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Phoenix Man Is Held in Killings of 6 Prostitutes

Times Staff Writer

A 24-year-old bar worker has been arrested on suspicion of killing six prostitutes since July and dumping the bodies of four of them alongside his neighbor’s house, police said Sunday.

The body of a fifth victim had been found a few blocks away, but it was the discovery of a sixth body Saturday, in a pickup camper parked in a backyard, that led police to the arrest of the suspect and a collective sigh of relief in a neighborhood gripped by the mystery of the dumped bodies.

The last body was discovered by the property owner who, while investigating the source of a foul odor, opened the camper that was used occasionally by his nephew and made the grim finding and called police.

Authorities found a woman’s body inside the camper and arrested Cory Deonn Morris at a nearby bar, where he operated its karaoke machine.

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“He made statements about his involvement in these matters,” said Phoenix Police Det. Tony Morales. “He pretty much confessed to the killings.

“The victims were all prostitutes who he was meeting in the area,” Morales said. “They agreed to go with him back to the RV for sex, drugs and money. During that time, they were killed.”

Morales said he could not discuss how the victims were killed. “High levels of cocaine contributed to the deaths,” he said, “but there was something else.”

Morris’ arrest shocked neighbors and his employer.

“He would always come to work early and stay late,” said Jimmy Seagrave, owner of Fat Cats. “He even took the trash out at night so the girls wouldn’t have to go outside. He was a gentleman, and never picked up on girls. This just doesn’t make sense.

“The only issue I had with him was his hygiene,” Seagrave said. “He had a strong, bad odor.”

Jessie Collins, who lives next door to Morris and alongside whose house four of the bodies were found, said she would occasionally talk and wave to her neighbor, who had moved in with his camper less than a year ago.

“He was friendly and outgoing,” Collins said. “And now to think he was walking out the gate of his backyard and leaving bodies next to our house. That’s terrifying.”

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The deaths had confounded police for months because at least four of the victims had died of apparent cocaine overdoses, and there were no apparent signs of trauma to suggest how else they may have died.

Until Saturday, police were not sure whether the cases were related. Some investigators discounted murder-by-cocaine because it is an expensive and imprecise way to kill.

But it was hard to dismiss the deaths as unrelated accidental drug overdoses because four of the bodies -- three of them nude -- were found beside Collins’ home in the Garfield neighborhood, about a mile from the Arizona Diamondbacks’ downtown baseball stadium.

“This is one of the most unusual cases I’ve seen in my 20-years-plus here,” Phoenix Police Sgt. Randy Force had said last week. “We think there’s some kind of link among the deaths. We just don’t know what that link is.”

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On Sunday, police were not divulging what they had learned after interviewing Morris. “It’s a huge relief for us, just as it is for that neighborhood,” Morales said. “That community had been very much in fear since this started, and we’re elated to put this guy behind bars.”

Prostitutes had speculated it was the work of a serial killer, even though police said there was no evidence to support the theory.

“I think there’s a guy out there who’s getting high, and it’s a fantasy of his to kill,” said Vanessa Rivas, 22, handing out cards last week along Van Buren Street for an escort service.

“I think it’s a real rich guy from Scottsdale who sees this area as a graveyard,” Rivas said. “He’s looking for girls who want to get high. He’s got the money to spend on cocaine to kill girls.”

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Police had said that was one of their working theories, although each investigator had his own.

“Prostitutes will work for food, money, a place to stay or drugs,” Force said before Saturday’s arrest. “And this guy may be allowing them to consume more cocaine than the normally stingy drug user.”

But police were confounded because if the women were being killed with cocaine, “you’d think there would be some girls that this didn’t work on,” Force said last week. “But we haven’t found any. We would have expected to hear of some close calls, but we haven’t.”

Until Sunday’s news spread through town, prostitutes had been on guard.

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“Cops are telling us to watch out,” said a woman who identified herself as Kayla, strolling in front of a motel on Van Buren Street last week. “But I’m not worried because I’m not stupid.”

Police Sgt. Juan Hernandez, who patrols Van Buren, said the women were more frightened than they let on.

Police had not identified the body discovered Saturday, but said the others had used drugs and led a transient lifestyle. They have been identified as Janice Irvin, 43, whose body was discovered July 14 a few blocks from the Collins home, and the four women whose bodies were left alongside the home: Barbara Codman, 46, found Sept. 11; Shanteria Davis, 32, discovered Oct. 10; Jade Velasquez, 34, found clothed Feb. 27; and Sherry Noah, 37, found March 29.

The neighborhood where the bodies were found was once one of Phoenix’s roughest.

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Local housing authorities have extended financial incentives for homeowners to improve their small stucco homes, which were built in the 1920s and ‘30s; but some front lawns are still dirt, and abandoned vehicles and other castoffs fill backyards.

“The neighborhood has gotten better, though,” said Laura Lizarraga, 27, who moved here 10 years ago. “We used to hear shotgun blasts all the time. But renters are moving out and some of the owners are cleaning up their places, and now it’s a quiet, good place to live.”


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