ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Selling sex on the streets of this gambling capital is a dangerous pursuit: Streetwalkers have been strangled, smothered, slashed and set ablaze.
So far this year, six prostitutes are believed to have been killed in or near Atlantic City, a seventh survived after her throat was slashed. Countless others are believed to have been assaulted but chose not to report the crimes to police.
The latest worry for those who make their living in the sex trade is that a serial killer was to blame for the deaths of the four women, ranging in age from 20 to 42, whose bodies were found face-down in a ditch last month behind a string of seedy motels just outside the city.
Police identified Molly Jean Dilts, 20; Kim Raffo, 35; Tracy Ann Roberts, 23; and Barbara V. Breidor, 42, as the victims.
"It's dangerous, but all you're focused on is that next dollar," said a prostitute known on the streets as Spazz, who is now looking for a gun or a knife to protect herself. "It kind of clouds your judgment. You're not focused on the situation you're getting into. That's the scariest part about it."
Authorities do not believe the four bodies found Nov. 20 just off the Black Horse Pike in neighboring Egg Harbor Township are related to the attacks on three prostitutes earlier this year along Georgia Avenue in Atlantic City. In each of the three earlier attacks, the prostitutes' throats were slashed; one survived.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey Blitz said the Atlantic City cases were sufficiently different from the Egg Harbor deaths to make authorities believe they were carried out by different attackers. He also resists speculation that the four ditch bodies were the work of a serial killer, noting that autopsies could not determine the cause of death for two of the women. No arrests have been made in any of this year's attacks in and near Atlantic City.
In any case, the attacks illustrate how dangerous it is for prostitutes, who are statistically 18 times more likely to be killed than other women, and 40 times more likely to die from other than natural causes, according to national studies.
A study of the murder rate among prostitutes from 1981 to 1990 found that an average of 124 hookers were murdered each year in the United States, according to a 2004 article in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The nation's most notorious prostitute killings were committed in the Pacific Northwest by a single attacker who came to be known as the Green River Killer. In pleading guilty in 2003 to the murders of 48 prostitutes, Gary Leon Ridgway told a judge he targeted street walkers "because I thought I could kill as many as I wanted to without getting caught."
"They were easy to pick up, without being noticed," he said in court. "I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing."
Like many prostitutes in similar situations, Spazz, who said she was beaten by a "trick" two years ago, didn't call police when it happened. Like all four hookers found dead behind the motels in Egg Harbor Township, and like 85 percent of prostitutes nationwide, Spazz has a drug problem.
"I froze," she said. "I was afraid he was going to shoot me. So I just took it."
Spazz, who said she is 23 but looks twice as old, said she has been turning tricks in Atlantic City for five years since arriving from New York.
"I really don't want to be doing this," she said. "I want to get my GED and become a child's counselor. But I get sick and I gotta get well," she said, referring to finding drugs to satisfy her addiction.
The violence has prompted Atlantic City hookers to arm themselves. Christine, 37, who works out of a cheap motel on Pacific Avenue near the entrance to several casinos, bought a canister of pepper spray after the bodies were found in the ditch.
She said she and other working girls she knows have stopped accompanying men on trips to motels on "The Pike," preferring to stick closer to home and meet clients in cars or motel rooms.
"It scares the hell out of me," she said. "We're all talking about it, and I'm still ready to jump in the first car that comes along."
Bunny, a prostitute in her early 20s who also works on Pacific Avenue, said she has temporarily stopped hooking and switched to peddling drugs.
"This is no kind of life," she said. "None of us graduates from high school thinking we're going to end up doing this."