“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.
The roadside near the old Parlay Cafe, where the body of Lakita Stubblefield was discovered on July 19, 2006.
Photograph by Todd Hido

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

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