HOUSTON – The "CSI"-style wizardry increasingly being used to solve crimes is running up against its limitations in Houston, where police are hunting for a possible serial killer in the slayings of seven prostitutes.
The victims' nude bodies were discovered over the past 22 months, with most of the victims dumped near churches in Acres Homes, a neighborhood where shabby bungalows and gleaming new homes share the same streets.
The slayings have spurred one of the intensive homicide investigations in Houston history, filling seven 4-inch-thick binders and yielding a 695-page report. But investigators say the hunt has become a roller coaster ride of frustration and 18-hour work days.
The women lived in a shadowy, secretive world, where their final movements are extremely difficult to trace and witnesses reluctant to step forward.
"These girls are working late at night. No one's out there. There are no witnesses," said Lt. Ron Walker, who is overseeing the investigation. "They get into a car with a man they don't know and they end up in a ditch."
Some of the women could have picked up as many as 10 customers in one night, and several had semen from a number of men on their bodies, making it nearly impossible for police to figure out the last person they were with or to determine if they had been sexually assaulted.
Police are entering the DNA into an FBI database that contains genetic samples from convicted felons and from crime scenes. So far, the database has yielded no suspects, said homicide Capt. Steve Jett.
Some of the DNA on the prostitutes probably belongs to customers who have no criminal record and are not even in the database, investigators said.
"DNA does not come with a driver's license," Jett said. "So we are not able to determine exactly who was involved with this person."
Pamela Ann Goss, 50, and Lakita Stubblefield, 21, were both stabbed to death. Vanessa Lackey Franklin, 45, and Willie Bianca Jones, 18, were strangled. It is unclear how Jasmine Clark, 21, Patricia Duffy-Garcia, 45, and a still-unidentified woman died.
All were found dead in Acres Homes except Franklin, whose body was eight miles away. But she was added to the list because her death seemed to fit the pattern: She had worked as a prostitute, and her nude body was dumped by a church.
Police have shipped hundreds of pieces of evidence to the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., and to North Texas State University for testing. They have also interviewed dozens of people, including men who may have picked up the victims.
One theory is that the killer or killers may be from Acres Homes or familiar enough with the neighborhood to know remote spots where a body can be discarded. Originally, investigators thought that the dumping of the bodies near churches was meaningful -- perhaps a message from a killer on a crusade to clean up the city -- but now they are not sure.
Police have questioned other neighborhood prostitutes, hoping that one of them might remember something useful. Many told of sexual assaults or frightening encounters, but never reported them and couldn't identify the customer, Walker said.
Ten officers worked full-time on the case at one point, but that has dwindled to three.
"You have no idea how frustrating this whole case is. We get some leads that we think are good, then have to eliminate them," Walker said.
Acres Homes is a black community just minutes from the skyscrapers of downtown Houston. Horses are still a common sight on the roads, and modest shotgun houses and dilapidated shacks sit across the street from newly built luxury homes shuttered behind iron gates. It is a place where families go back generations and neighbors still know each other. But it also has pockets of drug use and prostitution.
The body of the most recent victim, Jones, was found in a drainage ditch Sept. 22. She was last seen alive at the Bluemagic Lounge, a ramshackle beer joint.
"I'm just scared. I'm afraid. I was born and raised here and we never had problems like this before. We could sleep with our windows open," said Daphene Tyler, 42, whose family has operated the Bluemagic Lounge for 62 years.
Investigators believe at least two of the women were killed by the same person, but say that more than one killer may be at work.
The first victim, Clark, was found amid trees near New Macedonia Church in January 2006. Two more victims were discovered near the Pine Grove Church of God. A fourth woman was discovered along a dirt road -- dubbed Jesus Street on a makeshift sign -- that leads to a church-owned piece of land.
"We're asking people to concentrate on the victims. Do you know what happened to these women? These were people. They have families. They have mothers. They have sisters. They have children," Walker said. "Yes, they may have been prostitutes, but they didn't deserve to die or have done what was done to them."