackie Bradley, 43 and homeless, had been living in the woods behind a car dealership.

This month, the bodies of two more slain women were found about two miles away, near a retention pond. Police said that Christal Dawn Wiggins, a 29-year-old prostitute, and Carrie Ann Caughey, 18, a former runaway, had -- like Bradley -- been strangled.

For more than a decade, Port Salerno has been struggling to turn its economic fortunes around, and there has been significant progress. But residents these days talk of little but the killings and wonder: Is a serial killer on the loose?

"I have the bag boys at Winn-Dixie walk me to my car, and I didn't do that before," said Lynn McPherson, 47, who moved here three years ago from Miami, about 100 miles to the south.

Many patrons of the Powder Puff Beauty Salon have become worried enough to alter their daily habits. "They're afraid to leave their doors open, even if it's nice out," said hairdresser Millie Giarrantano. "They are afraid to take a walk alone. They are afraid to go out."

Martin County, which includes Port Salerno, typically sees half a dozen homicides a year. "We're not Miami; we're not used to this," said Sgt. Jenell Atlas, the Sheriff's Department spokeswoman. Detectives have been working 15-hour days, Atlas said, to see if there is a link among the victims or something tying them to a single suspect. Martin County Sheriff Robert L. Crowder has announced that his investigators have "several possible suspects."

Port Salerno, located on a sheltered arm of the Indian River lagoon, once was a thriving commercial fishing center with big enough catches of shark, Spanish mackerel and other saltwater species to keep a dozen fish houses busy filleting, icing and shipping fish.

But decline set in, and the crowning blow came 10 years ago with a ban on certain kinds of net fishing. Entire families in Port Salerno had their livelihoods wiped out. For this community of 10,000, finding jobs in nearby towns catering to the needs of visiting snowbirds has been meager compensation.

"When families come down for the winter, everybody has a job and the money is flowing. But when they leave, people are destitute practically," said Elmira R. Gainey-Gates, who represented Port Salerno for eight years on the County Commission.

Martin County is home to some of Florida's most opulent homes and gated communities. For many people, Port Salerno -- which sits astride the Florida East Coast Railway -- is literally the wrong side of the tracks. There are persistent problems with drugs and prostitution. Law enforcement authorities classify Port Salerno as a "high service area."

The slayings "could happen in any community, rich or poor," said Gary Guertin, the general manager of Pirates Cove Resort & Marina here. "But Port Salerno didn't need this for its reputation." The community has been rebounding, Guertin insists, with major improvements made to the main north-south road, a new waterfront restaurant under construction and a shoreline boardwalk planned.

"What we are trying to do is restore an old neighborhood and community to what it should be," he said.

To deter the killer or killers from striking again, the Sheriff's Department has sent reinforcements to its Port Salerno substation. Deputies in shorts and T-shirts have been patrolling the woods on all-terrain vehicles; they have alerted the area's homeless about the danger.

So far, Atlas said, the common thread in the three slayings is the victims' "high-risk lifestyles."

"Women in Port Salerno are no more at risk than anywhere else," Atlas said. "We don't have a killer running around targeting women taking children to school or going to the grocery store." The sheriff's wife, an employee of the county school district, continues to work in Port Salerno without special protection, Atlas said.

Some residents are hardly reassured. They recall the slayings of two other women here in 1997 and wonder whether that killer -- who authorities said escaped to Mexico -- may have returned to kill again.

"I won't even let my 11-year-old daughter go to the park," said Pamela Hynes, 39, who lives three blocks from where one of the recent victims was found. "I won't let her out of my sight."

For Hynes and a number of other women taking refuge from the midday sun in the air-conditioned chill of the Oasis, a cafe on U.S. Highway 1, the deaths were a recurring tropic of conservation.

Loraine Campbell, 34, said her housecleaning business was now short-handed because one employee had become so frightened that she quit and moved away.

"How do you know he's not in here?" asked server Melissa Musarra, 25, at one point, glancing around the bar.

"You don't, sweetheart," Hynes said.

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