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Guardian Angels come to Kensington to help stop a killer

Curtis Sliwa and his squad of 10 unarmed protectors were here to help in the hunt for the Kensington Strangler - and to help residents who are afraid to walk the streets

CURTIS SLIWA pointed toward a young mother pushing a stroller through a Sunday-afternoon crowd of panhandlers and drug dealers at the foot of the Market-Frankford Line station, at Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street.

"Look over there at that woman," said Sliwa, leader of the New York-based Guardian Angels. "It must be so terrifying . . . navigating through the crowd while they eye you up, thinking, 'What do you have that we can rip off and sell to get high?' "

Sliwa and his squad of 10 unarmed protectors were in Kensington yesterday to help in the hunt for the apparent serial killer known as the Kensington Strangler - and to help residents who are afraid to walk the streets.

"This is such a high-crime, intense drug area to begin with," Sliwa said. The killer "just adds to the desperation and despair of the area. We hope to lift these people's spirits, especially because it's around the holiday season."

Although many Kensington residents say they are more scared than usual, the community is starting to fight back. At a meeting Saturday morning at the Bevilacqua Center, on Kensington Avenue, dozens showed up to discuss the violence and fear.

Capt. Mike Cram, commanding officer of the 26th District, which includes part of Kensington south of Lehigh Avenue, said the meeting showed that "people are starting to figure out how to take back their neighborhood."

"I was very impressed with the people who came," said Cram, who represented the police at the meeting. "People vented a little bit, but they care. People are fed up with the crime in the area and are willing to take action."

"If you get a really strong community, you can drive the bad guys back into the shadows where they belong."

As for the Angels, Sliwa said the group was in the neighborhood at the behest of residents and would provide evening patrol shifts until a suspect is arrested.

Angels will arrive by bus from New York every day in rotations, and some who live in Philadelphia also will patrol. The organization has had a Philadelphia chapter since the 1980s, Sliwa said.

The Angels will escort women home if requested and hand out fliers and a contact number for the group, Sliwa said. A group of Angels will be based at the foot of the SEPTA station, looking for information and helping residents who take the train home from work late at night, he said.

The Angels intend to act as a liaison between the police and residents, forwarding tips to authorities. Some residents may be more comfortable confiding in the Angels than in police, Sliwa said.

"Snitches get stitches and end up in ditches," he said. "That's part of the subculture of rap and hip-hop here, that people that were willing to give information all of sudden have amnesia. They don't say nothing to nobody."

Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels 32 years ago as a volunteer patrol to help take back control of New York's crime-ridden subways, streets and neighborhoods.

"Everything helps. It's always good to have extra eyes out there," said police spokesman Lt. Ray Evers. "But when it comes to pure investigation, it will be on us."

The Angels worked with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey when he was in Chicago and Washington, Sliwa said.

Tina Murphy, 28, who takes the train to visit her grandmother and frequently shops along Kensington Avenue, said she's pleased to have the extra protection.

"You know, [the Strangler] might have started with prostitutes, but you never know, he might get desperate and go for easy, vulnerable people," Murphy said.

And the slayings do nothing for Kensington's already gritty reputation, she said. "It's sad, because all this does is add more fear to a place that was already pretty bad," she said. "This just makes it worse."

Murphy shook the hand of one of the Angels. "It's good you guys are here," she told him. "It's good to see people helping."

Sliwa spoke with self-assurance about the task of finding the Kensington Strangler.

"Our feeling is, whether placed behind bars or in a pine box six feet under, pushing up daisies, he's gotta be taken out," he said.