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An all-out hunt for a killer

The Kensington strangler terrified residents. A task force had DNA and tips, but then he went dormant.

Homicide Sgt. Bob Wilkins at the lot where the first victim was found. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Homicide Sgt. Bob Wilkins at the lot where the first victim was found. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)Read more

The killer was out there somewhere.

Some guy was attacking women in Kensington, strangling and raping them, and leaving their crumpled bodies in desolate places. Detectives had almost no clues, only a broad description: A hoodie. An iPod. Scruffy facial hair.

The Kensington strangler could be anyone.

"We didn't have anything," said Philadelphia Homicide Sgt. Bob Wilkins, a streetwise detective, dedicated and savvy. "No suspects, no motives, no idea of what we were looking for."

When police found the first body in an empty lot in November, they couldn't know the difficult months that would lie ahead, as the strangler would continue to strike, terrifying residents and grabbing the attention of the entire city.

Wilkins would supervise a veteran team of Homicide detectives whose only duty was to pursue the strangler. They'd sleep three hours a day, work through bouts of flu and exhaustion. They'd leave behind families and homes full of holiday guests to pursue leads.

The case would garner national headlines. The community would rally, hold vigils. People would demand answers.

Mayor Nutter tried to reassure the neighborhood. "We will not tolerate this insanity," he said.

The detectives felt the pressure, but kept their minds on the hunt.

"It was always, 'We gonna get him,' " Wilkins said. " 'We don't know how we gonna get him, but we gonna get him.' "

The first victims

Elaine Goldberg, a 21-year-old former nursing student from Northeast Philadelphia, was found dead Nov. 3. She was half-nude and lying on her back in a vacant lot off Kensington Avenue, amid the trash and broken glass.

At first police thought she had died of a drug overdose, a common neighborhood event. But the autopsy recast the story: Goldberg had been raped and strangled.

Ten days later a second body was found. Nicole Piacentini, 35, had lived in nearby Port Richmond. Now her corpse lay behind an abandoned building. She, too, had been strangled and left half-nude, but positioned on her knees.

Had she encountered Goldberg's killer? DNA results wouldn't be in for days. But detectives knew the deaths were connected, Wilkins said. There were too many similarities to be a coincidence.

Homicide Capt. James Clark immediately set up a task force that included Special Victims, Citywide Vice, Narcotics, and Patrol.

He assigned 10 Homicide investigators to work the cases, led by Detectives Crystal Williams, Gary White, James Pitts, Omar Jenkins, and Phil Nordo.

With no witnesses or suspects, they began searching for a pattern. Most killers have arrests and court appearances in their pasts. Surely, the strangler would fit that profile, the detectives reasoned. Surely, some trail of crime would lead to him.

If they were lucky, he'd be a convicted felon, required to submit his DNA to a state police database. In a few days, maybe the state lab would match the strangler's DNA, recovered from the victims, to a name in the database.

But nine days after Piacentini was found, the state police reported there was no match.

"It was concerning, based on the severity of the crimes, that his DNA wasn't on file," said Special Victims Unit Lt. Anthony J. McFadden. "You don't go from petty thief right to murderer."

No match meant the strangler might not have committed a serious crime before. Or perhaps he was young, even a juvenile.

"You start to look at different things, and you start to second-guess," said SVU Detective James Owens. "Are we looking in the right direction?"

Living victims

Days after the task force was formed, 26th District Officers Joe O'Malley and Joe Goodwin found a woman in Kensington who said she had been raped in early October by a man who had choked her to unconsciousness. She hadn't reported the attack.

Her description of her attacker led to the composite sketch that soon plastered the neighborhood and was shown often on television.

"Her story basically matched what we believed was happening with our homicides," Wilkins said.

Because the woman had been the victim of a sex crime, her case fell to Special Victims. "That's when we jumped in, full steam ahead," McFadden said.

Kensington prostitutes are frequent victims of sexual assault. Although many rapes are not reported, investigators were working familiar territory: A year earlier, an SVU-led task force had arrested two men in a string of at least eight rapes and beatings there.

Sgt. Don O'Hara, Owens, and Officer Ed Lichtenhahn led the unit's efforts in the strangler case. They often started their days at 4 a.m., talking to people along Kensington Avenue, which bustles even at that hour.

"Once they know we're not from Vice - we say, 'Listen, we're out here looking for the guy assaulting you girls' - they're usually pretty cooperative," O'Hara said.

They found more women who told similar stories, more women who had been choked and raped, but no DNA could be recovered from them.

"In most cases, we were three weeks to a month after the crime occurred," Owens said.

But on Dec. 6, a woman said a man had pulled her into an alley that morning and choked her, punched her, and hit her with a brick. Pulling scissors from her coat pocket, she had fought him off.

A nearby surveillance camera caught the suspect walking past, favoring his left foot, his hands in his coat pockets, a hood covering his head. The resolution was grainy and the angle too high, but the picture offered another tantalizing clue, soon to be circulated widely in the media.

Was he the Kensington strangler, or a second person attacking women? Investigators hoped the scissors would answer their question.

The lab analysis came back. Skin cells had been extracted from the scissors, but detectives didn't get a break. At least three people had recently handled the scissors, said Joseph Szarka, the Forensic Laboratory manager. The skin cells were a "primordial soup" of DNA.

With that much DNA, Szarka said, the lab couldn't say for sure if the strangler had touched the scissors.

Following up tips

Without the lab's confirmation, detectives could not assume the man in the sketch or in the surveillance video was the strangler.

"We wanted to keep an open mind," Wilkins said, "and keep looking around."

In other words, they would investigate any solid lead, whether the person resembled the sketch or not.

And the tips came in, by the thousands.

To manage all the information, the FBI provided software to run the Law Enforcement Online system - a password-protected, data-sharing system on the Internet.

Homicide and SVU were given access so they could track in real time what their detectives were doing, which tips had been closed out, and which still needed to be investigated. Wilkins and McFadden coordinated the efforts of their units.

First they'd check if a potential suspect's DNA was on file with the state police. If not, they would ask to swab a cheek so his DNA could be compared with the strangler's. Most men agreed after some explanation and convincing. Others flat-out refused, and had to be investigated the old-fashioned way.

If investigators thought a person was a promising suspect, his DNA was moved to the front of the line.

The tips from the public varied widely. Sometimes detectives got a legitimate sighting of a man who fit the sketch. Sometimes angry girlfriends were looking to cause trouble for wayward boyfriends.

"We had a couple that we thought were dead-on," Wilkins said. "We had one tip, a female called us and told us . . . the guy used to go with her sister. Supposedly, he told the sister that he did it."

The woman knew only the man's nickname and first name, but detectives quickly tracked him down. He agreed to be swabbed, but his DNA wasn't a match.

"We always believed that this was somebody from that neighborhood," Wilkins said. "It had to be a guy who could walk through, nonthreatening, people weren't scared of."

The problem, said an undercover Citywide Vice officer, was the generic nature of the sketch, which depicted a black or Hispanic man with a goatee and a hoodie.

"So many men down there have the goatee and the hoodie," the officer said. "There were guys who would walk by us, and we would go, 'Wow, maybe we should stop him and check him out.' "

And they checked out a lot of people. Detectives began giving out business cards to the men they questioned in case they were stopped again.

One man found the bright side in being swabbed. He approached an undercover officer posing as a prostitute and showed off the consent form he had signed to take his DNA.

"He's like, 'Look, I'm safe. I'm not the strangler,' " the officer said. "I'm like, 'What's that?' And he says, 'It's my paperwork. I've been swabbed. I'm all good, baby girl.' "

Working girls

The entire Citywide Vice Enforcement Unit was dedicated to the case, making particular use of four officers who pose as prostitutes. Three were interviewed for this story, but they asked not to be identified because they work undercover.

The officers were standing on Kensington Avenue most nights for eight to 12 hours in freezing winter weather, dressed like their real-life counterparts: in layers of long johns, leggings, sweatpants, and overalls.

The neighborhood is one of the city's busiest markets for drugs and prostitution, aided by the Market-Frankford El clattering overhead and a nearby interstate bringing in a steady flow of customers.

"Everything down there is about heroin," said one of the undercover officers. "It is the neighborhood poison."

The men who cruise the avenue asking, "How much for a date?" or "Are you dating?" come from all rungs of society, and they live in the city, the suburbs, and out of state. With such a wide variety of "johns," officers said, the strangler "could have been anyone."

Working girls, who typically band together, shared information with the undercover officers on "bad dates."

"We had the girls . . . telling us, 'Don't date that guy who drives a red pickup. He'll beat your face in,' " said one officer.

The task force arrested 120 men and 90 women on prostitution-related charges. But the officers were realistic about the impact they had on the prostitutes, who are nearly universally drug-addicted.

"The girls were still out there, even with that gigantic police presence," said Lt. Charles Green, commander of Citywide Vice. "They are so fixated on getting that next bag, they don't care."

Even the threat of the strangler failed to make a dent in Kensington Avenue's all-night, all-weather sex trade.

One night, a prostitute started a conversation with an undercover officer standing at Kensington and Huntingdon Street. She said that she was one of the strangler's surviving victims, and that she had "dated" him once before the attack.

The girl was with her friend Casey Mahoney, 27, a single mother from East Stroudsburg, Pa. Mahoney didn't speak. She kept wandering into the street, trying to find her next customer.

The prostitute said she couldn't tell if the man who had attacked her was black or Hispanic.

"She said, 'Just to be on the safe side, none of us out here are dating any black males or Hispanic males between the ages of 20 and 50,' " the officer said.

"Just as she said that, a Hispanic male in his 20s pulls up, and there went Casey, boom, right in the car."

A lull in attacks

A few weeks later, on Dec. 15, another body was found, in the woods above the railroad tracks at Tusculum and Front Streets.

Officers identified the woman. It was Casey Mahoney.

Her body had been left in the same position as Piacentini's, but she had been killed in an isolated area off the Kensington Avenue corridor.

"We figured Kensington's too hot for him," Wilkins said. "He's started to spread out. So we kind of moved our boundaries a little wider."

The next month brought no more victims. And despite four reward offers totaling $37,000, no tips panned out.

"When you have a big cash reward out and . . . no one comes forward with that key piece of information, you start to wonder, 'Does anyone actually have direct knowledge of this?' " Owens said.

Investigators figured the strangler was lying low, but there were other possibilities. They began pulling records of everyone who had been arrested since Mahoney's death, looking at the physical description, the location of the arrest, where he lived.

"Say he got pinched on something silly, buying some weed or something like that, and he's sitting in jail waiting on his court case," O'Hara said.

Williams, the Homicide detective, had spent 12 years at SVU investigating sex crimes, including the infamous Center City rapist. Despite the strangler's lull, she didn't believe he had quit.

"They don't stay dormant," she said. "They will come back out."

Finally, a DNA hit

Brian Pfleegor is the Forensic Laboratory's administrator for the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). He manages the flow of DNA to and from the lab and the state and national databases.

The state police usually release database matches on Saturday night or Sunday morning. On Sunday, Jan. 16, Pfleegor went to the lab to see if this time they had a hit on the strangler's DNA.

"The state would only say, 'Sample No. 12345 has hit to a case that you have,' " said Szarka, the lab manager. "Now, my CODIS administrator knows that number by heart at this point. He jumped out of his seat and said, 'Whoa, that's our guy.' "

Pfleegor alerted the state police. The state lab mobilized to run checks, which are required for confirmation.

The next day at 10 a.m., police finally had a name: Antonio Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was a 22-year-old who had grown up just outside Kensington in North Philadelphia. He had pleaded guilty to a drug charge Oct. 21, his only felony conviction. After he submitted his DNA, he had been freed on probation.

The state police lab had received his DNA on Oct. 25, nine days before Goldberg's death. But because of a backlog, it wasn't entered into the database until Jan. 10.

Once detectives learned of the match, they got search warrants for the houses where Rodriguez's parents and girlfriend lived. But he was not found at either address. So investigators released his name and picture for the 6 p.m. local newscasts.

"I don't believe it was even five minutes after the newscast, we received two tips," Wilkins said.

The first - that Rodriguez was sitting on a porch in Kensington - proved bogus. The second - that he was at a house in the 3300 block of Mutter Street - was golden.

Officers banged on the front door before someone inside yelled it was unlocked. After months of fear and frustration, the case had become simple.

Rodriguez didn't try to run. He didn't fight. He didn't say anything.

"He was just in the back. He was at the bottom of the stairs," Owens said. "It was a routine arrest."

After accumulating 51 pages of tips and tracking down 2,000 leads, after swabbing 272 men and interviewing hundreds more, police finally had their suspect.

White described Rodriguez as "defeated."

"He wasn't upset," the Homicide detective said. "His attitude was like, 'I'm caught.' "

By midnight, Rodriguez had confessed all three homicides to Pitts and Jenkins, police said, but he offered little explanation.

"They worked long and hard hours," Clark said of his team, "and made me very proud."

SVU investigators now believe Rodriguez attacked at least four other women, including the one who helped create the sketch. They also believe he is the man in the surveillance video.

"That is him," Owens said. "We had the opportunity to sit down and speak with him, and we know he is responsible for that crime. He put himself there."

The District Attorney's Office is reviewing the evidence in those four cases, but no charges have been filed.

Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to the homicides, and prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty at trial.

Before he was charged with three counts of rape and murder on Jan. 19, Rodriguez was swabbed and the lab worked through the night to check his DNA against the samples from the victims for confirmation, Szarka said.

"At that point, I called the district attorney and said, 'Definitely the guy.' "