Broken Lives and Victims in Shadow of Taj Mahal
Sometimes, when troublemakers enter Papa Joe’s diner on Tennessee Avenue, Joe Boccino glares at them until they leave. Other times, he pulls out his black Easton baseball bat and raps it hard — once, twice, three times — on the counter.
“You’re in the middle of crack city,” Mr. Boccino said yesterday at his restaurant, surveying this blighted corner of Atlantic City, where the authorities think at least some of the four women found dead in a drainage ditch on Monday were known and spent much of their time.
Not far from the Boardwalk, it is the kind of neighborhood where trouble puts its feet up. Drugs and prostitution are the main pursuits of those who visit here, and of those who stay.
Up the street, on Pacific Avenue, prostitutes lean against pawn shop windows lined with engagement rings, scouting for customers.
When they want to eat, some come to Papa Joe’s. When they want to sleep or shower or shoot drugs, most walk around the corner to Ocean Avenue, a blocklong stretch between Pacific Avenue and the Boardwalk where crumbling homes and dilapidated boarding houses languish in the shadow of the nearby Trump Taj Mahal.
“These people have nowhere to stay. They just crash where they can,” Mr. Boccino said. “But they’re pretty good people. They’re like family.”
By yesterday, though, fear and a sense of resignation had settled in.
Kim Raffo, 35, from the Canarsie area of Brooklyn, was part of that family and was the first of the four murder victims identified.
Yesterday the authorities identified a second victim as Tracy Ann Roberts, 23. They said her last known address was on Tennessee Avenue and that she had been asphyxiated. Both she and Ms. Raffo had had prostitution arrests, the authorities said.
The Atlantic County prosecutor, Jeffrey S. Blitz, said a task force of almost two dozen investigators from the F.B.I., the state police and local agencies had been brought in to compare photographs, DNA samples and markings on some of the bodies.
Earlier, some of the regulars along Ocean Avenue said they feared the body of a woman with a butterfly tattoo, found wrapped in a red hooded sweatshirt, was that of Ms. Roberts, whom they described as a young, blond and boisterous Philadelphia native.
“I used to let her stay in my apartment, and I remember her sleeping 18 hours because she was so tired from ripping and running,” said Charles Coles, 40, who said he works in construction. He said detectives had shown him photographs that he recognized as being Ms. Roberts.
Mr. Coles said he last saw Ms. Roberts on Oct. 27 outside the Sands casino, where she told him that she had recently been hospitalized after a man assaulted her and hurt her throat.
His sister, Shakira Coles, said Ms. Roberts had family in Georgia and had spent time there herself. Ms. Coles said she had a “country accent” despite being from Philadelphia.
Jannette Brown, 47, said that the first and last times she ever saw Ms. Roberts she was asking for crack cocaine. Ms. Roberts had been a dancer at a strip club on Pacific Avenue called The Playground, she said, until her addiction began affecting her looks and she turned to prostitution.
Ms. Brown, who was a prostitute herself until last year, said Ms. Roberts had left a child in Philadelphia but wanted to quell her addiction, leave prostitution and go back to being a mother.
“ ‘I can’t do it; how did you do it?’ ” Ms. Brown said she had asked her.
Mr. Coles and other neighborhood residents also said they believed another victim to be a woman they knew, a timid Boston native with a daughter she never saw and a vicious crack habit she could never quite break.
She slept on friends’ couches, they said, and every day slathered makeup over her acne so strangers would pay her for sex. In recent days, they said, the police had been asking about her.
“Fifteen dollars was a good date for her, isn’t that sad?” said Ms. Brown, 47, who knew both her and Ms. Raffo.
Ms. Brown said that she had once taken the Boston woman with her to perform oral sex on a customer in a parked van for $50 each. “Afterward she said, ‘Oh my god, that was the easiest money I’ve ever made in my life,’ ” Ms. Brown said.
For many of the prostitutes who live on or near Ocean Avenue, addiction leashes their bodies twice over — to the drugs, and to the place where they can be most quickly found.
It is rare for them to accompany customers to the motels on the Black Horse Pike, where the bodies were found, Ms. Brown said, because it is too far from their dealers.
Instead, they do their work in a nearby alley where old syringes and glass pipes crack underfoot, or in a vacant lot off Ocean Avenue, where a hand-painted sign urges, “Repent to Jesus.”
“Every penny they got they bought either heroin or cocaine,” Ms. Brown said. “They would not even buy a roof for a night because that would take away from their drug money.”
Most people on Ocean Avenue are just passing through. The lucky ones work in the casinos. The rest whip back and forth between odd jobs like waitressing and less savory ones like prostitution.
Dee Roman, 31, who lives above Papa Joe’s, said she saw vials and bags of crack on the street “all the time.” She added, “You can’t get away from that stuff.”
Ms. Brown said she feared that another of the victims was the daughter of a friend who had used crack since she was 17 and later began using heroin.
The woman worked a strip of Pacific Avenue known as the Track, as did the Boston woman, Ms. Brown said.
She said she had last seen her friend’s daughter this month wearing a denim miniskirt, a bra and a mesh blouse, an outfit that matches a police description of one of the victims.
“I remember telling her, ‘It’s not summertime,’ ” so take off the miniskirt, Ms. Brown said.
The police would not comment yesterday on the unidentified victims.
They have been showing people a computer-generated composite picture of one woman, and Mr. Boccino said they had been asking about the Boston woman, whom he nicknamed “Christmas Tree” because of her height.
She would come in for breakfast around 2 a.m., he said, ordering a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel with an orange soda before working the streets, ignoring his pleas for her to get clean.
“She just got her sandwich and said, ‘I’ll see you later, Papa Joe,’ ” he said.