“If the Serial Killer Gets Us, He Gets Us”
When Darcus Shorten began investigating a series of brutal assaults on prostitutes in the decaying Houston neighborhood of Acres Homes, she knew that the case would be hard to solve. She and her partner, Steve Straughter, assumed that a single vicious attacker was on the loose. They had no idea.
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On the morning of February 28, 2006, Darcus Shorten dropped off her 21-month-old son at day care and headed downtown to the headquarters of the Houston Police Department, where she worked on the eleventh floor as a sex-crimes investigator. Shorten was 44 years old, just five feet two inches tall and about 125 pounds, one of the smaller officers on the force. She almost always wore a business suit and a tasteful array of jewelry: silver earrings, a silver necklace dotted with small diamonds, and two or three silver bracelets. In meetings, she was so soft-spoken that her colleagues sometimes had to lean forward to hear what she was saying.
When Shorten arrived at her desk, two sergeants were walking through the office, handing out the reports of sexual assaults that had arrived the previous day. Shorten’s new case involved a 43-year-old prostitute named Andrea who had told a uniformed officer that she had been abducted at knifepoint by a short, stout black man and forced into a dark, four-door car. He had driven her behind the New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, in Acres Homes, a mostly poor black neighborhood twelve miles northwest of downtown, just beyond Loop 610, where he had raped her repeatedly, then pushed her out of the vehicle, ordering her to face the wall of the church as he drove away into the night.
Shorten sighed. Of the 1,700 or so reports of sex crimes that she and the unit’s eleven other investigators received every year, the complaints by the street prostitutes were regarded as the dog cases. Even if police officers caught a suspect, they knew they would be hard-pressed to get a conviction. A defense attorney would simply ask the question, How does one sexually assault a woman who willingly gets into a car to have intercourse with someone she doesn’t know?
Shorten called the phone number that Andrea had given to the police officer. It belonged to Andrea’s sister, who said in a disgusted voice that she knew nothing of Andrea’s whereabouts. Shorten then mailed a letter to an address that Andrea had provided, with a request to contact her. The letter came back a few days later marked “Return to Sender.” Her job done, Shorten placed Andrea’s report in the unit’s “Inactive” file cabinet and began working on her other cases: a woman from a middle-class neighborhood who had been assaulted by an unknown male in her driveway, a young woman who had been raped by a man she met at a nightclub, and a mother who claimed that a man had exposed himself to her children at a shopping center.
Less than a month later, on March 21, Shorten leafed through her daily allotment of new reports. At the bottom of the stack was a complaint filed by a 49-year-old prostitute named Jo, who had told a uniformed officer that a stocky black man had invited her into his dark, four-door car, driven her behind the Pine Grove Church of God in Christ, in Acres Homes, and suddenly turned violent, pulling out a knife and forcing her to give him oral sex while he shouted, “Bitch, you better not black out!” Then he had pushed her out of the car and driven away.
Once again, Shorten called the phone number Jo had given the police officer. Jo’s father answered, saying that she had been in jail the last time he’d heard from her. She mailed a letter to the address Jo had given the officer. It came back, predictably, “Return to Sender.”
Shorten walked over to the Inactive file. But instead of filing the report on Jo, she retrieved the paperwork on Andrea. She then headed for the police department’s parking garage, got into an unmarked Ford Taurus, and drove toward Acres Homes.
Acres Homes was established during World War I. For decades, it was a thriving black neighborhood, nine square miles in size, with almost every home surrounded by an acre of land filled with horses, chickens, and small gardens. But because the area was unincorporated, many of the houses lacked water or sewer connections, and instead of curbs and sidewalks, ditches as deep as ten feet lined the narrow roads. By the time Acres Homes was annexed by the City of Houston, in the seventies, the neighborhood was essentially a slum.
By 2006 a few ambitious developers started building brick homes behind iron gates on the neighborhood’s south side, but most of Acres Homes continued to look like “a poster child for neglect,” as a Houston Chronicle reporter once described it. There were still ditches instead of sidewalks. Empty lots were everywhere, some full of trash or old tires. The majority of the residents lived in sagging shotgun shacks or small, dreary apartments rented from absentee landlords. On one of the main boulevards a hand-painted sign read “Acres Homes: A People Building Community.” So much paint had peeled off that the words were almost impossible to make out.
Shorten knew the area well. She turned onto a street called Cebra, where she spent a few minutes looking around the New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, and then she drove to the Pine Grove Church of God in Christ, which was on Mansfield, only a block away. Both of the plain buildings were no bigger than the surrounding homes. From the street, the backyards, where the church members parked their cars on Sunday mornings, were hidden from view. Shorten also noticed that both of the churches’ floodlights had been knocked out.
She drove over to West Montgomery, the neighborhood’s main commercial strip, dotted with struggling mom-and-pop shops, liquor stores, and cheap motels that offered rooms by the hour. West Montgomery was also where the drug dealers and prostitutes worked, staring inquisitively at slowing cars, their mouths curling into smiles.
Shorten saw a small group of prostitutes on a street corner and approached them. Curious, they cocked their heads, staring at her business suit and jewelry. The women wore ratty blue jeans, T-shirts, and cheap sandals or tennis shoes. Many of them were crack addicts. As soon as they turned a trick—they’d take as little as $20 for oral sex and $25 for straight intercourse—they’d head for the nearest crack house to smoke a rock. And the moment the buzz was gone, they would return to the streets. At daybreak, some of them would retreat to one of the motels, where the sheets were washed maybe once a week. One prostitute slept on top of a car.
When Shorten showed the women her police ID and asked if they knew anything about the attacks behind the churches, they started laughing.
“Why you here askin’ what’s happenin’ to us, Miss Poh-leece?” one of them said. “We know you ain’t gonna do shit.”
“If someone’s after you, I want to help,” Shorten said.
“Baby, there’s always someone after us,” snapped another prostitute.
Shorten gave her business card to the women, then drove back to her office. There was nothing more she could do.
Less than two weeks later, on April 2, as worship services began at the Pine Grove Church, the minister and a deacon noticed a trail of blood leading from a sandal in the parking lot. As joyous gospel music emanated from inside the building, they followed the trail into some bushes, where they saw a woman on the ground, her face cradled against her arms, as if she were taking a nap. The woman was fifty-year-old Pamela Goss, a longtime Acres Homes prostitute. Unlike most prostitutes, she was married and lived in a house in the neighborhood, where some days she sat by herself, writing poetry and drawing still lifes.
“Ma’am?” one of the men said. But Pamela Goss was dead. She had been stabbed 54 times.
The story received all of four paragraphs in the next day’s Houston Chronicle. In a city that would chalk up 376 killings in 2006, the murder of a middle-aged Acres Homes prostitute barely caused a blip on the public’s radar. But at the police department, alarm bells were starting to go off. When Shorten arrived at her desk that morning, a homicide detective from the sixth floor was waiting. He had completed a “location inquiry” at the Pine Grove Church of God in Christ, and he had come across her sexual assault investigation. After they compared notes, Shorten was so disturbed that at the end of her shift she picked up her son at day care, dropped him off at her parents’ home, and drove back to West Montgomery, where she begged the women to talk. “You’re victims here, just like anyone else,” she said.
Finally, one woman told a story about a man taking her behind a church, speaking to her for a while in a pleasant tone of voice, then going on a rampage, pulling out a large butcher knife from underneath the driver’s seat and forcing her to perform oral sex. Another woman told a similar story about an assault behind a church, and then another.
The descriptions of the attacker were inconsistent, which Shorten figured was either because the women were so often strung out on crack or because they had been with so many other men since their assaults (on a typical night, an Acres Homes prostitute would have sex with ten or more johns). Some claimed the man was bald, while others said he had short hair. Some claimed he drove a four-door car, while others said he drove a red pickup with a sticker of a superhero, perhaps Superman, on the back window.
A 29-year-old prostitute named Amanda told Shorten that her church attacker had a tattoo on his left forearm that looked like the astrological sign of Libra: balanced scales. Shorten brought her back to the office to give a statement. Amanda was rail-thin, and her clothes, which she had been wearing for days, reeked. She was so hungry that Shorten bought her a Big Mac at McDonald’s, and after Amanda devoured it, she fell asleep on Shorten’s floor. When Amanda woke up she asked Shorten, “Why are you being so nice to me?”
Shorten smiled at her. She had grown up in Houston, where her father worked for a plastics company and her mother ran a small day care. Although Shorten majored in nursing at Prairie View A&M, she had always had a love for the law, and she soon left school to become a Houston police officer. Initially, she worked in patrol, accident investigations, juvenile crime, and, for a short stint, in vice as a decoy prostitute. In 1996 she became an investigator and was eventually assigned to the sex-crimes unit. Yet despite all her years on the force, she had never quite gotten over her evenings on street corners pretending to be a prostitute, watching all the sullen men with smirks on their faces drive up to proposition her. At least she had protection: other officers were set up around the corner. But prostitutes like Amanda were on their own. If someone drove them to a secluded spot and suddenly turned violent, beating them or threatening them with a weapon, there was nothing they could do. It was simply the cost of doing business.
Soon after Shorten met with Amanda, homicide investigators searching the department’s computer database learned that the naked body of a 21-year-old prostitute had been found in January, three months before the murder of Goss. Jasmine Clark—known on West Montgomery as Precious—had been lying in a field almost directly between the New Macedonia and Pine Grove churches. There were no signs of violence, however, and after a brief investigation, the medical examiner had ruled that she had died from an accidental overdose because so much crack cocaine had been in her bloodstream. But Shorten knew better. She didn’t think it was likely that Clark would have walked naked on a cold night across a deep ditch and into that field. Someone had to have put her there.
Shorten and the other detectives were also interested in the death of 45-year-old Vanessa Franklin, a prostitute who had been found the same month as Clark in a neighborhood eight miles from Acres Homes. The autopsy had concluded that she had died from strangulation and blunt force trauma to the head. But what intrigued investigators was that her body had been discovered near the New Mount Calvary Church. Was she too a victim of the attacker?
Then, on June 24, another veteran prostitute, Patricia Duffy-Garcia, a 42-year-old mother and grandmother, was discovered facedown in a wooded area of Acres Homes, next to a private dirt road that had been named Jesus Street. (The hand-painted sign by the road read “Church of God Property. Please no dumping.”) Two days later, a construction worker stumbled upon the skeletal remains of a woman who was eventually identified as 31-year-old Acres Homes prostitute Lisa Holland. She had lived with her mother, slipping out at night to turn tricks to support her drug habit. And on July 19, children playing chase behind Parlay Cafe came across the decomposing body of Lakita Stubblefield, a 21-year-old prostitute who, back in her teenage days, before the drugs got ahold of her, had told her family that she wanted to grow up to become a hairstylist and run her own salon.
In the space of about six months, six dead prostitutes had been found, five of them in Acres Homes. During that same time, Shorten had come across a dozen or so prostitutes who had told stories about being assaulted behind Acres Homes churches. But because the news media had not yet snapped to the murders, no one outside the neighborhood had any idea what was happening.
In fact, other than hearing a few rumors, Acres Homes residents didn’t know all that much either. It wasn’t as if the victims’ families were talking to the press or holding candlelight vigils. The truth was that most of the families had no desire to let the public know that their daughters had been working as prostitutes. One woman’s parents were so ashamed about their daughter’s life they wouldn’t even claim her body. She was buried instead at the county’s pauper cemetery.
On July 20, police officials decided they had no choice but to hold a press conference. “We have a very dangerous person in our city,” homicide captain Dale Brown told reporters, displaying a crude composite sketch of the killer based on the prostitutes’ descriptions. “We need the whole city to be vigilant.”
Community activists in Acres Homes were outraged that they had not been told earlier. They argued that the police would have been far more engaged if so many bodies had been found in a wealthy white neighborhood like River Oaks. “I feel violated,” said Pastor Chris Wright, of Grace Temple Ministries. “We are being dumped on. And who cares, because [the victims] are black?”
Some Acres Homes women were so terrified they wouldn’t leave their houses at night. Others stopped going to worship services because they were convinced the killer was lurking around church property. One woman told a reporter she was keeping a hatchet beside her locked door. For a while, the only women out after dark were the prostitutes, who couldn’t afford to stop working.
Shorten drove up and down West Montgomery, passing out the composite sketch of the suspect. By now, she was so well-known to the women that they had started calling her Miss Shorten. “Come on now, you don’t have to get in a car with a man who looks like this,” Shorten said to the women.
“Miss Shorten, if the serial killer gets us, he gets us,” one replied.
To allay the community’s fears, a task force of more than a dozen homicide and sex-crimes investigators began working full-time on the case. Shorten was assigned a partner: veteran homicide investigator Steven Straughter, who was 55 years old. The top brass thought it was perfect that the six-foot-one, 230-pound Straughter would be partnered with the diminutive Shorten. They were old friends who had worked together back when Shorten was doing her rotation in vice.
Shorten and Straughter drove through the worst parts of Acres Homes together, rolling up to street corners, looking for suspects. They eyeballed everyone from gang kids to yellow-eyed winos. They knocked on the doors of registered sex offenders who lived in the area, and they followed up on dozens of Crime Stoppers tips that went nowhere: men who were supposedly beating their wives, men who supposedly talked trash about prostitutes, and men who supposedly had the Libra sign tattooed on their arms.
Like the other detectives on the task force, they carried a small DNA kit with them, asking all the men they interviewed if they would consent to a test. In particular, Pamela Goss, the prostitute who liked to write poetry and draw, had been found with semen in her mouth, which investigators from the medical examiner’s office believed had to have come from her killer. They were convinced that he had stabbed her to death immediately after he had ejaculated. If the detectives could find a match, they would have their killer.
More than forty men agreed to the DNA test, and all of them passed. During their dinner breaks, Shorten and Straughter would go to a Luby’s Cafeteria near Acres Homes, and after Shorten offered a prayer thanking God for their food and asking for guidance, they would talk about the murders, trying to get inside the head of the killer. Was he some demented religious zealot, stabbing prostitutes at churches in the name of God? Or was he killing prostitutes because one of them had rejected him and he had vowed revenge?
Shorten and Straughter got their first break in August, when they received word that a woman named April, who had been arrested for prostitution, claimed that she knew something about the murders. When Straughter and another investigator went to see her in jail, she related what had become a familiar story, about a black man in a red pickup taking her to an Acres Homes church and forcing her to have sex at knifepoint. Then she told Straughter that she had gotten a look at the license plate of the truck and had later written the number down on the wall of a seedy motel room. Although April said she had not been back to that motel in weeks, Straughter drove there, entered the room, and, to his disbelief, saw the number on the wall.
The red pickup, which did have a Superman sticker on the back window, belonged to 35-year-old Bilford Junious, a stout black man about five feet eight inches tall with a shaved head. Raised in the Acres Homes area, he lived a few miles from his old neighborhood. During the day he worked at a cold-storage facility, and at night he delivered pizzas for a Domino’s franchise. In his spare time, he coached a youth football team. He had never before been charged with a crime. Though he had recently separated from his wife, she told Shorten and Straughter that he wasn’t a violent man and certainly wasn’t a predator.
But when Shorten showed Junious’s picture to the prostitutes as part of an array of photographs, several of them pointed at his face and swore he was their rapist. Some started trembling, and a few burst into tears. The police arrested Junious, and officers received a court order to take a sample of his DNA, which was placed in an FBI database. The sample matched the DNA that had been found in an Acres Homes woman who was raped in 2003. It also matched the DNA found in a couple of prostitutes who had submitted to a swab after they claimed they had been attacked behind a church.
Shorten and Straughter were elated, but the celebration didn’t last long. An FBI agent who had been handling the DNA tests informed them that Junious’s DNA did not match any of the semen discovered on the murdered prostitutes. The detectives couldn’t believe it. They had caught a vicious serial rapist. But now they realized that a serial killer had been working Acres Homes at the very same time as Junious—and he had been going to the very same churches to commit his crimes.
A month passed, and then another—and the attacks seemed to have come to an end. Quietly, the task force was disbanded. The department desperately needed its investigators to work on the other homicide and assault cases that were piling up around the city. Shorten and Straughter were the only two left to work full-time on the murders.
The pair had cameras installed around the church parking lots, and they continued cruising through the neighborhood. They made a variety of arrests. They nabbed a private security guard who had beaten up a prostitute. They caught a young man who had gone after a prostitute with a butcher knife when she stole $75 from him, and they hauled in an older man who was having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl. Along the way, they also helped a woman get out of an abusive relationship with her younger boyfriend, and they tried to persuade a man who drank too much to be nicer to his wife and kids. But they were no closer to finding the killer.
“Y’all might as well go on home,” the prostitutes said, taunting the detectives.
“No, sisters, we’re not leaving,” said Shorten.
Shorten and Straughter placed photos of the victims around their cubicles. They began studying reports of attacks on prostitutes in other parts of Houston, wondering if the killer had changed locations. They also perused missing-persons reports to see if anyone had called in about a prostitute who had disappeared. As the weeks dragged on, Shorten started having trouble sleeping: over and over she asked herself, How many other dead prostitutes are out there?
The answer came in September 2007, fourteen months after the last victim had been found. The naked body of eighteen-year-old Willie Bianca Jones was discovered on a pile of trash in the heart of Acres Homes, right down the street from the Blue Magic Lounge, a ramshackle beer joint where she had been seen drinking the night before.
The neighborhood flew into another panic, and community activists demanded to know why they had been abandoned once again. Volunteers gathered to clean up empty lots where they believed the killer might try to dump his next victim. Cadaver dogs were brought in to search for additional bodies. The police department sent officers on horseback to help in the search, which proved to be fruitless.
Shorten and Straughter learned that Jones had lived with her infant daughter and her mother in a low-income apartment in the Greenspoint area, a ten-minute drive from Acres Homes. While Jones worked the streets, her mother took care of the baby. When the two detectives wandered the apartment complex, asking if anyone knew anything about Jones, a man looked at them and said, “No, no, you must be here about Candice, the prostitute who was thrown under the bridge.” He said that he had recently been talking to a man he identified only as “Baby Boy,” who had told him a story about picking up a prostitute named Candice, getting into a fight with her, and dumping her body under a bridge.
The investigators went back to the office, searched the computer, and came across the case of Candice Douglas, who had indeed been found three months earlier on an embankment under a bridge in Harris County, outside the Houston city limits. Her shirt was on backward, as if someone had clumsily tried to dress her. But because there were no clear signs of murder, the cause of death had been listed as an accidental overdose.
A few weeks later, another man from the same apartment complex called Crime Stoppers and said that he had an idea who had killed Jones. When Shorten and Straughter paid a visit to the tipster, he too began to talk about a man called Baby Boy. He said the man had recently told him a story about driving through a well-known prostitute hangout in far north Houston, meeting a woman, beating her unconscious, and throwing her into the trunk of the car. Baby Boy then said that he had picked up his girlfriend, and while driving with her, he heard kicking coming from the trunk. He turned up the radio to drown out the noise, dropped off his girlfriend, and headed for a quiet road, where he pulled the woman out of the car, stabbed her, and set her body on fire.
The detectives did more checking and learned that only a few weeks earlier, a 25-year-old prostitute named Kandus Hightower-Sharp, a pastor’s daughter from Huntsville, had been found burned and stabbed to death outside the city limits. They also discovered that a 32-year-old resident of the apartment complex named Brian Ranard Davis used the nickname Baby Boy. He had a lengthy criminal record: driving while intoxicated, forgery, aggravated robbery, and aggravated sexual assault. That last charge had been filed by his former girlfriend, who said Davis had punched and kicked her, tied her ankles and wrists, shoved a bandana in her mouth, raped her, and then said, “It’s up to you if you live or die.”
They got a search warrant for the car Davis had been driving and found blood in the trunk. But because of a backlog at the FBI lab, the sample wasn’t analyzed until April 2008. When the agent called Shorten and Straughter to tell them that the blood contained Hightower-Sharp’s DNA, they were again ecstatic. Davis was arrested; there was no doubt that he had to be their serial killer.
But a couple of days later, Shorten got another phone call from the FBI agent. “I hate to tell you this,” he said, “but Brian Davis’s DNA isn’t on any of the other victims, including Willie Jones.”
“I’m sorry, what?” said Shorten.
“You caught a prostitute killer, there’s no question about that,” the agent explained. “You just didn’t catch the one you were looking for.”
Only two months after Davis’s arrest, the killings began again. That June, a prostitute named Pourcia Turner was found stabbed to death in a grassy area about five miles northeast of Acres Homes. It looked as if she had, at least briefly, fought back against her attacker: one of her press-on fingernails had been torn off and an earring had been ripped from her ear. Shorten and Straughter talked to everyone they could find who knew Turner. But they came up with nothing.
For the next ten months, the investigators continued to read police reports about prostitutes who’d said they had been assaulted, and they regularly drove to known prostitute hangouts all over Houston, asking the women if they had seen anything unusual. But they were getting nowhere. Maybe, they speculated, the killer had been arrested on another charge. Maybe he had been killed himself. Or maybe he had gone into what the FBI experts described as an extended cooling-off period. Then, in April 2009, a police officer came across a naked, sobbing 38-year-old woman named Cynthiana, in the same field where Turner’s body had been dumped.
Shorten went to interview Cynthiana, who had never worked as a prostitute. She lived with her boyfriend in a small house not far from where she was attacked, and she told Shorten she had accepted a ride home from a stout black man whose hair was styled in short dreadlocks. He was pleasant at first, then suddenly pulled out a knife, sexually assaulted her, and pushed her naked out of his car, which she said was an older four-door model.
In July, three months after the attack on Cynthiana, a prostitute told a police officer that she had been picked up on Airline Drive in north Houston by a black man with dreadlocks who was driving a two-door sports car. He had driven her to a remote street several miles away, where he pointed a gun at her, tied her hands behind her back, and raped her several times, warning her that if she breathed a word about what he had done, he would hunt her down, cut off her hands and feet, and feed her to alligators.
Shorten and Straughter pored over the latest cases, studying the similarities. Was the Acres Homes killer back? Had he grown out his hair into dreadlocks? Was he now also using a sports car to cruise the prostitute hangouts? Or had a new killer arrived to make his mark? “We need another break or we’re never going to figure this out,” Straughter said one evening at Luby’s, sipping his iced tea.
The break finally came that September, when an eighteen-year-old prostitute known as Chelsea ran out of a muddy field in the Trinity/Houston Gardens neighborhood, on the northeast side of downtown, twelve miles away from Acres Homes. She was completely nude. She banged on the front doors of several homes, screaming for help. When police arrived, Chelsea said she had been working along Airline Drive earlier that evening. A heavyset man in dreadlocks had pulled up in a two-door sports car, pointed a gun at her, and said he’d kill her if she didn’t get inside. He drove her to a field in northeast Houston, tied her hands with the strings of a Pappasito’s Cantina restaurant apron, and raped her. When he tried to drive away, his car got stuck in the mud. He stuffed Chelsea in the trunk and walked off to seek help. While he was gone, she was able to kick her way out through the backseat and run to a nearby neighborhood.
When the officers drove Chelsea to the field, they discovered the man she had described. He was still trying to move his car, a Pontiac Grand Am with temporary plates. His name was LaMarques McWilliams, and he was 33 years old. Raised in Acres Homes, he lived with his 25-year-old girlfriend and her two small children in an east-side apartment complex. He worked the early shift at a Whataburger and the evening shift as a waiter at a Pappasito’s. A quick check of his criminal record revealed a misdemeanor assault charge, arrests for driving with a suspended license, and a felony charge for injury to a child. Only a few months earlier, he had been arrested for possession of marijuana and a crack pipe that contained cocaine residue.
McWilliams calmly told the cops that Chelsea had agreed, for no pay, to have sex with him in his car. He denied that he had put her in the trunk. Then an investigator happened to notice a tattoo on McWilliams’s left arm that looked like the Libra sign. He looked at it again. It seemed as if newer tattoos, resembling flames, had recently been added around the edges. The investigator called Shorten and said, “This guy’s hiding something. You need to talk to him.”
Shorten and Straughter spoke to McWilliams’s girlfriend, who called him a “kind man” and a “gentle lover.” They spoke to the manager at Pappasito’s, who described him as one of the hardest-working waiters there. His friends insisted he would never need the services of a prostitute because he was like a magnet to other women in the neighborhood. Didn’t it mean something, one friend asked, that he had never once been arrested for soliciting a prostitute?
But he did seem to be hiding something. Besides the additions to his tattoo, Shorten and Straughter noticed that McWilliams had a different hairstyle in every mug shot. Was it possible, they speculated, that the reason he had changed his appearance over the years was to keep his victims from identifying him?
A couple of days later, the FBI technician called with McWilliams’s DNA results. Shorten held her breath. The technician said the DNA matched the semen found in the mouth of Pamela Goss. It matched one of the samples of semen found in Jasmine “Precious” Clark, the young prostitute who had been discovered between the two churches, and it matched the semen on a sweater from a prostitute named Judy, who had been assaulted in 2006. Incredibly, his DNA also matched the semen that had been found inside a thirteen-year-old Acres Homes girl who was raped back in 1996. McWilliams had been preying on Acres Homes women for at least thirteen years.
Shorten had him brought to an interrogation room. McWilliams did his best to be earnest, reiterating his innocence and telling her that he had big plans for his life. He said proudly that he hoped to open his own trucking business someday. Shorten said nothing about the DNA results. She simply laid the photos of seven of the murdered prostitutes on the table and asked if he recognized any of them. McWilliams became agitated. “I don’t know any of these whores,” he snapped. “I’ve never seen any of them.”
Shorten tugged lightly on her silver necklace. “I prefer that you call them prostitutes,” she said in her soft voice. “And I hope someday you’ll understand that they too had lives. They didn’t deserve to die.”
By the time McWilliams’s trial began earlier this year, Bilford Junious had been convicted of rape and sentenced to forty years in prison, and Brian “Baby Boy” Davis had received a life sentence for murder. Prosecutor Connie Spence also wanted to try McWilliams for murder, but she worried that his attorney would be able to convince a jury that the DNA results—including the seemingly incriminating evidence obtained from the body of Pamela Goss—proved only that McWilliams had had sex with the women. A press-on fingernail and an earring that looked exactly like the ones belonging to Pourcia Turner had been found in his car, but that wasn’t enough either. Without physical evidence linking him to murder, Spence decided that her best option was to try McWilliams for the aggravated sexual assault of Chelsea.
But even that strategy almost collapsed. On the opening day of testimony, Chelsea slipped out of the hotel room where the district attorney’s office had arranged for her to stay. Police officers and DA investigators went on an all-out search for Chelsea; without her, McWilliams was going to walk. She was finally found at one of her favorite crack houses. After taking a day to sober up, she was put on the stand, and her testimony was so riveting that the jury needed only an hour to convict McWilliams. During the punishment phase, several other prostitutes testified about what he had done to them. Although his defense attorney was apoplectic, declaring that nothing a prostitute said could be believed, the jurors sentenced McWilliams to life in prison, with a chance of parole in thirty years.
To mark the end of their five-year saga, Shorten and Straughter had lunch at Cafe Express, near police headquarters. For a while, they talked about their kids—by then, Shorten’s son had started first grade, and Straughter, who was also a single parent, had a daughter in college. But inevitably, they ended up discussing the case. Shorten almost burst into tears talking about Cynthiana, the woman who had been raped in April 2009. Before the trial, Shorten had phoned to let her know that McWilliams, who almost certainly was the one who had attacked Cynthiana, was no doubt going to go to prison. Her boyfriend had answered the phone. After a few seconds of silence, he said that Cynthiana, unable to get over the trauma of the attack, had hanged herself in their house.
As they had many times before, the detectives went over all the loose ends that they knew would probably never get resolved. There was no conclusive physical evidence indicating who had killed the Acres Homes prostitutes. What if McWilliams hadn’t killed any of them? What if there was yet another prostitute killer working Acres Homes? What if he too had discovered that the back parking lots of Acres Homes churches were the ideal spots to commit his grisly acts? And was it possible that he would someday strike again?
After lunch, Straughter returned to the sixth floor to work on his new murder cases. Shorten took down the photos of the victims and, in the days that followed, began to work on the new cases that her sergeant dropped on her desk. One morning, she was handed a report about a prostitute from the city’s Third Ward, close to downtown, who claimed that a man had attacked her with a knife and tried to kill her.
Shorten looked at her sergeant. He shrugged, and she did what she always did. She first called the number the prostitute had given the officer and got no answer. She then sent a letter to the address the woman had provided, which came back “Return to Sender.”
Shorten thought about taking the report to the Inactive file. But she headed for the parking garage instead, got in an unmarked Ford Taurus, and drove to the Third Ward. On her way there, she pulled out her cell phone and called Straughter. “It’s like we did all this work to clean everything up, and life out there is already back to normal,” she said. She hung up and parked near a group of prostitutes on a street corner. She got out of the car and asked if they knew anything about a man with a knife.
The prostitutes stared at Shorten in her business suit and silver jewelry, and they started to laugh. “Baby, there’s always a man with a knife,” one of them said, and then she and the others turned away.