Chicago Police Take Fresh Look at Unsolved Slayings of 55 Women — and the Possibility of a Serial Killer

May 17, 2019by Annie Sweeney
The area behind an abandoned building in the 4500 block of West West End Avenue, shown May 7, 2019, is where Lora Harbin was found strangled on May 25, 2018 in Chicago. Sheís one of the four victims discovered between May and September 2018. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — A bouquet of purple and red silk flowers — positioned in the center of an unfinished wooden garage door — surrounds the smiling picture of Nicole Ridge, who was strangled nearly a year ago but still remembered in this alley on Chicago’s Far South Side.

“RIP” is written in black marker on a white cross just to the right. “Love all way.”

Ridge’s slaying is still unsolved — as are the strangulation deaths of dozens of other women in Chicago over the last two decades.

Now Chicago police have assigned a team of detectives to review the deaths more than a year after the Chicago Tribune first brought to light that at least 75 women ranging in age from 18 to 58 had been strangled or smothered between 2001 and 2017.

In its groundbreaking investigation published in January 2018, the Tribune found that 51 of the deaths still remained unsolved, prompting experts and law enforcement officials to suggest that a task force look into the cases — both to catch patterns of a possible serial killer and to clear up the backlog of cases.

The Police Department agreed at the time to review a handful of the cases but balked at the idea of forming a task force. Since then, at least four more women have died under similar circumstances, bringing the total number of unsolved slayings identified by the Tribune to at least 55.

More recently, as new concerns were raised about a potential serial killer, the department finally assigned a team of up to six detectives already detailed to an FBI violent crimes task force in Chicago to reexamine the forensic evidence.

Assistant Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said the review could take many months as the detectives determine what DNA testing was done initially and whether additional lab work would provide investigative leads.

Family members and witnesses could also be interviewed.

And if any video evidence was collected at crime scenes, detectives will check to see if advances in technology might help generate new clues.

“It is getting the attention it deserves,” Deenihan said in a telephone interview.

Deenihan said no evidence yet exists that any of the women died at the hands of one or more serial killers, but he conceded that such links still might be found.

“We are going to review all of these,” he said. “We don’t know where it is going. At first glance, we don’t have a serial killer. … I think you may find some connections.”

Police have already ruled out, though, any links among the 21 deaths in which DNA evidence has already been tested.

The Tribune analysis last year found clusters of strangulations around Washington Park on the South Side and Garfield Park on the West Side, the potential work of serial killers. Two women were strangled and left in burning trash bins over two days in November 2007.

The latest victims were discovered between May and September 2018. All four were found outdoors on the South or West sides; the bodies of two were discovered about two miles from each other.

Three died by strangulation, according to the Cook County medical examiner. The fourth woman, whose body was found inside a garbage can, possibly died from “homicide by asphyxiation,” the medical examiner reported.

While the shooting deaths of young men in Chicago dominate headlines, the strangulations of so many women over the last nearly 20 years had gone by with relatively little notice, a chilling reminder of how women with often high-risk lifestyles can be targeted.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Police Department had responded to the strangulations of dozens of women by creating a task force that led to the arrest and conviction of several suspects, including some serial killers.

The task force, however, was eventually disbanded even as the attacks continued at a steady pace.

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The alleys — like the one where Ridge’s body was found behind 104th Place — are too dangerous for even residents to use. A garage just steps from her memorial is badly decaying.

“You don’t go in an alley over here,” said Becky DeaKyne, her voice lowering to a near whisper. “I don’t drive in them. I don’t walk in them. It’s not safe. It’s not smart.”

The threat of an attacker adds yet another layer of anxiety for the Roseland neighborhood. Not unlike many areas where the women were found, it’s rife with drug dealing and shootings.

“You don’t dare go out without a phone,” said DeaKyne, out walking her dog. “You keep the phone on. You don’t put it in your pocket. Everybody is afraid to go out, so there is nobody to scream help to.”

The new task force was formed after an outcry from activists as well as news media reports. The nonprofit Murder Accountability Project presented the Police Department with a nearly identical list of victims as the Tribune had in early 2018.

Those who have waited for answers welcomed the renewed attention from detectives and called on everyone — from the highest elected officials to residents themselves — to ensure that the cases are investigated.

“This is more than just a personal plea to our new Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to have all these cases looked into. This is a wake-up call to our communities,” one woman, whose sister, Margaret Gomez, 22, was one of the victims, wrote in a letter to the Tribune. “We need to care. If you see something, please say something. These women deserve justice. Margaret deserves justice.”

Shannon Bennett, deputy director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said he was in touch with the family of another victim as far back as 2007 who worried that their loved one’s killing had not been given the necessary attention by police. The relatives had heard of similar slayings and wondered if they were connected, he said.

Bennett said the community has become even more galvanized in the past year because of the growing publicity about the slayings. The fact that most of the victims are African American has not gone unnoticed, he said.

“The families are very disheartened with the process and lack of regard, just blatant lack of regard, for the lives of black women,” he said.

Bennett said the task force set up by police represents a good step. But he suggested there should also be a task force that includes community members to address the concerns of families over the decades that no one cared. He also wants other issues taken on, such as the backlog of evidence that awaits testing at the Illinois state crime laboratories.

“If folks come to the table, there can be joint advocacy and resolve,” Bennett said. “We are not adversarial. There is a role for police. There is a role for community and for academia and policymakers on all levels.”

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©2019 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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