IPSWICH, England – British police arrested a 37-year-old grocery-store worker Monday on suspicion of being behind the deaths of five prostitutes whose naked bodies were found dumped in rural areas around the town of Ipswich.
Sky News identified the suspect as Tom Stephens, claiming he once worked as a civilian police officer.
Stephens was reportedly the same man who was interviewed by The Sunday Mirror and quoted as saying that he knew all five victims and had been interviewed by police about the killings.
In the interview, Stephens described himself as a "protector" of the women, but he also said he was as "close as there was to a pimp."
"I knew a lot of girls, and I used to run them about," he was quoted as saying.
Police arrested Stephens Monday morning at his home in Trimley, 8 miles south of Ipswich, Detective Chief Superintendant Stewart Gull said.
"He has been arrested on the suspicion of murdering all five women — Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell and Annette Nicholls," Gull said.
Police have until Wednesday morning to charge Stephens or apply for more time to hold him in custody.
Jacci Goldsmith, a former prostitute who worked the streets of Ipswich, told Sky News that Stephens looked after the women on the street.
"I am shocked, he would help us whenever he could," she said.
"He was quite well known," she said. "He would come out and take us to where we wanted to be."
The arrest came 16 tense days after the first body was found dumped in a stream, but authorities did not declare that they have solved the case.
"I just feel sick to the stomach, this is just on our own doorstep," said a neighbor who identified herself only as Mrs. Wynel.
"Well it's all just very frightening knowing that the possible — because it's not confirmed, is it, yet? — but a possible murderer was where I used to walk alone sometimes," said neighbor Evelyn Davey. "My husband doesn't let me out of his sight since all this happened."
The first hint of a development in the case was a police announcement early Monday of a postponement of coroner's inquests into the deaths of Nicol, Alderton, Clennell and Nicholls. No explanation was given.
Three of the bodies were found near the main road and the rail line between Ipswich and Trimley; the other two were discovered near the same road in areas south and southwest of Ipswich.
Clennell, 24, died of compression to her neck, and Alderton, 24, was strangled, a senior pathologist determined. Post-mortem examinations of the bodies of Nicol, 19, and Nicholls, 29, reached no conclusion on the cause of death.
An inquest into the death of Adams, 25, was opened and adjourned last week. The pathologist reached no conclusion about the cause of her death.
In the Sunday Mirror interview, Stephens was quoted as saying that he had already been interviewed under caution — meaning that he was regarded as a suspect and had been warned of his legal rights.
"If new information, coincidental information, crops up, I could get arrested," Stephens was quoted as saying. He added, however, that he was innocent and was confident he would not be charged.
A neighbor said he had seen police taking a keen interest in Stephens' house earlier this month.
"About a week and a half ago forensic teams were at that house for four to five hours," said Geoffrey Bond, 53. "They took some stuff away in boxes from the area."
The investigation had strained the resources of England's smallest police forces, and 340 specialist investigators were brought in from across Britain to join 160 Suffolk officers working on the case, trawling through 10,000 hours of CCTV footage.
By Sunday morning, police had received more than 10,000 calls from the public offering information, Gull said.
Sky News, The Sunday Mirror and The Associated Press contributed to this report.