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Era ending for West A.C.'s notorious faded motels

WEST ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - The slayings of four prostitutes whose barefoot bodies were placed ever so particularly behind a strip of ratty Black Horse Pike motels remain stubbornly unsolved seven years later.

WEST ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - The slayings of four prostitutes whose barefoot bodies were placed ever so particularly behind a strip of ratty Black Horse Pike motels remain stubbornly unsolved seven years later.

But something finally is happening with those faded 1950s motels just west of Atlantic City, which stood their $20-a-night sticky ground in the wake of bodies, shootings, drugs, prostitution, homelessness, murders, and murderers on the run.

It's a strip of motels where online reviews from hapless unwitting tourists - "I just Googled the motel name!" - are punctuated with accounts of mysterious 6 a.m. knocks on the door from people looking for "John" or "Michael."

But no amount of thumbs-down reviews could kill the likes of the Golden Key and the Star, or any number of notorious crimes ending up in their rooms or in their shadows.

In the end, it was Hurricane Sandy that put the final nail in the coffin. The owners of four motels ruined by five feet of water - the Golden Key, Star, Fortune Inn, and Hampton's Motor Lodge - have agreed to sell to Egg Harbor Township.

The old Log Cabin restaurant nearby is in foreclosure and also will be taken by the township, which received $3 million from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in 2005 to try to make something of the unfortunate gateway to the seaside resort. The Township Committee will vote Wednesday on the purchases.

'Multiple homicides'

"We've had multiple homicides out there," says Mayor James "Sonny" McCollough, who at this point in the declining history of what once were typical outskirts lodgings can say that matter-of-factly.

"We had a shooting out there in West Atlantic City just about three weeks ago," he says, "and problems with prostitutes, drug deals. We've dealt with it all out there."

Indeed, while the owners defend their businesses - and pay their property taxes - the motels, especially the Golden Key, repeatedly provide a backdrop for bad behavior.

The shooting in early November involved the pursuit of a convicted killer and ended with the suspect and a police dog recovering from gunshot wounds suffered behind the motels.

The Golden Key was also where twisted killers Craig Arno and Jessica Kisby fled after carjacking and killing a North Jersey grocer. They holed up in Room 112 for $35 a night.

The motels have been used off and on to house an overflow of homeless families, a situation so untenable it led one father to build shacks behind the motels to get his family out from between drug dealers, McCollough said.

But it was the prostitute slayings that sealed the legacy of the Golden Key. Wooden crosses erected in memory of the women - Kim Raffo, 35; Molly Dilts, 20; Barbara Breidor, 42; and Tracy Roberts, 23 - have disappeared, and only a plastic bouquet remains at the motel office.

Various theories

Haleigh Walz, spokeswoman for Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain - the third prosecutor since 2006 - said the investigation into the prostitute killings continues, with periodic help from the FBI.

A string of similar killings on Long Island was never definitively linked to the Atlantic City cases, and those cases also remain unsolved. New York authorities stopped speaking about the matter after rumors of a suspect's suicide became rampant.

The women's bodies were discovered Nov. 20, 2006, in a drainage ditch behind the Golden Key. All were shoeless. Their heads were pointed east toward Atlantic City. They had been in the water for varying degrees of time.

Two were so decomposed, no cause of death could be determined. Two had been strangled, according to autopsies. Three had drugs in their systems.

Seven years later, there is little to remind anyone of their deaths, let alone their lives.

Hugh Auslander, husband of Raffo and father of her two children, ages 21 and 19, maintains a Facebook page in her memory. About 145 people have joined the page. He says he talks to members of other victims' families but has heard nothing from investigators since right after the killings.

"I've been in the dark for quite some time," he said from Florida, where he was recuperating from surgery for arthritis.

Various theories have come and gone: the handyman staying at the motel at the time; the person now in jail who was said to have been with Raffo before her death and who allegedly confessed to various people; the link to Long Island, never established beyond speculation.

Auslander says all of it, and none of it, makes sense. His wife was a mother first and was pursuing goals in the culinary field. Although picked up once in a sweep of prostitution - which gave her the record and forever label - he said she was, if anything, an escort in its simplest sense.

Like two of her fellow victims, she was a working mother who became down on her luck. Her true downfall, he said, was a crack-cocaine addiction. He was away working, and the two spoke mostly by phone in the months before her death. "She wasn't that type of person," he said. "She was always very lovable."

When Hurricane Sandy hit the strip a mile or so from the Albany Avenue bridge in Atlantic City, some families in the motels had to be evacuated in the middle of the night as the water from Lakes Bay flowed into the low-lying rooms.

McCollough thinks of that bay when he envisions a developer creating a high- or mid-rise building of condos, office space, and amenities.

Recent environmental regulations removed restrictions that prevented improvements over more than 30 percent of the land, which backs up against wetlands and the Atlantic City Expressway.

The strip sits across from more successful hotels and recreation sites, including a fitness and racquet club, and places offering kite boarding, paddle boarding, and wind surfing. The views would be stunning, with the Atlantic City skyline in one direction, water in another.

It could at last be transformed.

"I've been dealing with this for 20 years," McCollough said one cold afternoon last week in front of the once-pink, now-yellow Golden Key building (a failed attempt at a fresh start after the bodies were found).

The township will pay $465,000 for the Golden Key and $430,000 for the Star. Prices for the Fortune Inn and the Motor Lodge were not available.

McCollough said he did not blame the owners, who were hampered by environmental restrictions that prevented improvements to the land. The recession also brought the poor, desperate, and addicted to their doorstep.

And in recent months, there have been a number of gun and robbery and shooting crimes in motels along getaway routes out of Atlantic City, such as the White Horse Pike.

Sunny Patel, who has owned the Golden Key since 1975, was traveling in India and unavailable to comment, according to his son. His wife said of the sale, "Egg Harbor Township - they want it."