For hookers, fear of attack is a constant companion

As Kensington factories closed, times got tougher. Here, shoppers ply Kensington Avenue in 1971.
As Kensington factories closed, times got tougher. Here, shoppers ply Kensington Avenue in 1971.
Posted: December 09, 2010

SHE HUNCHED her shoulders against the cold, against the unforgiving winds and the uncertainty that filled the night.

Jennifer, a petite 26-year-old prostitute who looked all of 17, stood under the El on Kensington Avenue near Hunting Park late Tuesday, looking for a date.

Yeah, she said, she had heard all about the Kensington Strangler, the elusive fiend whom police have linked to the recent murders of two women and the violent attacks on at least three others.

For all she knew, he was out there that night, on the prowl for another victim.

"I figured he'd work his way up here," she said. "I'm kinda scared, but you can only be scared for so long. I've been raped before. I've been choked and had a gun and a knife pulled on me. I know how to handle myself."

On any given day, there are numerous Jennifers walking on Kensington Avenue, girls whose daily lives revolve around trading sex to feed their drug addiction, while knowing full well that they will likely get hurt, and maybe even killed, while doing it.

The odds are not in their favor: Studies have shown that 70 percent to 95 percent of prostitutes are assaulted at some point, and face a death rate 40 times higher than the general population.

And yet they keep at it. Even with interest in the Kensington Strangler at a fever pitch - police are patrolling the area nonstop, and the FBI has joined the hunt for the killer - the Daily News spoke every night this week with prostitutes who showed up for work on the avenue.

Jennifer said she and many other girls have tried to be more careful by avoiding anyone who resembles the composite sketch of the man who has choked and sexually assaulted at least three women in Kensington since October.

The attacker has been described as a black or Latino man in his late 20s or early 30s. It's unclear if that man is the same one who strangled Elaine Goldberg and Nicole Piacentini last month; DNA evidence shows that the same person killed both women, police have said.

"I have four kids, so I'm trying to take more precautions," Jennifer said. "And I have protection: I have a razor blade."

Kerin, 31, and her cousin Erika, 29, sported jeans and hooded jackets as they braved the bitter cold last night on Kensington near Somerset.

Both said they carried Mace and pocket knives to protect them against the infamous strangler. Kerin, a heroin user, said she had suffered a seizure last night but still wanted to walk the avenue.

"One more date and then we're heading home," Erika said, as her pocket knife dangled on a keychain by her waist side.

"It's so upsetting," Officer Anna Mae Law, a community-relations cop from Kensington's 26th District, said of the women. "They're not really afraid to come back."

Law has spent years helping hookers to get off Kensington Avenue and into rehabilitation centers. Many end up back on the hopeless streets.

"They need that next fix, even though they're victimized all the time," she said. "They're beaten and robbed and thrown out of cars, but they don't report it. They feel like that's just the chance they take, doing what they do."

And many are simply used to living lives marred by abuse and addiction.

Mary Anne Layden, director of sexual trauma and psychopathology at the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, said studies have shown that many prostitutes were sexually abused as children and experienced being homeless.

Some tend to operate in a haze that's only partially fueled by drugs, she said.

"They're so traumatized that their brains are unplugged," she said. "It's like being in a combat zone, and the enemy's firing, but your mind is at home."

And then there's violence. Layden said that research projects over the years have found that about 55 percent of prostitutes are attacked by their customers and that 77 percent suffer serious head injuries. That they carry a such a high death rate comes as little surprise.

Layden, who has spent much of the last 25 years working with sexual-violence victims - and perpetrators - said she has found that men who violently attack prostitutes view the women as "pieces of sexual meat to be consumed for their entertainment."

Some men end up feeling disgusted with themselves afterward and snap.

"They think, 'I feel disgusted; it's coming from this disgusting prostitute! I'm going to beat the bejabbers out of her! And I'll rid the world of this rubbish!' "

Layden said she thinks that the Kensington Strangler - if there is just one - could be fueled by similar destructive and deranged thoughts.

Anna, a thin, blonde prostitute working on Kensington Avenue near Westmoreland Street Monday night, had a different take.

"Men that smoke crack or cocaine get horny. He's probably high and . . . starts choking them because it turns him on," said the 30-year-old.

"Maybe he thinks he's making them feel good by choking them and gets too excited and ends up killing them. Or maybe he just likes killing women."

Anna said she's been on edge since last week, when a friend told her that she had been choked by a man she believed was the Kensington Strangler, just off the avenue on Buckius Street.

Her friend managed to escape without serious injury, but didn't report the incident to police.

At a news conference yesterday, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey urged Kensington residents to report assaults and suspicious activity - and also to try to avoid panic.

Ramsey said that residents also shouldn't assume that every violent attack in the area is the work of the strangler.

"All of you know we have more than one criminal in the city of Philadelphia, so it is not a foregone conclusion that this is the same individual who has done all of these things," Ramsey said.

The Medical Examiner's Office today is expected to rule on the cause and manner of death of a 30-year-old woman who was found dead in an abandoned house on Rutledge Street near Indiana about 8 p.m. Tuesday. The woman had slight bruising around her neck, homicide Capt. James Clark said.

And on Cornwall Street near E, a man groped a woman outside her home early yesterday morning. When the woman fled into her home with her roommate, the man forced his way inside, where a male roommate fought him and held him until police arrived. One of the women stabbed him in the arm with a corkscrew, police said.

That attacker is in custody and has been swabbed for DNA, said Capt. John Darby of the Special Victims Unit.

Police initially suspected the Kensington Strangler in the murder of Allison Edwards, 22, who was found dead Friday on Glendale Street near Erie Avenue, in Juniata Park. But yesterday morning, Homicide Capt. James Clark said that detectives no longer believe that the case is related because "the circumstances are different." Police have a person of interest in the case, Clark added.

Staff writers Jan Ransom and Christine Olley contributed to this report.

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