U.S. 41, also called the Tamiami Trail in Florida, is one of the state's oldest and most important landmarks, a 250-mile highway that begins in Miami's Little Havana and runs through the heart of Tampa. Completed in the 1920s, the two-lane blacktop remains the state's southernmost east-west link and a scenic byway through an Everglades full of alligators, wading birds and saw grass.
But in recent weeks, the Tamiami Trail has become synonymous with murder.
Early Thursday police found the body of what they believe is the sixth victim of a serial killer who has been preying on prostitutes who work a seedy section of the Trail just west of downtown Miami. Since Sept. 17, five women and a male transvestite have been strangled to death, their bodies dumped in residential neighborhoods nearby.
Police suspect a serial killer that they describe as intelligent and sadistic. Scrawled on the body of the third victim was a message that police say was a "catch me if you can" taunt.
"People ask, 'What are the chances of this guy going after someone who is not a prostitute?' " Metro-Dade Police Sgt. Felix Jimenez said the other day to a group of worried neighborhood residents who gathered at a branch library to hear an update on the case. "We don't know. My recommendation is to use common sense."
Added Detective John Parmenter: "Right now, he's concentrating on a certain group, prostitutes. But, as the pressure mounts, could he change? I don't know. But I wouldn't want to be a young woman living in that area."
That area is a 30-block-long stretch of the Trail, just south of Miami International Airport, along which has sprouted a gaudy, zoning-free collection of fast-food restaurants, botanicas, coin laundries, various offices and 20-room motels. Crime of all types has been increasing here in recent years but prostitution, especially, has flourished.
"This whole area is going down rapidly, and will become a ghetto if we don't put a stop to it," warned county commissioner Javier Souto.
The first victim of the so-called Tamiami Trail strangler was a 27-year-old male transvestite, Lazaro Comesana, whose body was found in a front yard five blocks from the Trail. Less than a month later, Cuban-born Elisa Martinez, 44, was found dead not far away. On Nov. 20, 23-year-old Charity Fay Nava, a onetime topless dancer, was discovered dead in a culvert.
Five days after that, the body of Wanda Cook Crawford, 38, was found in a parking lot. The fifth victim, Necole Schneider, 28, a stripper from Minnesota, was discovered Dec. 17 in a trailer park.
The latest murder victim had not been identified late Thursday. But Metro-Dade police spokesman Pat Brickman said: "The body has significant markings that at this point would lead us to believe this is the sixth victim."
All of the first five killed had been arrested for soliciting many times and all had problems with crack cocaine, according to police.
Last month police put out a composite drawing of a young Latino man who may be a suspect in the case. The picture generated hundreds of phone calls, police said, including several from people who said that the man was a dead ringer for the comedian Gallagher. Police said he is not a suspect.
Despite the danger, prostitutes continue to work the Trail, brazenly waving at passing motorists and often climbing into the vehicles of those who stop. "I drive this street every day and it just gets worse and worse," said Jorge Pelaez Jr., a real estate agent who lives in the area. "Sometimes I can count 15 prostitutes out there."
A proliferation of bars and cheap motels which rent rooms by the hour seems only to have encouraged the trade, police say. Manuel Alvarez, night manager of the Tropic Garden, admits that prostitutes use his motel's rooms. In fact, he said: "The last one (Schneider) they found, I kicked her out just two to three weeks before (her body was discovered)."
Alvarez said that he often calls police to arrest prostitutes on the premises. "They joke with them," said Alvarez of the police. "They don't do nothing."
Soliciting, police said, is a misdemeanor and arrested prostitutes are quickly back on the streets. But murder is something else.
"This is the first serial killer we've had in many years, and we need help," said Detective Parmenter. "We're getting hundreds of leads, but so far not the right one. There have to be people out there who have seen something important. That's the one we need."