Casey Mahoney knew she was in danger.

Ten days before she was strangled and left in a desolate patch of woods near railroad tracks, Mahoney, who had struggled with drugs for much of her life, called her closest friend and asked for help getting away from the streets of Kensington.

Her friend, Jodie Melodia, bought a bus ticket that took Mahoney, 27, back to East Stroudsburg, Pa., where she lived and where her young son is being raised by his father and grandmother. Mahoney, who has been in and out of rehab since she was a teenager, entered a drug-detox program last week, Melodia said.

"She said that she owed me her life, because she was going to get killed down there," said Melodia, 33, who had not heard from Mahoney for weeks before getting the call. "She told me she had been raped, she had been beaten. Her body was covered with bruises. She was scared."

Melodia is not sure whether Mahoney knew that a man recently strangled two women in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood - women who, like Mahoney, were addicted to drugs and willing to go to desperate measures to get them. Mahoney may have seen the fliers posted in the historically crime-ridden neighborhood, warning of a man who is suspected in attacks on several women last month.

In any case, Mahoney told Melodia she'd had enough of the streets, and said she planned to enter rehab after she finished detox.

Instead, Mahoney left her program last weekend and headed back to Kensington, a section of the city associated with drug dealing and prostitution. Melodia doesn't know how or when Mahoney got to Philadelphia, but she believes it could not have been earlier than last Saturday.

Mahoney's body turned up Wednesday around 5 p.m., not far from the places where Kensington's other strangling victims were found last month.

Police said there are strong indications that Mahoney was killed by the man responsible for the deaths of Elaine Goldberg and Nicole Piacentini. Those deaths have been linked by DNA evidence, but testing has not yet been completed on evidence taken from Mahoney's body.

The similarities between the homicides have led police to acknowledge that the pattern may be the work of a serial killer. All three victims were white and between 21 and 35. They were found nude from the waist down, blocks from each other, in vacant lots near abandoned buildings. All showed signs of sexual assault.

And according to a source close to the investigation, the bodies of Piacentini and Mahoney were found posed in the same position. Goldberg's body was not placed in the same way, but the source said that it was possible her body had been arranged as well.

"Sometimes with people like this, they get more sophisticated as they go," the source said. "They try more things."

Mahoney is the first woman to be strangled in Kensington since police began flooding the area with uniformed and undercover officers in an attempt to put an end to the killings. The Police Department created a task force to investigate the killings and has urged women in Kensington not to walk the streets alone. Police have arrested more than 100 men in the area and taken DNA samples from many of them in hope of identifying a suspect.

Police are also investigating several nonfatal attacks on women in the neighborhood and have plastered the area with a composite sketch of a man who is a suspect in three assaults. Authorities have not determined whether there is any link between the killings and those attacks, which involved choking, sexual assault, and other forms of violence.

Unlike the other two victims, Mahoney is not from the Philadelphia area. She grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Reynolds High School in Asheville in 2001, according to her MySpace.com account.

Mahoney's mother was troubled, Melodia said, and Mahoney was raised by her grandparents. Mahoney was a teenager when they died, and Melodia said Mahoney was later disowned by an uncle after she started getting into trouble with the police.

Mahoney moved to Pennsylvania and was living near Scranton in 2004 when she started dating Melodia's brother. The relationship ended, but Melodia and Mahoney became friends. When Mahoney was clean and sober, Melodia said, she was kind and generous to everyone she knew.

"We used to go out together all the time," Melodia said. "We used to tell everyone we were sisters."

Mahoney has had run-ins with the police over the years, records show, and has been arrested in several states. In 2005, Mahoney pleaded guilty to drug charges in Monroe County and served about seven months in jail. She was arrested again this year on charges of driving while under the influence.

Mahoney met the man who became the father of her son when they were working at a sandwich shop, said Michelle Strickland, paternal grandmother of Mahoney's son. The relationship was brief, and Mahoney fell back into drug addiction.

The boy is now 3. His father and Strickland have had custody for the last two years, Strickland said.

Strickland said she spoke to Mahoney last week, after she returned to East Stroudsburg.

"Casey was a good person, she was a sweet person," Strickland said. "I really don't know where everything went wrong for her."

Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.