By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
Saturday, September 19, 2009
The 32-year-old Rocky Mount woman didn’t dream as a child of a future jumping in and out of strangers’ cars. Her aspirations were more typical, she said — to graduate high school, go to college, maybe move to the big city and have a family.
An unplanned pregnancy her sophomore year in high school erased those hopes, replacing them instead with a crying baby, bitter poverty and drug addiction.
The woman remembers clearly the first time she traded her body for crack on the streets of Rocky Mount. It was the spring of 1992, and the guy was a jerk, she said. But what started as a one-time fix turned into a lifestyle that spanned the better part of 13 years.
Homelessness, splintered family ties and threats of arrest couldn’t keep her from the street.
“That was life,” the woman said, expressionless. “That’s all it was.”
The woman’s story isn’t unique.
Despite targeted efforts by law enforcement, the faith community and some residents, East Rocky Mount has grappled with street-level prostitution for the better part of the past 20 years, Rocky Mount Police Chief John Manley said.
The problem isn’t new, but it has been amplified in recent months by a string of at least six similar murders that have some residents wondering if a serial killer has been stalking poor, black prostitutes on Rocky Mount’s largely impoverished east side.
Since 2003, six Rocky Mount women — all black with a history of drug abuse and suspected prostitution — have been killed and dumped along rural roads in Edgecombe County, a few miles outside the city. Some of them had been strangled; all of them were mostly naked.
The task force investigation of the murders has drawn national media attention, shining light on the dark world of the local sex trade and highlighting the staggering connections between prostitution, drugs and violence.
“A prostitute is an easy victim of crime, and the practice certainly can end up leading to a very violent crime,” Manley said last week while sitting at a conference table surrounded by his command staff. “And it’s not easy to investigate because most crimes against a prostitute, even very violent crimes like assault and rape, go unreported.”
Manley said he hopes to see a change in that pattern.
The task force investigation of the murders led by Edgecombe County Sheriff James Knight has rekindled a group of community activists and church leaders who are on the front lines of the local fight to end prostitution and offer poor women and girls an alternative to the streets.
The attention also has ignited outrage among some in the community who say publicity of the crimes is tarnishing the city’s image.
Crack and the corner
The history of street-level prostitution in Rocky Mount dates back to the late 1980s, Capt. Laura Fahnestock said, about the same time crack was introduced locally. Since then, police have worked to fight the problem, launching countless undercover sting operations and directed patrols targeting both the women and their male customers.
Police made more than 85 prostitution-related arrests in the past two years alone, Fahnestock said.
One of those arrests involved Antwan Maurice Pittman, the 31-year-old Rocky Mount man authorities accused last month of committing at least one of the six murders. Deputies won’t say what evidence they have linking Pittman to the March strangling death of Taraha Nicholson, but criminal records reveal a history of sexual misconduct.
In years past, single three-day prostitution sting operations by Rocky Mount police have netted more than 50 arrests. Many of the women found dead in swampy and wooded fields the past few years were among those charged in the raids.
“We’ve been combating this for years,” Fahnestock said.
The former prostitute who spoke with the Telegram under promise of anonymity can attest. She was busted by police on three separate occasions beginning in the late 1990s, she said, but the thirst of her addiction outweighed the threat of misdemeanor criminal charges.
“I didn’t want to stop,” the woman said. “But I finally quit after that Melody (Wiggins) girl got killed (in 2005), cause I knew I could have been next. A lot of girls used to hop in and out of cars like that, but I only know a few who still do it now.”
Other known prostitutes such as Alecia Johnson and Jackie Cherry say they’ve quit the practice — or at least have cut back significantly — since women like them started to disappear from the streets earlier this decade.
“We’ve known about women going missing and murdered for a long time,” Cherry said.
The number of women who walk the streets seems to have decreased since news reports of the murders broke earlier this year, Manley said, but authorities aren’t convinced the problem has gone away.
“You don’t see them out there as much,” Manley said. “I don’t see it, at least. But that doesn’t mean they have stopped. You have to remember, with street-level prostitution, these activities are fueled by drug addiction. Without treatment, that doesn’t just go away.”
For that reason, charging prostitutes for their actions typically does little to deter the crime, Capt. Martin McCoy said. Police have found more success targeting the male customers, referred to by authorities as Johns.
“The Johns typically have more to lose,” McCoy said. “They don’t want to be caught and have their name put out there. And it’s a matter of simple economics. If you take away demand, you eliminate the problem.”
Authorities believe the demand for prostitution, as well as the drug supply, still are significant enough to warrant concern.
To affirm his suspicions that prostitution still happens and to prove the department’s commitment to combat the crime, Manley issued a warning this week: “Let’s just say, to anyone foolish enough to solicit a prostitute in the city of Rocky Mount the next 30 days, you’re playing with fire.”
Regardless of how many arrests are made, Manley said, it will take more than police work to eliminate illegal sex activity.
“The whole community needs to be involved,” Manley said.
Legacy of violence
Abandoned homes, public housing units and motels line many of the East Rocky Mount streets where Rometta Bellamy used to flag down cars to feed her drug addiction.
Bellamy, 38, was stabbed to death in 1997 and abandoned in an alley between two rollout trash carts, one of the more gruesome examples of violent crimes against prostitutes in the city’s history. A sock was tied around her neck, and she was naked except for her socks and shoes.
An Edgecombe County jury found 44-year-old Alfred Hamilton guilty in 2000 of the murder after prosecutors argued Hamilton, who is HIV-positive, was enacting revenge for his condition against a prostitute.
Similar rumors swirl through East Rocky Mount today. Some people say they believe the six murders are the work of a man with AIDS who’s angry about his fate. Others lean in close and whisper rumors they’ve heard that a former police officer is responsible for the crimes, or perhaps an ex-military man.
It seems most local prostitutes willing to open up about their pasts have a horror story about at least one customer who was a little too rough or whose demands were a little too harsh. Police rarely hear those stories, though. For some women, the threat of violence is just part of the business.
“Prostitution breeds violence,” Manley said. “What we need is for these women to come forward and report it when that happens. We need them to call us and get it on record.”
A community’s cry
While police work to clean up prostitution and illegal drug use, some area residents hope to eliminate the problem by attacking the source of the crime — extreme poverty and hopelessness, they say — by offering hope for a future.
Women like Deborah Battle of East End Baptist Church are reaching out to the community to deliver that message. Battle leads a women’s ministry at the church on East Highland Avenue that promotes the importance of education, self-worth and abstinence in the same communities where so many women have succumb to the streets.
At the United Community Ministries community shelter, the program’s Assistant Director Leonard Tillery said he’s seen many prostitutes come into the facility seeking rest from the streets. But very rarely are they interested in recovery, he said.
“Typically, from my experience, they don’t stay long for the simple reason they can easily supply their habit,” Tillery said. “They come here, rest up a little bit and go back at it. But we’re always here for them.”
True recovery from drug-fueled prostitution requires medical rehabilitation, Tillery said, and that’s not something offered at the shelter.
Other groups such as Soul Survivors led by Zenira Wiggins have worked to promote alternatives to lives of addiction and violence. Wiggins’ group celebrates urban arts as a means to combat local violence and has reached out to women who trade their bodies for drugs.
“Nobody is beyond redemption, and nobody deserves to be cast aside,” Wiggins said at a recent rally intended to raise awareness about murdered and missing women from the community.
Some in the community, though, have grown frustrated by the attention.
“We’re going to be known as the prostitute and drug capital of North Carolina if we keep this up,” Rocky Mount resident Phil Noble said after calling the Telegram to complain about coverage of the crimes. “We shouldn’t be focusing on this so much.”
Police and community activists don’t seem content to ignore the issue, though.
Prostitution and drug abuse shouldn’t carry a death sentence, Manley said, reflecting on the cases that have drawn so much attention to the city. But both crimes are extremely dangerous, he said.
“The scale of this problem is shocking to anybody who doesn’t travel across those railroad tracks (into the east side of town),” Manley said. “But it’s real, and it’s something we have to continue to address and not ignore.
“These cases are a tragedy, and we’re working to solve them. But the good that can come from this is greater community awareness about what we’re facing and, hopefully, an end to this sort of activity.”