KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It's not like anyone from a decaying neighborhood east of downtown is harboring illusions that the place is crime-free. But the discovery of six bodies has raised fears that a serial killer is preying on the area, which one activist calls the most decrepit in the city.
At least four of the victims were women with histories of drug use or prostitution.
"It still hasn't stopped them from walking," Misty Garner, a waitress at the 3 Friends Restaurant and Bar B Q, said of the prostitutes who often come in to eat. "I seen them up and down here all day."
Authorities said a single killer was responsible, but Capt. Rich Lockhart would not say what led police to connect the slayings in the area known as the Prospect Corridor (search).
The first victim was found in July. The other five bodies have been discovered on vacant lots or near vacant houses or apartments since Sept. 2.
Police have yet to release a cause of death for any of the six victims and a forensic analysis is ongoing.
Only four of the victims have been identified: Patricia Wilson Butler, 45, Sheliah McKinzie, 38, Darci Williams, 25, and Anna Ewing, 42. The other two bodies were so badly decomposed that neither their sex nor race was immediately known.
The four whose names are known all had criminal convictions for drug possession, one with intent to sell, according to court records. Ewing also had a prostitution conviction on her record. Two of the women were homeless.
Police are looking into the women's lifestyle as part of their investigation, spokesman Tony Sanders said. "We do know they were involved with street activity," he added, without elaboration.
Standing at the hostess stand at 3 Friends, Garner said she is certain she talked to one of the victims days before she disappeared. The woman told Garner she was selling her body to pay bills and wouldn't do it forever.
Garner wasn't convinced. "Just be careful," she warned.
Since the bodies began turning up last week, Garner no longer walks home alone after work. She also worries about her 12-year-old daughter.
"I'm even scared for my daughter walking to the bus stop," she said.
Down the street, prostitutes frequently solicit customers near an elementary school, moving out of the children's view when the students head outside for recess, a teacher said. Still, news that a body had been found behind a brick building just across the street startled the staff.
"We were in shock," said Cheryl Hines, a Head Start (search) preschool teacher, as she held a 4-year-old student in her arms outside the school. "I was like, 'I know they didn't just say that on that television.'"
Hines said she soon will instruct her students not talk to strangers and how to dial 911.
Across the street from the school, 54-year-old Nate Williams blamed police for problems that plague the inner city neighborhood, where he has lived for more than three decades.
"If they cleaned it up, there wouldn't be the prostitutes out here," he said. "The burglary is not bad around here. Ain't nothing bad but the drugs. If they had stopped that at first, then they wouldn't have the prostitution, and they wouldn't have the killings."
Anti-crime activist Alvin Brooks, who also serves as the city's mayor pro tem, said part of the neighborhood where the bodies were found was once a working-class place inhabited mainly by whites. He said they fled for the suburbs following school desegregation in the 1950s. Now, he said, the area is the most decrepit in the city.
There are 436 lots that no one owns in a 240-square-block area. That includes the blocks where the bodies were found, said Barry Mayer, who coordinates a federal grant aimed at reducing crime and works with Brooks at the community group Move UP (search).
Move UP is working with Veronica's Voice (search), whose members include former prostitutes, to talk with women working the streets in the area about the recent deaths and urge them to look for safer work.
"Hopefully, using women who are reformed, we can convince these women to get out of the business," Brooks said. "They are mothers, daughters, friends and most importantly human beings we have a responsibility for."