Eerie Deaths of 17 Women Baffle Miami

Times Staff Writer

In what has become a bizarre and persistent pattern, 17 women have died here in the past 2 1/2 years. All of them young. All of them black. All of them found in empty lots or gutted buildings.

Almost all were prostitutes. Almost all held traces of cocaine in their systems. Almost all were discovered naked from the waist down, with their legs spread apart.

Last week, for the first time, the county’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Joseph Davis, pronounced the deaths probable homicides. “I suspect we are looking at the work of one man,” he said.


And the people of Miami, until now largely unaware of the ghastly sequence, began facing the possibility that a serial killer was in their midst.

For months, detectives and pathologists have been confounded. None of the dead bodies shows any signs of trauma. No bruises. No internal injuries. No needle marks.

Even now, investigators remain unsure whether this is a medical mystery or a criminal one. If prostitutes are being murdered, why no signs of struggle? After all this time, why no reports of a near miss?

“When you talk about mysteries in deaths, these are by far the most mysterious you’ll ever find,” said Miami Police Sgt. David Rivero, who worked some of the first cases. “I mean, usually you have a motive or a witness or at least a good cause of death. Here, forget it.”

All the corpses have been found in the north half of Dade County, though prostitutes and cocaine are commodities in the south end too. The first death dates back to September of 1986--or even earlier if, as some investigators figure, the list includes more than 17 names.

For a long time, the prevailing theory about the deaths was a highly unusual one--that the prostitutes died from the toxic effects of cocaine accompanied by the stimulation of sex. Neural exhaustion, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Charles Wetli called it.


If true, that would explain the partially disrobed bodies. Cheap hookers often exchange sex for crack cocaine. They ply their trade in abandoned buildings or the tall weeds of vacant lots.

Linked to Deaths

The theory has an impressive advocate. Back in the late 1970s, Wetli was among the first to show that cocaine, even in modest amounts, could lead to death. He is the co-author of articles commonly cited in texts and journals, implicating the drug in a variety of fatal illnesses.

Many of the police think the theory is very plausible. “We’re just finding out all of what crack does to people,” said John Farrell, chief of detectives for the county police, which has jurisdiction in most of the deaths.

“In men, we’re finding that crack--in amounts 10 times lower than a basic overdose--sometimes triggers psychotic episodes where a guy just goes berserk, starts running a real high fever, then just dies.”

Maybe these women, then, were victims of prolonged binges on crack, living on the edge until even the relatively low arousal of sex-for-hire was enough to finally induce a fatal reaction.

Seemed Far-Fetched

To some, however, the theory has always seemed far-fetched. Why were the prostitutes dying in only one part of the county? Or, for that matter, in one part of the state or the nation?


“As you went through any medical theory, you always came back to why not this and why not that,” Chief Farrell said. “Same thing with the question of murder. You always came back to why weren’t there any signs of trauma.”

Last fall, meetings began taking place at the senior level between the county police and the medical examiner’s office, Farrell said. Inquiries were made around the nation. More tests were done on the bodies. Crack was purchased on the street, then analyzed for toxins.

A flyer was even distributed to prostitutes--at once a warning and plea for information: “If you should experience a reaction to crack cocaine, please furnish us a sample so we can analyze it. You may save a life!”

Many Theories

Not much came back that was helpful. The hookers had as many theories as the cops: The drugs. A killer. A killer and his friends.

Then, last December, Body No. 12 was found. Antoinette Burns, 14, died in a junk-strewn yard under a Brazilian pepper tree. She was lying on her back. Her skirt was pulled up. Everything fit the pattern.

Or almost everything. The girl’s body tested clean for drugs. There was no evidence she worked the streets.


And that complicated the riddle. Either the teen-ager did not belong on the list--or her case tipped the scales further toward homicide.

‘Can’t Figure It’

What was going on? “We just can’t figure it,” Chief Farrell said. “There may be the possibility of different causes of death. Is there a serial killer? Is there a medical explanation? Maybe yes to all possibilities.”

The list has grown by five in 1989. More help has been sought.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has been consulted regarding extensive toxicology tests. The FBI in Quantico, Va., has been asked to help put together the profile of a serial killer.

Forensic Dentist

Dr. Richard Souverin, a well-known forensic dentist, has been called in to examine the lips of the dead women. One theory suggests that they died from “forced fellatio,” which cut off their air supply.

In that regard, Souverin is also comparing the women’s teeth with any marks found on suspects--so far unproductively. “If the skin is broken and a scar is left, you can make a match,” he said.

And Dr. George Hensley, who teaches pathology at the University of Miami Medical School, has been asked to offer his opinion. He believes someone is suffocating the women in a way that leaves no signs of trauma.


But how? “You’re talking about little girls on the street, and it’s not too hard to asphyxiate them, especially when you have their backs on the ground and your weight on their abdomen,” he said.

Escaped Attention

Oddly, in a city where strange crimes ordinarily enjoy a long run of lurid retelling, this investigation largely escaped the media’s attention until a local weekly, New Times, ran a lengthy cover story about it.

Since then, the airwaves have filled with the views of several of the participating investigators. Finally, the chief medical examiner weighed in: probable homicide.

But if so, by whom? And by how many?

There are other questions as well. Amid the sudden glare of publicity, some wonder if the cases of 17 dead black women--mostly prostitutes--have been given short shrift. The Miami Times, a newspaper for the black community, charges that there has been an “intolerable delay” in solving the cases.

Women’s Families

That feeling is shared by some of the women’s families. Thelma Rahming, the grandmother of Antoinette Burns, said the homicide detectives were uninterested in what she had to say last year. “Now they’re back telling me they’re starting from scratch,” she said.

Chief Farrell, however, insists the cases have been vigorously investigated all along. “And we’ve reached out to the group we need to, and that’s not the general public,” he said. “These are not women just walking down the street getting accosted. These are women having sex near crack houses.”


And, yes, a prostitute who identified herself only as Lynette along busy Biscayne Boulevard, said she has been well aware of the deaths--in fact knew a few of the victims.

“A bad dude is taking out the girls,” she said. “Of course, we’re just a bunch of black whores. He’d go do it to a white woman and you’d see the FBI, the CIA and the Marines down here, for a thing like this.”