Women on the fringe fear for their lives

By Mike Hixenbaugh

Rocky Mount Telegram
Saturday, July 18, 2009

Turning tricks and the crack pipe have been her way of life for the better part of two decades, Denise Shae said last week, leaning forward on a leather couch in her disheveled Rocky Mount living room.

Prostitution isn’t the most virtuous way to pay bills, Shae admits, but that doesn’t mean she or others like her deserve to die.

Telegram photo / Alan Campbell

“It doesn’t matter what you do or what you’re into,” Shae said. “Nobody has a right to kill. Nobody needs to die like that, naked out in the woods.”

Since police publicly connected dots this month between a series of missing women and murders in her community, Shae said she has locked herself inside, terrified she’ll become the next in a line of small-framed, black women whose unclothed bodies have been dumped along rural Edgecombe County roads the past few years.

“It makes me scared,” said Shae, 45, whose name has been changed for confidentiality. “We’re all terrified.”

Whispers of a possible serial killer and rumors of more missing women have been on the lips of many throughout East Rocky Mount the past month, ever since a worker found the body of 31-year-old Jarniece Latonya Hargrove abandoned in the woods off Seven Bridges Road.

Authorities will not definitively say if the murders of Hargrove and five other women found dead over the past four years are related, but a series of similarities seems to link the cases.

All of the confirmed victims were black women found in remote locations near the eastern boundary of Rocky Mount, and each had a history of drug or alcohol abuse, according to criminal records. Each also was a known prostitute, according to Shae, who claimed to have “worked the same streets” and smoked crack with the victims.

Hargrove’s family said deputies told them each of the women was found without clothes, although authorities will not confirm the statement.

“The killings must be connected,” Shae said. “It’s too much similar between all them girls to just be coincidence.”

Profile of a Killer

While investigators seem reluctant to use the term “serial killer,” at least one national expert on such crimes says the murders almost certainly are related. John Kelly, profiler and president of the New Jersey-based System to Apprehend Lethal Killers, or STALK, said he’s convinced a serial killer is preying on vulnerable women in East Rocky Mount.

Kelly, who played a role along with his partner Frank Adamson in helping profile and catch the Green River Killer in Seattle earlier this decade, said officials are wise to have formed a task force. The Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office is leading a joint effort of area law enforcement and state investigators to determine if the murders are related, Sheriff James Knight said, declining further comment.

Kelly said the next step should be an active canvass of wooded areas where the bodies have been found, extending the search radius to a quarter of a mile or more.

At least three other women who match the profile of the victims — Yolanda Lancaster, Joyce Durham and Christine Boone — have been reported missing to Rocky Mount police the past several months. Each has yet to be found.

“When you have a potential serial killer, you really have to push a full-court press investigating missing persons reports,” Kelly said, “especially when they match the profile.”

As more information becomes available, Kelly said he and his organization are willing to assist authorities in developing a potential profile of the killer.

“In most cases, the girls know this guy,” Kelly said. “They may not know they know him, but he’s addicted. Like someone who’s addicted to heroin, he’s addicted to being around the area, fantasizing about the girls. His drug is sexual power and control over these women, and he’s never satisfied.”The killer doesn’t feel remorse, Kelly said, and his chief motives are power, control and sex. He’s a slave to those desires, Kelly said.

“This guy is local,” he said. “And he will kill again. No doubt. Unless he’s in jail or dead, he will kill again.”

Authorities would not say if they’ve made contact with outside psychological profilers like Kelly, or even if they believe they’re dealing with a habitual killer.

Regardless, Rocky Mount Police Chief John Manley is advising residents not to accept rides from people they don’t know and to be aware of who’s moving through their neighborhoods.

“Just common sense type precautions,” Manley said.

Risky Business

Common sense isn’t as cut-and-dry for people who move in and out of shadows, voluntarily risking danger, disease and the threat of violence as a means to pay bills or feed addictions.

Shae and others in her distressed neighborhood have made careers out of stepping into a stranger’s car in exchange for a hit on a crack pipe or cash. Not accepting a ride means not eating for some people, she said.

Shae’s own run-in with a violent customer hasn’t been enough to entirely deter her from the streets. A deep red-and-purple gash across Shae’s right shoulder is fresh reminder of the horrifying ride last month, she said.

Shae stepped into the car of a white man with a pushy voice who wanted sex, but he wasn’t easily satisfied. He grew violent, she said.

After more than an hour, the man steered toward a rural stretch of tobacco-flanked road just outside city limits, not far from where the bodies have been found.

“He just kept wanting more, and I started to get scared,” Shae said. “So I got out of there.”

Shae jumped from the car as he made a turn, she said, bashing her shoulder on asphalt before running away and calling for help. She never called police about the incident, fearful they might seek to add a few more charges to her already lengthy criminal record.

Shae said she knows other women with similar stories who are reluctant to come forward.

“I don’t think that was the guy who’s doing this, though,” Shae said. “All of those girls (who have been killed) were fighters like me. They would have gotten away.”

Kelly supported her suspicions. More than 80 percent of serial killers stalk women of their own race, he said.

Shae theorized that whoever killed the women has rigged the passenger door of his vehicle, removing the interior paneling so it can’t be opened from the inside.

“I don’t get into cars like that anymore,” Shae said.

A Terrifying Ride

Women who dabble in drugs and trade their bodies for cash aren’t the only people shaken by the string of murders.

Most households in Rocky Mount’s largely impoverished east side have been talking about missing girls and prospects of a serial killer for the better part of the past year, Sheniece Thompson said.

“It makes you scared, you know,” Thompson said, standing on her porch on Arlington Street. “You don’t know who’s doing this or if you could be next.”

Thompson, 26, said she and her sisters “live stand-up lives.” Still, she can remember hitchhiking across town to a friend’s house last summer.

“That will be the last time,” she said.

Lanessa Williams has been putting out the call to all the women in her neighborhood the past several months — regardless of whether they work the streets or just walk them: “Don’t get in anybody’s car,” she says.

Williams, 38, said she took a ride from a black man last summer who offered to take her to a friend’s house in the projects. The drive started smooth, Williams said, and the two shared a few hits on a crack pipe. Sex wasn’t part of the deal.

“I don’t do that stuff,” Williams said.

But the man drove past her friend’s neighborhood and toward the country, she said, his voice seeming to grow harsher with each passing mile.

“I asked him to stop, but he wouldn’t stop,” Williams said. “He told me ‘If you don’t do what I want you to do, I’m going to kill you and throw you in the river.’”

When the man parked on a dark road and made sexual advances, Williams said, instincts pushed her to her feet. She ran and hid in a ditch for several minutes before escaping to a nearby residence.

Rocky Mount police said they plan to meet with Williams to explore any possible connections between her case and the murders.

Williams said the man drove a black pickup with “Chevrolet” hand-painted on the back. The alleged abductor was a skinny, black man with a light mustache, Williams said.

Soon after her encounter, Williams said she found a place to stay and has stopped doing drugs.

“We gottta look out for each other,” Williams said. “That’s why I’m speaking out, to tell these young girls to be safe. Women are being killed, but just because you smoke don’t mean you deserve to die.”

Respect for the Dead

Pepita Hargrove wept last week when funeral officials pulled a cover from the decomposing remains of her sister, Jarniece Hargrove.

It’s hard, she said, to shake the image of her sister struggling against a strange man, before ultimately being strangled to death and dumped in the woods.

“My sister was so loving,” Pepita said after authorities told her family Jarniece was dead. “She was into some stuff — she always struggled with drugs — but she had a very loving heart.”

In some parts of Rocky Mount, Latonia Taylor said, the string of murders is all anyone talks about. In other parts, nobody seems to care, she said.

“Everyone in my neighborhood is scared, and we want justice,” said Taylor, who knew three of the victims. “But most of my friends who live across town didn’t even know anything about it until I told them. I mean, women are dying.”

Rocky Mount Councilman and local NAACP President Andre Knight said he wonders if the murders would garner more local and national attention if the victims came from different backgrounds. Either way, he’s challenging federal investigators to launch a probe into the case.

A group of East Rocky Mount residents, many of whom knew the victims, has launched a campaign to raise awareness about the murders and create a team to canvass the areas where women have been found.

Willette Battle stood under the hot afternoon sun Friday on Fairview Road holding a sign that read: “Their lifestyles shouldn’t mean they get a death sentence.” Battle, who knew three of the victims and at least one of the missing women, worked to flag down motorists, hoping to sell plates of food to raise money and awareness.

“Nobody is paying attention, it seems like,” Battle said. “These women were fun to be around and they loved to laugh. They lived tough lives, but they were all beautiful. Nobody cares about that, seems like.”

If the women had different names or were of a different race from a different part of town, Battle said, the outcry would be national, and it would be relentless.

“That’s not the case, but we’re working to change that,” Battle said.

Regardless of media or community attention, Pepita Hargrove said she prays authorities catch whoever might be responsible for the killings and, more than anything, hopes her sister and the other victims will be remembered as more than drug-addicted prostitutes.

“These girls are all someone’s sister or someone’s daughter or someone’s mother,” Pepita said. “It doesn’t seem like anybody cares about that. My sister was a good person.

“I want justice to be brought to whoever’s doing this.”

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