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Police seeking connections in Kensington assaults, killings

Layered in sweats and a hoodie pulled so tight around her face that only her eyes peered out, a woman who called herself Jessica leaned against a fence in front of a mural that promotes "Kensington, the Heart of Philadelphia."

Under the El in Kensington, pedestrians crossing Kensington Avenue pass a Citizens' Crime Commission reward poster for a man wanted for questioning in last month’s strangulation of Elaine Goldberg. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)
Under the El in Kensington, pedestrians crossing Kensington Avenue pass a Citizens' Crime Commission reward poster for a man wanted for questioning in last month’s strangulation of Elaine Goldberg. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)Read more

Layered in sweats and a hoodie pulled so tight around her face that only her eyes peered out, a woman who called herself Jessica leaned against a fence in front of a mural that promotes "Kensington, the Heart of Philadelphia."

Jessica - "that's my real name," she promised - said she had taken precautions since the so-called Kensington strangler began to attack women like her, who are out walking the streets.

She said, unconvincingly, that she tried not to take too many risks, that she went in at night, that sometimes she stayed with a friend in Jersey, where "it's quiet."

"I avoid people, like this guy over here," she said, nodding toward a mustachioed man in a down jacket, carrying a yellow plastic bag.

But then Jessica acknowledged the truth of this life. "Even if there wasn't some guy making the newspapers, there's still somebody out there who would do [something] like that," she said.

This stretch of the city's Kensington neighborhood, where Jessica stood Wednesday on a corner at Kensington and Lehigh Avenues in the bitter wind, has long been known as a hotbed for drug trafficking and prostitution - a place many locals know to avoid. But in recent weeks, since someone began preying on the area's most vulnerable women, the neighborhood has taken on a darker, even more dangerous identity.

Three women have been strangled since Nov. 3. All had battled drug addiction. Three others since early October survived brutal attacks by a man who sexually assaulted, choked, or hit them.

Investigators have declined to describe the pattern of attacks as the work of a serial killer or serial rapist, and said they were still investigating possible connections. DNA evidence has linked two of the deaths. The surviving victims, meanwhile, have each described essentially the same man as their attacker.

Police have since flooded Kensington with uniformed and undercover officers. They created a task force to investigate the attacks, and have made hundreds of car and pedestrian stops. They have arrested more than 80 people on charges of soliciting prostitutes and more than a dozen suspected prostitutes, and have taken swabs from 60 people for DNA analysis, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said.

"We're trying to attack this in a way that leaves no stone unturned," he said.

The DNA taken from the victims' bodies has been submitted to a computer database that stores genetic profiles of thousands of sex offenders nationwide. So far, police said, no matches have come back.

The FBI is trying to assemble a profile of the killer by reviewing evidence collected by local authorities.

Special Agent J.J. Klaver, spokesman for the FBI in Philadelphia, said investigators would "develop a picture of the characteristic of the offender who will commit these types of crimes."

The FBI will use its database to determine if the characteristics of the Kensington slayings mirror unsolved cases elsewhere. The Police Department is looking at whether other unsolved cases in the city involved similar circumstances.

Police have developed a composite sketch of a suspect - a slender man in his 20s who stands between 5-foot-7 and 5-10. Two women said he had a goatee and a mark on his cheek, but a woman who was attacked weeks later told police that there was no goatee or mark, and she mentioned that he had sideburns. Two women described him as soft-spoken; one said he had carried a white iPod and called himself Anthony.

Police don't know whether the man in the composite sketch is the killer, and Ramsey cautioned people to keep in mind that the sketch was only a guideline as to what the person might look like.

Police said prostitutes or drug addicts were vulnerable to violence, and they urged those women to take extra caution.

"Don't walk alone. Always walk in pairs," said Philadelphia Police Capt. James Clark, head of the Homicide Unit. "We have a predator who's out there."

Elaine Goldberg, 22, was found Nov. 3 in a vacant lot. Nicole Piacentini, 35, was found Nov. 13 at an abandoned building. Both had been beaten, strangled, and sexually assaulted.

Allison Edwards, 22, was found strangled in an apartment, about two miles away in Juniata Park. DNA testing has not been completed, but police said Wednesday that they didn't believe her killing was connected to the previous deaths. Police are talking with several men who were in the apartment with Edwards, Clark said, and have identified a "person of interest."

Police were questioning a man who had been arrested after he allegedly followed two young women to their house on East Cornwall Street early Wednesday and tried to force his way in. A male roommate intervened and kept the man there until police arrived. Police have not released that man's name, but said they were analyzing his DNA.

After Piacentini's death, two women told police that they had been assaulted in October. In each case, the women told police, the attacker offered money for sex. After the women accompanied the man to a deserted area, he choked them until they passed out. Both said they had been sexually assaulted.

Rape is a generally underreported crime, Philadelphia Police Capt. John Darby said. Women who are involved in illegal activities, like the women who were attacked in October, may be even less willing to come forward, he said.

On Monday, a woman met a man on Kensington Avenue who resembled the description given by attack victims. He offered money for sex, police said, then hit her with a brick in the same alleyway that was the scene of one of the October assaults. She managed to get away. According to Darby, she told police, "I was just attacked by the Kensington strangler."

In Kensington, the attacks have prompted some residents to talk about making changes in the neighborhood.

Erin Howley is trying to gather people for a meeting at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center to address the underlying problems "that led to this being a preying ground." The meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Dec. 18.

"There's a big fear factor, but it's also important to not let that fear dominate life," Howley said. "The real thing that compelled me to act is I can't continue to live in a place that's been violated," she said.

The Rev. Michael Duffy works at Kensington's St. Francis Inn Ministries, which feeds hundreds of people every day. Duffy said Kensington didn't have the kind of drug gangs or urban warfare of other poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But Kensington has many who are homeless, drug addicts, and prostitutes who make use of the area's plethora of abandoned buildings, or "abandominiums."

The murders, he said, have "put a lot of fear in people."

On Kensington Avenue on Wednesday, a woman who gave her name as Amy stood in sweats and a puffy jacket, bouncing on her feet in the cold.

She said she was from Wilmington and had been "working" in Kensington for a day and a half. Asked what kind of work, she smirked and said, "Come on, that's a stupid question."

She knew a man was strangling young women in the neighborhood - women with drug problems, some undoubtedly in her line of work. But Amy, with a prominent scar over her left eye, seemed undeterred. She carried a pocket knife, she said.

"I can pretty much take care of myself," Amy said. "I'm a big girl."

Bob Koehler, a recovering addict who said he had known victim Allison Edwards, said the strangler was going after "easy targets."

"They're out there late at night, doing what they do," he said. "They're willing to walk into these alleyways with guys."

He understands what it's like. "I think of the things I did to make money," he said. "I understand they're sick. They're doing what they have to for their habit. . . . But they don't deserve nothing like this."

Erica Rosado-Moore, another recovering addict, said the drawing of the suspect, taped on many of the El's support columns, reminded her of a man who once attacked her.

"Every time I look at that picture I just stare at it," she said. "It's hard. Philly is no joke."