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Looking for links in a dozen deaths

Police need more than just similarities to determine if a serial killer has been targeting city prostitutes since the '80s

Sunday, October 24, 1999

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

People lived in terror that winter.

They bought handguns and shotguns. They changed the locks on their doors. They installed bars on their windows.

In late 1977 and early 1978, a killer was on the loose, murdering couples in their homes, leaving a bloody trail from Allegheny and Beaver counties to Ohio, West Virginia, South Carolina and Florida.

Edward Surratt, 36, an unemployed truck driver from Aliquippa, was and still is suspected in at least 18 slayings.

Police captured him in Florida when he broke into a beach house, tied up the homeowner, raped his wife and daughter and then fell asleep.

Surratt isn't mentioned with Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, but, like them, he is a notorious serial killer.

Now local authorities have set up an investigative team to determine if another serial killer might be out there.

In recent weeks, the media has trumpeted a possible link between the deaths of more than a dozen Pittsburgh prostitutes since the late 1980s and, on Monday, county, city and state police met to compare notes.

But despite media hype, police are urging a sense of perspective.

"With Surratt, there was panic. There was a task force formed. There was a huge concentrated effort to identify who was responsible for these killings," said Sgt. Lee Torbin of the county homicide squad, a 27-year veteran who remembers the Surratt case. "What we're doing now doesn't come close to that and will not come close to that."

Detectives can't establish a connection between the cases except the victims' hard lives as drug addicts who sold themselves for a fix and ended up dead in remote areas outside the city, some in suburban communities and others in outlying counties.

That pattern is similar to notorious serial killings of prostitutes in other parts of the country, including 49 who were murdered in the Seattle area between 1982 and 1984. The suspect, dubbed the Green River Killer, has not been caught.

In Seattle, however, a single person was obviously at work, sometimes murdering five hookers a month.

Here, even the causes of death aren't apparent, and the time span is much greater.

Some victims, such as Leah Hall, 32, of Oakland, who was found dead in Carnegie in 1997, were strangled. But the coroner's office hasn't been able to establish a cause for others, such as that of Cherida Warmley, 43, of Lawrenceville, whose skeleton was found in North Versailles last year, or Faye Jackson, 24, of Garfield, whose dismembered remains were found in a Monroeville creek in 1994.

Talk of a link began earlier this month with a breathless television report after the discovery of a skeleton, later identified as Angelique Morgan, 27, in an abandoned Shadyside house.

But the suspicion that some of the cases could be related wasn't new. Police have been talking about the possibility for years.

In the winter of 1997, after the bodies of Hall and Dorothy Siemers, 29, turned up in the suburbs, county police said they suspected the deaths could be connected.

Three years ago, Torbin and Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Ron Freeman even discussed going to the media to drum up information about some of the deaths, although they never did.

When the WPXI-TV report aired two weeks ago, however, so many reporters were calling police that they decided to hold a news conference to, in essence, get the media off their backs.

"The last thing we wanted was to start a panic," Torbin said.

Now a group of investigators is poring over old cases, but details are sketchy. Freeman is convinced that some of the deaths are related, but he won't discuss why.

"We just need the time to work on it," he said. "So we're not going to make any statements."

While some city and county detectives privately doubt there is a link, others point to the improbability that so many similar deaths -- perhaps as many as 18 -- would be the work of different people.

Torbin said Freeman's instincts over the years had often proved correct.

"I have a lot of respect for Freeman," he said. "He believes that something's out there. He has felt this way for a while. And I can tell you this: He's a hell of a homicide cop."

If it turns out that one person has been killing prostitutes, the suspect would join only a handful of serial killers in Western Pennsylvania history.

"It's not common in this area," Torbin said. "Most serial killers, in my experience, are in the larger metropolitan areas, like New York or Los Angeles, where you have a lot of anonymity."

Surratt was the most prolific, and the only local serial killer who fits the popular image fostered by such movies as "Dirty Harry" and "Silence of the Lambs." He is serving a life term in a Florida prison, and state police are still trying to prove once and for all that he was the man who terrorized Western Pennsylvania more than two decades ago.

But not long after he was caught, another killer turned up in the winter of 1978 and 1979, this one robbing and killing people in their homes.

The murders started with the death of Roy Warren, 68, who was found Dec. 5, kneeling by his bed in his North Side home, stabbed in the neck. A month later, Thelma Pettigrew, 55, also of the North Side, was also found stabbed in the neck, her hands and feet bound with tape. On Jan. 27, Florence Sims, 59, of Hazelwood, was found beaten to death in her home, her ankles tied with electrical cord. Then, on Feb. 28, Philip Vaughn, 83, of Duquesne, was found stabbed in the chest, his hands and feet tied behind his back. His wife, Naomi, 73, was also tied and beaten, but she survived.

During the same three-month period, at least six other people were robbed and beaten, some with brass knuckles.

In March, police found their man when Naomi Vaughn identified her attacker as Willie Holmes, 36, an unemployed remodeler from the Hill District. Robbery seemed to be his motive, but no one could ever explain what compelled him to kill his victims.

Eugene Spruill was another infamous multiple murderer.

A black belt in karate who stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 270 pounds, he is serving two life sentences for the 1972 stabbing of a Natrona Heights man and the 1973 strangulation of a Brushton drug dealer. At one point, he had been accused of six murders in an 11-month period.

Two other killers with multiple victims -- Michael Travaglia and John Lesko -- are also legends in Western Pennsylvania. During a six-day "kill for thrill" spree in December 1979 and January 1980, they killed four people, including Apollo police Officer Leonard Miller.

Then there was Donald Brown, an unemployed bakery truck driver from New Castle who is serving time for two killings in the 1960s and may have committed a third. Brown, now 53, was convicted of stabbing his girlfriend, whose body was found Jan. 21, 1967, in a strip mine.

Brown also was convicted of killing a Mercer County farmer found shot to death three days before his girlfriend's death and is awaiting trial for another killing in the 1960s.

Anthony Fiebiger also could turn out to be a serial killer, which the FBI defines as anyone who kills three or more people. Sentenced to death for raping and killing a teen-age girl in 1982 and strangling another woman in 1989, Fiebiger, 35, of Brookline, is a diagnosed sociopath. He has a history of violence toward women, and, Torbin said, it's possible he has had other victims.

Just as it's possible the deaths of local prostitutes will be traced to one or two people.

Prostitutes are the most frequent victims of serial killers, according to criminologists, because they live on the fringe of society and are often not reported missing.

Several high-profile serial killers have preyed on prostitutes almost exclusively. In addition to the Green River Killer, Joel Rifkin killed 17 prostitutes in New York in the early 1990s, having sex with their corpses and dumping their dismembered bodies.

The killings initially went unnoticed because the bodies were found in many different police jurisdictions, and missing persons reports were not coordinated among agencies. Police didn't realize a serial killer was at work until 1993, when Rifkin confessed to the murders after a state trooper pulled over his pickup for running a red light and discovered a rotting body in the back.

Locally, many police agencies have an unsolved case or two, but determining which ones are related will be difficult.

Trooper Ray Melder of the state police criminal investigative assessment unit, which is still examining the Surratt murders, said the death of Mary Jean Stevenson, 25, in Butler County might be one to look at. The skeleton of the North Side woman was found June 4, 1988, in an abandoned strip mine off Interstate 79 in Muddy Creek. She had been shot in the head.

At least five Allegheny County deaths fit the category of prostitutes from the city found dead in the suburbs: Hall, Siemers, Warmley, Jackson and Jessica Freeman, 15, whose beaten body was discovered along railroad tracks in Bethel Park in 1992.

Two recent deaths also might be part of the police investigation.

On June 28, the skeletal remains of a young woman were found in a vacant house in Wilkinsburg. She has yet to be identified, but an autopsy showed she was strangled. On Oct. 6, Morgan's skeletal remains were discovered. The cause of her death hasn't been determined, but police suspect she was slain, because she was found under a carpet and a mattress with her sweat shirt wrapped around her head. Police said she was a prostitute and drug addict.

In the end, all the similarities prove nothing.

Without a common suspect or some physical evidence, the cases are likely to remain unsolved.

"We have developed suspects in most of these cases, but the evidence does not overlap," Torbin said. "There is no common denominator."

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