Virtual Trail Led to Serial Killer Suspect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The killer stalked the desperate.

He picked up prostitutes frantic to sell their bodies for a hit of crack--frayed women willing to get in any car for the promise of $20. He drove them away from their grubby corners, away from any witnesses.

Then he bound them. He tortured them. He murdered them. And he tossed their bodies, like litter, into the roadside shrubs.

Alysa Greenwade was killed this way. And Teresa Wilson. And Betty James. Verona Thompson. Yvonne Crues. Brenda Beasley. And four other African American women yet to be identified.

As the bodies turned up one by one, starting in April 2001, authorities began to suspect a serial killer was on the prowl. But leads were scarce.

Then last month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story about one of the victims--a sympathetic portrait of Teresa Wilson's bruised life. Within days, reporter Bill Smith got an odd-looking envelope in the mail.

The American flag stamp was affixed neatly upside down. The return address cited a masochist Web site devoted to naked women in chains. Inside, under a bizarre graphic of flowers, rakes and a beehive, Smith found a chilling note typed in red. "Nice sob story," it read. "I'll tell you where many others are." And then: "To prove im real here's directions to number seventeen." A second sheet of paper contained a map of nearby West Alton, Ill., marked with an X.

Police went to the spot marked by the X. Pushing aside the weeds, they found a skeleton. A woman's corpse, long since decomposed.

They had their break at last.

But in the end, it would prove to be ephemeral. In a case made for a crime writer, the final twist came last week. One minute, authorities thought they had their man. The next, they were left empty-handed--and wondering how many other bodies might be out there among the roadside trash.

The first step was to track down the source of the West Alton map. Surfing through travel sites on the Web, Illinois State Police quickly discovered it had been downloaded from Expedia.com.

Such online browsing can be tracked because each time a computer user connects to the Internet, he is assigned a unique number, known as an IP address. Each site he surfs--indeed, each page he looks at--is recorded in an activity log linked to that number.

"People think their browsing online is anonymous, but all kinds of people are watching," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group.

Some Web sites delete the IP addresses of their online visitors within minutes. Others retain activity logs much longer. In this case, in response to a federal subpoena, Expedia.com was able to pull up the IP address of every user who had looked at a West Alton map in recent days.

As it turned out, there was only one: IP 65.227.106.78. The user assigned to that number had clicked to zoom in on West Alton 10 times--until the map on his screen looked exactly like the version sent to the Post-Dispatch.

The FBI subpoenaed the Internet service provider that had assigned that particular IP address. Some providers delete address information promptly. But Microsoft Corp. was able to match 65.227.106.78 to a specific user. A user who was based in St. Louis County. A user by the name of MSN/maurytravis.

On June 7, the FBI searched the home of Maury Troy Travis, a 36-year-old waiter with a history of armed robbery and drug abuse.

They found what appeared to be blood spatters throughout his suburban home. And in a locked file cabinet, they found several belts and ligatures--also apparently smeared with blood.

Travis was charged with two federal kidnapping counts for allegedly taking victims Greenwade and James across state lines. Authorities said they suspected him in the murders of the six prostitutes and four unidentified women whose bodies had been discovered in the St. Louis area from April 2001 through May 2002. They planned additional charges.

But the grim investigation had not yet taken that final twist.

Last week, Travis hanged himself in jail, even as he was under suicide watch. Finding a spot in his cell that the monitor posted outside could not see, he managed to thread a noose made from a sheet through the tiny holes of a mesh vent above his toilet.

He then stuffed toilet paper in his nostrils, put a gag in his mouth and pulled a pillowcase over his head. Somehow--authorities said he must have drawn on his skill with sadomasochistic bondage--he managed to tie his own hands behind his back. Then he put the noose around his neck and jumped off the toilet.

Travis left a suicide note declaring he would rather kill himself than face execution or life in prison.

He also left some very frustrated investigators.

Travis' DNA is being compared with semen found on two victims. Tire tracks may link him to two other corpses.

But Travis' death is a huge blow to detectives who had hoped to connect him to all 10 bodies found--as well as to the attempted strangulation of an 11th woman, another black prostitute, who suffered such severe brain damage that she cannot aid the investigation.

Authorities also had been hoping that Travis might point them toward undiscovered victims. In his letter to the Post-Dispatch, he had hinted at killing at least 17.

Investigators lost "a tremendous amount of valuable information," said Gene Heckler, the police chief in Columbia, Ill., where one of the bodies was found.

Still, authorities from several jurisdictions said they would not close their files with Travis' death. Instead, they vowed to keep sifting the evidence until they could figure out which corpses, if any, he was responsible for--and which might be the work of a killer still at large.

"We still feel confident we will be able to go forward with this case," said Lt. Terry Remelius of the Illinois State Police.

For the moment, Remelius has his hands full with another gruesome case--of another serial killer who targeted similar victims but left distinct markings on their bodies.

Donald Younge Jr. was charged last week in the killings of three prostitutes in East St. Louis, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He allegedly stuffed their bodies into garbage bags and dumped them in vacant lots in late 1999 or early 2000.

He also is suspected in the death of a fourth woman whose corpse was found nearby. The investigation is continuing.

So is the prostitution that put so many in danger.

In dingy sweatshirts, hair matted, teeth broken, women craving another hit of crack hustle the very same streets from which their friends disappeared. They rest on benches or in cars with burly men, standing up now and then to wave a car to the corner, bending over the window to negotiate a price.

"Daytime, nighttime, late night, they're there," said St. Louis Alderwoman Dionne Flowers, who represents the neighborhood where Travis probably picked up many of his victims.

They cycle on and off their corners so often that it's hard even for friends to keep track of them. "We don't know if there are other women missing," Flowers said. "There are a lot of unanswered questions."

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