On the road to rock bottom

Posted: January 24, 2014

EVERY TIME the phone rang, the Turner family's hearts jumped and their eyes darted to the television, their hopes and fears resting on the number that appeared in the caller ID on the screen.

They prayed it would be Stephanie Turner, calling after more than a week of silence, saying she was ready to get help with her heroin addiction. They would have been relieved if it were a hospital or a close friend, saying Stephanie is safe.

But on a recent foggy Tuesday afternoon, Caroline Turner, Stephanie's mother, said she knew this daily drama could end in the worst way, in Camden or Atlantic City.

"I've prepared myself for that call," Turner said last week, wrenching her hands together in the living room of her bungalow in Williamstown, Gloucester County.

The family and friends of Tara Alicea, a married mother of three little girls who grew up one town over in Clayton, had also waited for those phone calls. Alicea, 30, had struggled with heroin addiction herself and, like Turner, had gone to rehab only to relapse, her whereabouts unknown for months.

Alicea's addictions pushed her to Camden in the past, her mother, Sona Turner (no relation to Caroline), told reporters, and recently to Atlantic City, where one local attorney said he'd seen her walking up and down Pacific Avenue, a street that's often a last resort for women who've lost everything.

"That particular woman, I remember seeing her four, five, six times, just walking up and down the street, soliciting," said attorney Ernest Aponte, whose office is on Pacific Avenue. "She stood out. You don't see a lot of white girls up and down the street."

Work of a serial killer?

Alicea's mother, like Caroline Turner, told reporters that she'd prepared herself for that call- but she expected her daughter's death to be an overdose, not a murder.

An off-duty police officer discovered Alicea's body inside a suitcase Jan. 5 in a wooded area outside of Atlantic City, in Egg Harbor Township, the same town where the bodies of four women - Tracy Ann Roberts, 23, Barbara V. Breidor, 42, Molly Jean Dilts, 20, and Kimberly Raffo, 35 - were found in a marsh behind the Golden Key Motel in November 2006.

The slayings of the four women, all of whom worked as prostitutes, and the placement of their bodies with heads turned east and shoes missing appear to fit the definition of a serial killer, authorities have said. No arrests have been made, and the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office - the agency investigating both Alicea's death and the deaths of those four women - has declined to comment on any of the cases recently, including about whether they could be related.

For others familiar with the prostitute killings, Alicea's death bears a striking resemblance.

"A young woman, her body abandoned, it stirs up old, bad memories here," said James Leonard, an Atlantic City lawyer who represented a man authorities questioned in the 2006 cases. "It makes people in the area uneasy. If it is in some way, shape or form related, or if it's not, that means there are two murderers out there."

Three-and-a-half hours up the coast, in Suffolk County, N.Y., authorities believe a serial killer is responsible for the deaths of up to 14 women who worked in the sex trade. The Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office reached out to detectives in Suffolk about the killings there, though no one has officially said whether the cases there are connected to the ones in New Jersey.

"I know the profilers that have worked both cases, and they've said there are similarities and there are differences," said Jim Clemente, a retired FBI criminal profiler.

Clemente said investigators are more than likely discussing whether Alicea's death could be connected to the 2006 slayings. The killer in those cases and in Alicea's disposed of the bodies, and, like Alicea, at least one of the victims from 2006, Kimberly Raffo, was strangled.

"These women are high-risk victims, though, and these cases are hard to profile," Clemente said.

Court records show Alicea was charged with heroin possession in 2010 in Gloucester County, although she was never arrested for prostitution. One close friend who grew up with Alicea believes that's how she was making money in Atlantic City, though.

"She would expect me to tell the truth about her," said Nakeisha Osbourne, a Clayton native who worked at a strip club on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City. "We stayed out there together for a little over a month. When I left, she stayed. She just didn't want to come back."

Alicea's last update on Facebook is a photo of herself on July 6, reflected off a high-rise window at night, with the shining Golden Nugget Casino off in the distance.

Easy targets

Atlantic City, like Camden, has an ample drug trade and an ever-changing array of faces trying to make money out on the street. Women immersed in those worlds are the most vulnerable victims, law-enforcement officials said, and when they disappear, it's often unnoticed.

"Serial predators, whether it's a serial rapist or a serial killer, these women are very easy victims for them to target," said FBI Special Agent Dan Garrabrant, who works on sex-trafficking cases in Atlantic City. "They get in cars with strangers and go to hotels. They are more likely to be victims and less likely to report crimes."

Alicea was reported missing in Clayton in October. Garrabrant said he's regularly contacted about missing women by law-enforcement agencies around the country. During prostitution operations, the Atlantic City Police Department has arrested women from as far away as Hawaii, Texas, Nevada and Washington.

One of those women, who now lives in California, told the Daily News that she only worked in casinos, which is far less dangerous, she said, than working on the street.

"People are less willing to harm you in the casino because you're in their room and someone has their info," said the 27-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be published. "I was addicted to the money, not drugs."

That's not the case on Pacific Avenue, where a former prostitute named Dorothy, 38, said she hustled to feed her crack cocaine addiction and paid dearly for it.

"All the 'I nevers' in my life came true. I went to jail, I got hooked on drugs," said Dorothy, who did not want her last name printed.

Dorothy said her mother reported her missing in 2006 and often went out looking for her around the same time the four women were found behind the Golden Key Motel. During the summer that year, she said, one customer punched her "20 to 30 times," broke her arm, and raped her behind a building near the city's iconic boardwalk.

"There's always constant fear, from a pimp, or that you're going to get raped by some guy," Dorothy said.

The Atlantic City Police Department did not return several requests for comment, but in Camden, Sgt. Janell Simpson, of the Camden County Police Department, said it's the same story there, without any of the glittering casino lights.

"All of our prostitutes are using drugs," Simpson said. "The ones you see on Broadway have hit rock bottom. They prostitute for minimal money."

Room for hope

Alicea's mother ultimately declined to comment for this story, but in an attempt to reach her, the Daily News mistakenly contacted Caroline Turner and learned of her own daughter's heroin addiction.

Turner filed a missing-person report for Stephanie on Jan. 14, the day the Daily News visited her home. As she recounted her daughter's heroin-fueled horror stories and her own frustrations over fights they've had and moments they've lost, another phone call came in at 5:30 p.m.

Stephanie Turner was alive in a Camden County hospital.

When her family was finally patched through to her room, Stephanie was crying and said she was ready to get help.

"You don't need to talk me, and that's fine, just get better," Caroline Turner told her daughter on speakerphone. "I love you and I know this is not the real you."

The Turners huddled together around the phone for a few more minutes and allowed a little room for hope, relieved they wouldn't have to set out in the fog and growing darkness to drive to a morgue.


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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