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Nineteen-year-old Jennifer Zoch and her cousin Kelly Compton, 24, came to Washington all the way from Goodman, Wis., to have fun, make some money, and escape the tedium of small-town life. Arriving in Washington on March 10, the two lived primarily in a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge. But their nights were devoted to working the streets. “It was a change; it was bigger,” Compton says. “It seemed all right.”

It wasn’t. The last time Compton saw her younger cousin was on Saturday night, March 21, when they were both walking on Massachusetts Avenue NW and they “went their separate ways.” Compton was surprised that Zoch didn’t come home the next day, but figured she was just with her new boyfriend.

The next night, March 23, Compton was walking Massachusetts Avenue when a friend ran up to her, holding a photograph of Zoch. A policeman followed behind and asked Compton if she knew the woman in the Polaroid. Early that morning, a security guard had found Zoch’s body in the parking lot of 930 M Street NW. She’d been strangled, stripped from the waist down, and tossed between two cars. Compton was taken to the morgue, where she identified her cousin.

Zoch wasn’t the first suspected prostitute to be found dead at that location. Nearly a year ago, 38-year-old Deborah McKinney had been found under almost identical circumstances—strangled, naked from the waist down, dumped inside the building at that address.

There have been others. On Sept. 9, children playing in the White Oak neighborhood in Silver Spring found a trash bag by the side of the road. Inside the bag was the body of 19-year-old Shavoone Worthy. Originally from Hyattsville, Worthy—known on the streets as “Mico”—was trying to get her life in order and was studying to get her GED. But when she wasn’t studying or taking care of her daughter, who lived with her mother, cops say Worthy walked “the Jungle,” a hardscrabble part of the Shaw neighborhood notorious for strung-out prostitutes. As is typical of many Jungle workers, says a D.C. vice officer, Worthy didn’t heed the warnings of police officers about the dangers lurking on her beat. “She would get in a car with, like, four guys,” this officer says. “She was careless.”

On Sept. 28, Prince George’s County police reported to the 1500 block of Ray Road in Hyattsville, where officers found the body of 18-year-old Sharonda Delisa Sharp partially submerged in a creek. A heavyset woman, Sharp was new to the area, though a D.C. vice officer knew her from having just arrested her that week for solicitation. “She appeared slow,” says the officer.

All four slayings had at least two common threads: All victims died as a result of force to the neck or head, and all had worked the Jungle. Nevertheless, area cops insist the killings are unrelated. “I don’t see any [evidence] of significance as far as there being a serial killer out there,” says D.C. Homicide Detective Willie Toland, who’s investigating Zoch’s murder. “We’re still looking at all of [the murders]. But there’s nothing there [linking them]. At least not at this time.”

Last month Toland—along with Detective Eddie Voysest, who’s investigating McKinney’s murder—met with detectives from Montgomery and P.G. Counties to compare notes on the killings. Toland’s counterparts reportedly concurred with his refutation of a possible link among the crimes. The body of Worthy, for instance, was found in a garbage bag and with a garden hose around her neck, revealing an MO specific to her case.

D.C. cops have convincing reasons to suspect that Zoch and McKinney’s deaths were the work of one killer. Establishing a link with the murders in neighboring counties, though, is a tougher assignment—not only because of the vagaries of homicide investigations, but also because of poor coordination among police departments. Despite the detectives’ one meeting a few weeks ago, some D.C. cops working the investigation complain that their brethren across the city line have otherwise been anything but forthcoming.

“They refuse to share anything with us,” says a D.C. police officer. “P.G. and Montgomery are telling us nothing. Nothing. I guess they want these cases for themselves. But who cares?…If you were robbed, you wouldn’t care if it was D.C. or Montgomery County cops solving the case; you’d just want it done.”

When the P.G. and Montgomery County investigations began in September, their investigators spent night after night on the street with Sgt. Frank Morgan and Officer Tim Palchak of the D.C. police force’s 3rd District prostitution unit, interviewing street walkers about the deaths. But nothing turned up, and the Maryland detectives haven’t been in contact with the prostitution unit for about three weeks.

Better communication would no doubt yield a more piercing probe. Sgt. Ed Horsman of the P.G. County homicide division—supervisor of the detective investigating the death of Sharp—was unaware that the victim found on his beat was a prostitute until Washington City Paper told him so.

Notwithstanding the outcome of their consultations, area police will have to do a lot more investigating before they conjecture about the possibility of a serial killer—a notion that could send the public into panic and prepare any suspect for a shakedown.

“There are, many times, good investigative reasons” for being cautious, according to Gregg McCrary, who served on the FBI’s behavioral science team for 10 years. “The issue is how best to protect the citizens. There are times that demand that police come forth and tell people to be careful—that’s the reason to disclose. There are also reasons not to disclose. There were times when I would say, or the police would say, ‘Well, we’re pursuing all avenues—there are similarities and there are dissimilarities with the murders,’ even though we thought they were related crimes. We didn’t want to alert the offender; we didn’t want him to change what he was doing….It’s always a balancing act.”

D.C. cops invoked McCrary’s boilerplate in investigating the Park View killings last year. Almost up until the day that they arrested the alleged serial killer responsible, D.C. police maintained that the rash of killings in the Northwest neighborhood were decidedly not the work of just one man. Then they busted the suspect and acknowledged that they had thought him solely responsible for the deaths.

Prostitute victims—who lead dangerous lives to begin with—pose a particularly thorny problem for investigators. “They’re such high-risk victims, there may be any number of killers,” McCrary says. “You can’t jump to the conclusion that this must be a serial killer. Nor can you rule it out.”

McCrary says the best way to establish whether a serial killer is preying on prostitutes is to establish a baseline. “How many prostitutes in that area are killed in a given year?” asks the former FBI official. That line of questioning helped McCrary when he was dispatched to Rochester, N.Y., in 1989 to investigate a spate of prostitute killings. “They averaged about four a year,” he says. “Then—in about a year and a half—they had 16. That spike tells you there’s something abnormal going on.”

According to Morgan, Washington typically loses one or two prostitutes a year to homicide. “We’ve lost a lot more this year,” he says.

Whatever the threat that lurks in the Jungle, area police are stern in their admonitions to local prostitutes. “They have been out there warning the girls and trying the best they can to look out for them,” says Zelna Joseph, executive director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS).

But where Joseph sees cops doing the best they can in muddled circumstances, Nicole Mason of the National Women’s Alliance senses a dangerous indifference. “Officials and law enforcement do not count on us fighting back and saying to them, ‘What you’re doing is not enough!’” she recently wrote in a flier. Several police sources confirm that Prince George’s County homicide detectives have yet to devote full attention to the Sharp murder because they’re busy completing casework on the higher-profile homicides of two Dunkin’ Donuts employees.

On Oct. 24, Mason held a vigil in memory of the four slain women. Around 30 people came to the candlelight service held at Asbury Methodist Church on 11th Street NW; none of them, though, were prostitutes. The prostitutes clearly had other plans: On the street that night, the oldest profession was as ubiquitous as ever.

“When the most recent killings began, many of the women on the streets were really scared and really didn’t want to work,” says HIPS’ Joseph. “They went inside a couple nights after Mico [Worthy] was murdered. But though they did meet with one of our workers and talk about their fears, and they still have some fears, they have to get out and work. There are other people who aren’t very sensitive to these issues, and that would be the pimp.”

In the Jungle on a recent Saturday night, Tracy Ray, 32, said that she had heard about the deaths but wasn’t worried. “I’ve been out here for a while,” Ray says while working the intersection of 10th and O Streets NW. “You just got to be careful, that’s what you got to do. I was, like, 13 or 14 years old when I started; I learned to be careful from older people.”

Law enforcement sources argue that the distinct differences in the MO of each woman’s killer—strangulation, asphyxiation, blunt-force trauma—rule out the serial-killer theory. They may be right, though McCrary says that serial killers do sometimes switch up their methods of murder. “I’ve seen serial-murder cases where the method of death is different—you might have strangulation in one, blunt-force trauma in another,” he says. “Usually, he’ll ultimately stable out and pick one he likes.”

“My gut tells me that it’s not just one man,” says a police source close to the investigation. “It could be that there’s one guy responsible for three of the slayings, but not all of them. The physical evidence just doesn’t support that. Not yet, anyway. My gut says no.”

Unfortunately, leads about possible suspects specific to each woman’s murder have yet to turn up anything worthwhile. A source close to one of the murdered women says that members of the victim’s “family” of prostitutes suspect a rival pimp in her death, for instance, but a cop says that lead is a dead end. “I’ve heard that rumor on the street, too,” says the officer, “but it hasn’t panned out.”

Despite the lingering mystery of whether these four women were killed by one man or four or 100, life goes on for the Jungle’s street walkers. On Halloween night, Mary Louise Shackelford, who says she’s plied her trade for 12 years, insists she doesn’t need the cops to tell her to be careful. Around seven months ago she was beaten by a customer who she says has beaten other prostitutes. She’s seen him driving around in three or four different cars, and wonders aloud if he is the killer. She says that neither the police nor the community activists really care. Then Shackelford proceeds with her walk down 11th Street NW. “What am I supposed to do?” she asks.CP