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Suspect held in British deaths

Media say a 37-year-old grocery worker is the man police have detained in the killings of five prostitutes.

December 19, 2006|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Police investigating the slayings of five prostitutes in eastern England announced Monday that they had arrested a 37-year-old man in the town of Trimley St. Martin on suspicion of killing the women.

They did not immediately identify the suspect. But British media were quick to name him as Tom Stephens, described as a divorced supermarket worker and part-time taxi driver.

Stephens acknowledged in recent interviews with the BBC and the Sunday Mirror that he had had a close relationship with two of the victims and knew many prostitutes in the Suffolk town of Ipswich, the area where the bodies were found.

British media had followed the hunt for the killer intensely and compared the case to that of Peter Sutcliffe, known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who is serving a life sentence for murdering 13 women between October 1975 and November 1980.

The five bodies in Suffolk were found over 10 days ending Dec. 12. Distraught relatives and friends launched appeals to end the killing spree, and sex workers around the country called for greater protection and regulation for women who work on the streets.

Police cautioned that the investigation would continue despite Monday's arrest. The intense hunt for evidence continued into the night, involving officers from more than 30 forces around the country.

"Proceedings are active and the police inquiry is ongoing," said Dave Cook of the Suffolk police media office.

In his interview with the Mirror, which appeared Sunday, Stephens said he had been the subject of police inquiries on the killings. "I could get arrested," he was quoted as saying. "That is quite likely; let's not say likely, let's say possible."

"From the police profiling it does look like me: white male between 25 and 40, knows the area, works strange hours," he added.

"I know that I'm innocent. But I don't have alibis for some of the time; actually, I'm not entirely sure I have tight alibis for any of the times."

Police reportedly began interrogating Stephens on Monday afternoon. According to British law, authorities have up to 96 hours to carry out questioning before having to charge or release a suspect.

Stephens, who was surprisingly candid in his media interviews, said he had gone voluntarily to police and had already been questioned four times. His house had been searched, he said, and a cellphone and laptop were taken for forensic examination.

On Monday evening, British television showed police searching a one-bedroom house where Stephens reportedly lived alone in Trimley St. Martin, about 70 miles northeast of London near the North Sea coast.

All five of the slain women were known to work as prostitutes in the Ipswich area. All were found naked, their bodies dumped in undergrowth or watercourses in countryside bordering the main A14 road. The causes of death were released for only two of the women.

Gemma Adams, 25, was the first to be reported missing, on Nov. 25. A week later, a passerby discovered her body in a stream near Ipswich. Stephens told the BBC that he had known her for more than a year.

Tania Nicol, 19, was found slain Dec. 8, her body abandoned in a nearby river.

Anneli Alderton, 24, was found in woodland in the same area on Dec. 10, her death caused by asphyxiation, police reports said.

Two more missing women were found dead Dec. 12. Late last week detectives identified them as Paula Clennell, 24, who died from "compression to the neck," according to police, and Annette Nicholls, 29. Their bodies were discovered lying in undergrowth near the village of Levington close to the A14.

Stephens told interviewers that he began to frequent prostitutes about 18 months ago, after his divorce.

He told the Sunday Mirror that he was "a friend of all the girls. I was closest to Tania. And Gemma.... But I should have been there to watch over them."

*

janet.stobart@latimes.com

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