The area around Ridgewood Avenue in Daytona Beach, Fla., has always been one of the city's seediest spots. Amid the strip joints, crack houses and dive bars, prostitutes sashay in search of their next trick. But the atmosphere has turned even more menacing lately. A suspected serial killer with an apparent penchant for prostitutes is on the loose. Last Thursday night, streetwalker Tara Price stood on a corner, clad in a skintight black dress and shiny black platform boots. She was high, police say, and weeping, after a disconcerting encounter with a john. He had picked her up, driven erratically and taunted her by repeatedly saying, "There ain't no serial killer." She eventually forced him to stop, but in an ensuing struggle to escape, lost her knife--her only protection against a potential assailant. "I'm very worried … and everyone else is worried, too," says Price, 28. "But when you just want that little piece of rock [cocaine], you are going to rob or be a thief or be a prostitute to get it."
The city's prostitutes are on edge. Three women--all of whom led "high-risk lifestyles," according to police and frequented the Ridgewood Avenue area--have been murdered in the past three months. Authorities pursuing the "Streetwalker Stalker," as some have dubbed him, haven't yet homed in on a suspect. In the meantime, some hookers are arming themselves, and a few have even vowed to hunt down the murderer themselves. "We are going to get him first," one prostitute told a local TV news station. "When we find him, he is going to be sorry."
The killer first struck last December. The day after Christmas, Laquetta Gunther's body was found wedged in a narrow gap between an auto shop and a city pumping station. She was only partially clothed and had been shot in the head. Then, in January, Julie Green's body was discovered on a dirt road at a construction site. A month later, Iwana Patton's body turned up in a nearby wooded area. Both had died of gunshot wounds as well. There's no evidence so far that any of the women were abducted or taken against their will, according to police. All three had arrest records, but only Gunther had been charged with prostitution. Still, those in the Ridgewood Avenue area who knew the victims say they were hookers who turned tricks to feed their drug habits.
Amid the climate of fear, many prostitutes are taking protective measures. Some seem to have retreated into hiding; while police roundups of streetwalkers have typically yielded eight or 10 arrests, last week they averaged only three or four. Price says she initially tried to persuade clients to take her to public parking lots for sex. When most of them resisted, she opted instead to join an escort service. She hates the rules--a $50 fine if she doesn't respond to a call--but at least she feels a bit safer. Another prostitute who declined to give her name tries to limit herself only to men she knows. Beyond that, she relies on her recently discovered faith. "I've got a guardian angel and I love Jesus," she says. "He came at the right time." The Halifax Urban Ministries, which offers help to the area's homeless population, has been handing out fliers urging the women to team up. But most prostitutes have refused, arguing that the nature of the business is to work alone. If ever there were a time for a protective pimp, this would be it; yet the women in the area are largely solo operators.
In their pursuit of the killer, the cops have combed through the city's hardscrabble neighborhoods and interviewed numerous "persons of interest." They have also requested the help of criminal profiler Tom Davis of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Based on his analysis, authorities believe the stalker is a male seeking "substitute" victims who provide "a channel for the perpetrator to act upon stressors in his life," according to a police statement. "It is believed that a close acquaintance of the perpetrator is the source of causal stress in his life and that this person may become a victim in the future." As Price anxiously works the streets, she clutches a cell phone in one hand and a new knife in the other, wondering what that next car at the curb will bring.