East St. Louis police struggling to solve the mysterious deaths of 12 women

Wednesday, January 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (AP) _ Delores Turner has found a way to cope with the unanswered questions about the death of her 33-year-old daughter, whose body was found dumped in a vacant lot nearly two years ago _ she simply doesn't ask them.

But Turner's 16-year-old grandson isn't so understanding about the killing of his mother, Seriece Johnson.

``He wants to know who did this,'' Turner said in a recent interview. ``I say it doesn't matter if we find out, because God knows.''

Answers have been slow to come in the deaths of Johnson and 11 other women whose bodies were found since 1999 in this impoverished city or the surrounding metropolitan area that stretches across the Mississippi River into St. Louis.

Until recently, the East St. Louis Police Department had turned down offers by the FBI to help investigate the deaths, insisting on solving the crimes alone and making little headway. But the department has a new chief now, who gladly works with the FBI, Illinois State Police and the St. Louis and St. Charles, Mo., police on the cases.

``There is somebody or several people out there killing folks,'' said Chief Delbert Marion, a 24-year department veteran who took over in September. ``Eventually, they're going to get caught.''

Authorities believe they've made progress in determining whether the deaths were the work of a single serial killer or of multiple killers who prey on the same type of victim: poor black women who sell sex to support their drug or alcohol habits.

Police say they have a suspect in four of the killings _ including Johnson's _ in which the bodies were found in East St. Louis. The suspect, whom police won't identify, is now in prison on an unrelated charge. Investigators are still trying to determine whether the other killings are linked in any way.

Marion insists his beleaguered department _ underfunded and overburdened _ is up to the task. But he admits he doesn't have the staff to assign anyone to the cases full-time _ and probably wouldn't if he did, since leads are drying up.

The cash-strapped city of 31,000 people has shrunk its police department from more than 90 officers three years ago to 61 today, Marion said, while the population and high crime rate haven't diminished.

``If we had more police officers patrolling the streets, people wouldn't come here and feel they can get away with dumping bodies,'' Mayor Debra Powell said.

At first, the deaths drew little attention. In a city plagued by drugs and violence, the discovery of the first decomposed body in an abandoned house in November 1999 hardly seemed out of the ordinary. Police say the victim was a drug user who frequented dangerous areas.

But the gruesome discoveries continued, within about a 10-mile radius. The bodies of two more women, one of them Johnson, were found three months later under a train trestle on the other side of town. Two more were found months after that nearby _ one by a dog that was seen chewing on a human bone.

One was found in St. Louis; two more a few miles away in St. Charles. Another was found in Washington Park, close enough to this city that the East St. Louis Police Department is investigating the death.

There are similarities. Eleven of the 12 women were black. Each was a heavy drug user or drinker, police say, and most sold sex when they needed money. But none was a prostitute in a conventional way, said Lt. Ron Henderson, head of the homicide division in the St. Louis Police Department.

That makes the crimes harder to solve, Henderson said, because the victims didn't have a pimp or a network of other prostitutes to keep track of them.

Some of the women were killed in similar ways, by strangulation or a blow to the head; in many cases, the bodies were too decomposed to tell. Some had ligature marks on wrists or ankles. Some had been stuffed into trash bags; a few were found only feet apart.

St. Charles Sheriff's Lt. Dave Kaiser said it's been hard finding witnesses to cooperate _ even if they knew the victims. ``These murders don't seem to worry them,'' he said.

Equally puzzling is why East St. Louis police didn't work with other authorities earlier in the investigation.

The mayor says former Chief J.W. Cowan never needed the FBI's help because he was making progress on his own. She declined to describe that progress, saying to do so would compromise the investigation. Cowan, now retired, could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press.

The man who said he made the offer, FBI agent Reggie Joseph, has said he doesn't know why Cowan never took him up on it.

The FBI's acting agent in charge of its Fairview Heights office, Matt Iskrzycki, won't discuss the past, either. ``We're continuing to help, that's all I can say,'' Iskrzycki said.