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Police: Survivor's story suggests a serial strangler

A woman who survived an assault in Kensington has provided police with a description of a suspect who might be connected to the recent killings of two women in the neighborhood, investigators said Tuesday.

A woman who survived an assault in Kensington has provided police with a description of a suspect who might be connected to the recent killings of two women in the neighborhood, investigators said Tuesday.

The woman told police she was sexually assaulted and choked early in October by a man who left her for dead behind an abandoned building in Kensington - the same location where the body of a woman was found Saturday.

With the emergence of the woman who survived the attack, police acknowledged the possibility Tuesday that one man was preying on women in the area.

"There is no physical evidence, there is no forensic evidence at this point that would link these cases together," Philadelphia Lt. Norman Davenport of the Homicide Unit said at a news conference Tuesday. But, he said, the circumstances suggest they could be connected.

On Saturday, police found the body of 35-year-old Nicole Piacentini behind a building on the 1900 block of East Cumberland Street. On Nov. 3, less than a mile away, on the 2000 block of Ruth Street, police found the body of Elaine Goldberg, 21.

That stretch of Kensington has long been known as a hub for drug-dealing, prostitution, and other crimes. Resident Juan Lessend, 46, said he has often seen people making drug or prostitution deals by the train tracks near Ruth and Jasper Streets.

The slayings have residents on edge, Lessend said.

"That's why, when it gets dark, everybody goes inside the house," he said. "This area is not good."

Police on Tuesday asked residents to be careful and to report any suspicious activity.

"We're asking people to stay out of the area unless they have legitimate business or they live there," Davenport said.

Police are reviewing unsolved rape cases in the area, Deputy Commissioner William Blackburn said, and are also looking at people who were recently released from prison and might be in the area.

"We do have some physical evidence, and we expect to have the analysis on that done soon," he said. "We're looking for a definitive link."

The three attacks have several similarities. Piacentini and Goldberg were both found partially clothed. Police said that both were manually strangled, and that the woman who survived the attack was also choked by hand. Police say they believe Goldberg and Piacentini had sexual contact with their attacker or attackers, but investigators have not determined whether it was consensual.

All three victims are white, and at least two of them, Goldberg and Piacentini, have a history of drug problems.

Acting on a tip, investigators on Monday found the woman who later told them she had been assaulted and choked on the same street where Piacentini's body was later found.

The woman, who has not been identified, did not report the attack when it took place. This week, she told police she was assaulted in the first week of October by a man she had met on the street. Police would not comment on the nature of their conversation, but said they spoke briefly.

The woman then went with the man behind an abandoned building on East Cumberland Street, where she said he assaulted her and choked her with his hands until she passed out. When she came to, she told police, she realized she had been sexually assaulted.

She told police her assailant was in his late 20s to early 30s, is African American or Latino, and stands 5-foot-8 to 6-foot.

Police returned to the scene on East Cumberland Street to collect evidence Tuesday. A charter school near where Piacentini was found gave police footage from surveillance cameras.

Some residents of the North Philadelphia neighborhood said they weren't surprised by the string of killings. One man who lives on Somerset, near where Goldberg was found, described seeing drug addicts wander the streets daily and sometimes die from overdoses.

"They find bodies around here every day," said the man, who did not want to give his name. "Every neighborhood has a bad side, and this neighborhood has a really bad side."

Jamal Smith, who lives a block from where Piacentini was found, said he walked past the scene every day on his way to pick up his son from school.

"It's not right," he said. "It's this neighborhood. Period."

Anyone with information is asked to call the Homicide Unit at 215-686-3334.