Thousands of fliers carrying an ominous message have gone up on light posts in areas frequented by Baltimore's prostitutes.
"Warning! Very dangerous man picking up women involved in prostitution," they read. "Please stay away from this man."
The pink-and-yellow fliers go on to describe a man that social worker Sidney-Anne Ford, founder of the state's only outreach center exclusively for prostitutes, alleges is responsible for three slayings and at least a dozen assaults within the past 16 months.
City police say there is no evidence supporting the claim that a single predator is stalking prostitutes, but they are investigating the killings, and have interviewed more than two dozen people in connection with the cases. They said they are reviewing reports by three women who were assaulted - two of them early last year - for possible similarities, but declined to go into further detail.
"We all may want to think that there is one person preying on these girls, but so far, there's no evidence," said Detective Corey Alston, one of three investigators assigned to the homicides. "Given these girls' lifestyles, that they are jumping in and out of cars, it could be anyone."
Still, rumor that a "serial killer" is on the prowl has sparked fear among women in the city's illicit sex business. The three slain women frequented a grubby strip of Wilkens Avenue between Payson and Gilmor streets, and some of the prostitutes who work there claim to know the identity of the killer.
"He tried to get me into his car," said a 31-year-old woman who asked that her name not be published for fear of being harmed by the man. "I kept telling him 'no.' I know who he is."
The women are fearful, with some carrying knives for protection and others checking in with friends before they go on "dates" with men. Tensions are high, with police blaming the prostitutes for putting themselves at risk and prostitutes accusing police of moving too slowly.
"The women and girls we serve encounter disturbed, violent men all of the time," said Ford, executive director of You Are Never Alone, an outreach center in the 200 block of W. Pratt St. "However, the fact that this particularly vicious individual is still at large is taking its toll on all of us, especially those who are most vulnerable - defenseless girls and women out on the street."
The women, many of whom said they were sexually or physically abused before turning to prostitution, sell sexual favors at prices as low as $2 up to $50. Sometimes, homeless women and girls trade sex for a place to sleep or a shower. Many of their customers, Ford said, are married men who cruise known prostitution strips in search of willing women and girls.
Women are regularly robbed and beaten, and they risk exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Some die from overdoses or other complications of drug abuse. A 25-year-old woman interviewed for this article died suddenly in September when she was stricken with endocarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart, a condition associated with chronic cocaine use.
Ford and her staff of eight try to get women and girls off the street for good through outreach and trauma counseling. Many YANA clients are also referred to drug treatment facilities. Some require medical attention for sexually transmitted diseases. Those who stick with the recovery program often return to school or receive job training.
Police are also working to stamp out prostitution. So far this year, there have been 1,818 arrests of prostitutes, up from 1,062 last year, according to department figures.
Still, Ford estimates that there are hundreds of women and girls involved in the illicit sex trade on Baltimore streets on any given day. She knew two of the homicide victims because they had visited YANA offices.
Police reports provide chilling details of their deaths:
Emma O'Hearn, 25, was found badly beaten behind Calverton Middle School, 1100 Whitmore Ave., on June 10 last year. O'Hearn, who was comatose for more than seven months, died Jan. 22.
Sarah Nicole Britt, 19, was found fatally beaten May 14 on abandoned railroad tracks at the end of South Payson Street.
Jennifer Fischbach, 32, was found strangled May 22 in an empty rowhouse in the 1200 block of Bayard St.
Since June, Ford said, she has interviewed about a dozen women who said they have been assaulted, raped and choked by the man they call a "serial killer." She said other women have told her they met the man, but refused to go with him because they recognized him from the fliers or friends who warned them about his violent nature.
Ford said she has talked to several women who jumped out of moving vehicles to escape the man's blows, one of whom sustained serious abrasions on her back and buttocks. She said she sat up most of one night with a woman who said she was repeatedly raped and choked by the man.
"She was holding onto me like a frightened animal," Ford said of the woman, whom she declined to identify because of client confidentiality. Ford persuaded the woman to talk to the police. Alston, the detective handling the Britt homicide, confirmed that he met with the woman but would not divulge details.
Possible link, suspect
Police reports were filed on two other prostitutes who were attacked near Gwynns Falls Park in March and April last year. Those reports are also under review, according to Detective Dennis Raftery, who has knowledge of the investigation. He said DNA evidence collected in one of those cases matches DNA collected in O'Hearn's case, but without a suspect match, police are stymied.
Ford said she has seen the alleged assailant once on Wilkens Avenue and once near Patterson Park. She describes him as a light-skinned African-American man in his mid-30s, and that he has been seen driving a white van, a sports car and a sport utility vehicle. Women have told her that the man is soft-spoken and gentlemanly at first, but turns angry and hostile as soon as they are alone.
Ford said she might have encountered the man again Oct. 27 while she was doing outreach work near Wilkens Avenue. He circled the block twice, looking in her direction as he passed.
"He had that crazed look in his eye," Ford said.
Ford has had some help in getting the word out about the man. Two $1,000 grants, one each from the Marion I. and Henry J. Knott Foundation and Herbert Bearman Foundation of Baltimore, have enabled Ford to hire a YANA client, a former prostitute and drug addict who has turned her life around, to put up fliers, as well as a University of Maryland police officer to teach basic self-defense.
"I was outraged that women were being targeted," said Gregory Cantori, executive director of the Knott foundation, who heard about the violence from Ford. "It's just horrendous."
Tough cases to solve
Police are also concerned, but say there is nothing solid so far to support claims that one person is responsible for the violence. They concede, however, based on a series of informal interviews with prostitutes, that the women seem to be describing the same man.
"This guy is sticking out like a sore thumb," said Alston. "All the girls seem to be intimidated by him."
Police spokesman Matt Jablow said detectives are aware of the man, but declined to say whether he is a suspect in any of the attacks or homicides.
Solving crimes against prostitutes can be difficult because of the women's transient lifestyles and their existence on the fringes of society, Jablow said.
"Even prostitutes who knew the victims can't say for sure who they were with and where they were going," he said.
"Obviously, if there was someone to arrest, we would make an arrest," Jablow said.
In the meantime, police have cautioned prostitutes to be careful about the men they "date."
"We don't want people to panic but we do want people to know about [the killings] so they can be prepared," Raftery said. "The only thing else I can say is travel in pairs. Don't go alone."
For prostitutes, these are frightening times. Many say they won't go on "dates" with men they don't know.
Some say they can't understand why there hasn't been any public concern. A similar situation occurred in 2002 when two prostitutes were killed and their bodies dumped on city streets. The deaths didn't make headlines until after police had arrested John Patrick Garcia, 36, of Dundalk, who was sentenced to two life terms for murder this summer.
"Why aren't they putting this thing on the news?" asked a 20-year-old prostitute who works on Washington Boulevard not far from Wilkens Avenue.
The woman declined to give her name for fear of retribution, but said most prostitutes have heard the serial killer rumor. Some are so desperate for money to buy drugs that they continue to take risks, she said.
"All the girls know about this guy, but they don't take it seriously," the 20-year-old said. "It's the drugs. They don't think."
A fatal mistake
Those who knew Britt, the youngest homicide victim, said she also took chances, placing her trust in people she didn't know, and that her heroin habit forced her to live apart from those who loved her most.
Britt's father, George Britt, a cement finisher who lives in a trailer park in Port Deposit, said he tried to help his daughter kick her heroin habit. He said he had her committed to several rehabilitation centers when she was in high school, but after she turned 18 there was little he could do. He has custody of her 3-year-old son, Brandon.
"I believe she would have eventually straightened out," he said, his cheek moist with tears. "But she didn't have a chance because someone killed her."