THE FIEND WHOM much of the city calls the Kensington Strangler can now be known by another name: serial killer.
Police officials announced last night that DNA evidence has definitively linked the strangler to the murders and sexual assaults of three women, all of whom have been found partially nude in desolate Kensington lots in the past month.
Earlier in the day, many of those same officials announced a $37,000 reward for information that leads to the capture and conviction of the cold-blooded killer, whose specter continues to haunt much of the area.
Homicide Capt. James Clark said detectives had just learned that DNA evidence found on Casey Mahoney, 27, whose body was found facedown last Wednesday in a wooded lot at Front and Tusculum streets, matched genetic material found on the two other murder victims.
"As a result of this being the third murder in a short period of time in the same area with the same type of victims," Clark said, "we do at this time consider this to be a serial murderer."
The news came as little surprise to anyone who has been following the ever-worsening story of the Strangler, who is also a suspect in three attacks on women who were choked and sexually assaulted in Kensington since October.
Two of those victims helped police create a composite sketch of their attacker.
Investigators also found surveillance footage that shows the man who choked and beat a woman in an alley on Dec. 6; the man in the video appears to closely resemble the sketch.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey acknowledged that there could be other Strangler victims hidden in weeded lots or abandoned houses that police don't know about yet.
A task force of investigators from several units has been "doing everything they can to bring this predator to justice," Clark said.
But despite it all - the surveillance footage, the sketches, the intense focus on anything suspicious that happens on Kensington Avenue - they've had nothing to show for it.
With that in mind, Ramsey, Mayor Nutter and other brass gathered earlier in the day at Cumberland and Jasper streets - where the strangler's second victim, Nicole Piacentini, was found on Nov. 13 - to announce a dramatic increase in the reward, from $3,000 to $37,000.
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, said $7,000 of that money - $5,000 from the FOP and $2,000 from Councilman Frank DiCicco - would be paid just for the suspect's arrest.
"If the DNA matches, you can be paid by Christmas," he said.
The other $30,000 - $25,000 from the city and $5,000 from the Citizens Crime Commission - will be paid upon the Strangler's conviction, Nutter said.
When the sum was announced, Kensington residents who had gathered around the throng of reporters let out a collective "Whoa!"
"We are serious about getting this psycho off the streets of Philadelphia," Nutter said.
Ramsey agreed, but cautioned against vigilante justice, especially after the photo and name of a man who is not a suspect appeared on Facebook and on fliers this week.
"We don't need that sort of thing," Ramsey said.
"We can solve this, but we can do so protecting the rights of all people."
Deputy Commissioner William Blackburn said that 120 johns and prostitutes have been arrested since Nov. 19 and that 154 swabs have been taken from people along the Kensington corridor. Of those swabbed, 45 have been ruled out as a suspect. He said the remaining samples are in "various stages of genetic profiling."
Ramsey said more than 150 tips have come in and police are following up on every one.
Throughout the news conference, residents shouted questions and statements at officials that went unacknowledged, such as "People are afraid!" "We want more foot patrols back!" and "Is there any clearer pictures you can release of this sicko?"
Jay Wiley, a resident who participates in town watches, said he doubted he'd abide by officials' plea to call police and not go after the suspect on his own.
"This guy is really sick, and I've got something to tell you: If the police don't get you, the town watch will get you and the neighborhood will get you," he said. "No violence. I will grab you and put you down on the ground and hold you for police."
Another resident, who asked to be identified as Shae, said she carries a stick to protect herself.
She said the reward didn't ease her mind because people still don't know exactly what the killer looks like.
"We are just afraid. We're really afraid," she said.