Desperate for drugs, Ms. Breidor began trading her body for cocaine along Black Horse Pike, where even many of Atlantic City’s hardened prostitutes are reluctant to tread.
In Glittery Atlantic City, 4 Walked Deadly Path
By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI and SERGE F. KOVALESKI
ATLANTIC CITY, Dec. 3 — In this seaside resort town where vice has long been a lucrative commodity, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about four crack-addled prostitutes who lost the struggle to survive in the underground economy that flourishes alongside the shimmering casinos.
Only two of the women had even been reported missing before their decayed bodies were found in a drainage ditch on the outskirts of town three days before Thanksgiving.
“Sometimes you don’t see a girl for a few weeks, but that’s the way it is,” said Zandra Kiesel, 32, who says she has been a prostitute here for five years. “We are just hookers. It’s like nobody would miss us if we were gone.”
In the 25 years since legalized gambling helped transform Atlantic City from a faded resort to a popular destination for weekend slots players, casino companies have reaped immense profits, but the city itself has experienced both boom and bust. Thirty-four million tourists come each year, pumping billions of dollars into the local economy and providing more than 45,000 jobs.
That economy has evolved into a two-tiered system catering to the addicted. Inside the casinos, where prostitutes work the sprawling halls, betting is legal and the state has even exempted gamblers from its indoor smoking ban. On the sketchy streets outside, sex and drugs are sold openly, around the clock, as dozens of prostitutes prowl the avenues and side streets just off the Boardwalk offering sexual encounters for as little as $10 — the price of a rock of crack cocaine and a five-minute high.
What has emerged in the days since the bodies were discovered in a spongy strip of land between the Black Horse Pike and the Atlantic City Expressway is that each of the four women came to Atlantic City to escape something: abusive relationships, relatives who objected to their drug habits, or street life in other cities considered to be more dangerous.
Once they were here, their drug-fueled descent landed them on the lowest rung in Atlantic City’s social order, a strip of rundown motels just outside of town where prostitutes are so desperate to feed their habits that rocks of crack cocaine are the preferred method of payment.
“These problems have been coming up the pike from Atlantic City and have been for years,” said James J. McCullough, the mayor of neighboring Egg Harbor Township, where the four slain women were found. “We are feeling a lot of frustration and a certain degree of helplessness.”
As the police hunt a possible serial killer, several officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there are no obvious suspects or solid leads.
The Atlantic County prosecutor, Jeffrey S. Blitz, has more than two dozen investigators on the case, showing photographs of at least two men as they canvass neighborhoods in and around the city. But an employee at the Quality Hotel, across the street from where the bodies were found, said that when the authorities came by on Wednesday, they acknowledged they were not close to solving the case.
“The police said they have no leads and are frustrated,” she said.
Local lore has long been that the Police Department takes a laissez-faire attitude toward prostitution. A lawsuit settled this year bolstered that notion: the city agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to a former vice-squad detective who claimed he was demoted in 2001 for defying a directive by the police chief at the time to stop arresting streetwalkers. The city’s current chief, John Mooney, declined to discuss the suit, but in the court file, officials never refute the contention that police commanders had disbanded the department’s prostitution unit and discouraged arrests.
In court papers, the detective’s lawyer put it bluntly: “They gave the green light to the red-light district.”
It was Atlantic City’s permissiveness that attracted Kimberly Raffo, a Brooklyn native who moved here from Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Sometime in 2002, relatives noticed a drastic shift in Ms. Raffo’s behavior, and she seemed eager to break free from the boredom of her suburban life. Her sister, Maria Santos, said Ms. Raffo began taking culinary courses in Hollywood, Fla., started an affair with a student there, and began smoking crack cocaine. She refused to give up her lover or her habit and instead left behind her husband, two children and four-bedroom home and fled to Atlantic City, her sister said.
“It’s so crazy,” Ms. Santos said. “If you knew the woman before the last three years of her life, she was like Martha Stewart.”
Ms. Raffo, 35, worked as a waitress in several restaurants here before turning to prostitution. Joseph Boccino, the owner of Papa Joe’s, a diner on Pacific Avenue here frequented by prostitutes, said she and others seemed to enjoy the independence of working the streets, where they could make their own hours and answer only to their addictions.
“They didn’t have pimps and they could come and go,” said Mr. Boccino, who gave Ms. Raffo a cosmetic kit for Christmas last year.
On the morning of Nov. 19, Mr. Boccino said, Ms. Raffo showed up at the diner shortly after it opened at 2:30 a.m. and ordered her usual breakfast: two fried eggs, American cheese and sausage on a kaiser roll, and a Mountain Dew. He said she then walked out on the street and got into a Black Nissan Maxima with out-of-state license plates. She was not seen again until the next day, when her lifeless body was one of four found face down near rusted train tracks.
Barbara V. Breidor
Barbara Breidor, who at 42 was the oldest of the victims, knew both sides of Atlantic City. She grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, and spent many summers in Margate, N.J., another well-off town down the beach from the casinos. She later worked in a shop her mother owned, selling jewelry and Native American artifacts on the Boardwalk.
But after her mother sold the business, Ms. Breidor worked as a waitress at the Tropicana in the late 1980s, and friends and relatives said she soon began abusing prescription painkillers. Ms. Breidor — a bright young woman who studied briefly at Penn State, dreamed of a career in law and loved to watch the History Channel — then moved on to heroin and cocaine, starting the addiction that defined the rest of her life.
When she and her boyfriend had a daughter in 1997, they let Ms. Breidor’s relatives in Florida raise the child. In 2003, after the boyfriend spent time in prison for armed robbery, Ms. Breidor returned to Atlantic City in the hope of rekindling the relationship, said her sister, Francine Lentes. The reconciliation failed, but Ms. Breidor stayed for the reason so many gamblers are lured here: the prospect of making big money.
“She used to say how she dreamed about getting a real nice place to lay her head down,” said Tracy Morgan, a prostitute who worked the same tawdry strip,
But Ms. Breidor’s crack habit, which Ms. Morgan said cost as much as $300 a day, left little room for her to recapture the comfortable lifestyle of her youth. She drifted from flophouses to friends’ apartments, leaving behind a trail of belongings, personal papers and bail receipts. Wherever she went, Ms. Breidor was meticulous about caring for the glass crack pipe she kept wrapped in a napkin in her pocket like some holy relic, Ms. Morgan said.
Desperate for drugs, Ms. Breidor began trading her body for cocaine along Black Horse Pike, where even many of Atlantic City’s hardened prostitutes are reluctant to tread. By mid-October, her behavior had become so unpredictable that when she failed to return from a two-hour errand, friends waited weeks before notifying the police.
Tracy Ann Roberts
Tracy Ann Roberts, 23, who medical examiners say was asphyxiated before she was dumped in the ravine, gravitated to Atlantic City because it seemed a promising place to make a living as an exotic dancer. But drug use left her so emaciated that club owners deemed her unfit for the stage, so she turned to the streets, said a friend, Jannette Brown, herself a former prostitute and drug addict.
A native of Bear, Del., about 50 miles from Atlantic City, Ms. Roberts dropped out of high school at 16 and eventually began studying to become a medical assistant. But after bearing a child and breaking up with her boyfriend, she began using cocaine heavily, drifting between Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Ms. Roberts made her final journey here in August, trying to escape an abusive relationship. But in early November, a man who wanted to be Ms. Roberts’s pimp punched her in the throat so hard that she coughed up blood and had to be hospitalized, said a friend, a 29-year-old prostitute who goes by the street name Kim Possible.
After the attack, Ms. Roberts, who had been known for her uncommon willingness to share drugs and for the Southern accent she had retained from a brief time in Georgia, became withdrawn, her voice a whisper.
“Her spirit changed,” said another prostitute who worked with Ms. Roberts. “She wasn’t the same.”
Molly Jean Dilts
Molly Jean Dilts was the only one of the four victims who did not have a criminal record for prostitution. But people in Atlantic City said Ms. Dilts — well known as a cherub-faced girl who called herself Amber or Princess — could often be seen flaunting her 20-year-old body on some of the town’s roughest blocks.
An aunt, Margret Dilts, said her niece fled home in Black Lick, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, in mid-October after a string of tragedies: her mother died of cancer several years ago and her brother was fatally shot in 2005. Ms. Dilts, who had been arrested several times for assault, public intoxication and possession of drug paraphernalia, gave birth to a son, Jeremiah, 14 months ago, but gave the child to her relatives to raise.
Friends said her troubles haunted her despite countless vials of crack cocaine. In the weeks before she was killed, Ms. Dilts told friends she had been making herself throw up because she was concerned that her weight was making it harder to attract men.
One friend, Richard Hernandez, said that Ms. Dilts was a prostitute, and that she had told him she considered overdosing on pills or hanging herself. “Molly cried a lot,” said Mr. Hernandez, 30, who met Ms. Dilts when she was buying crack cocaine on Georgia Avenue. “I’d always hug her, because if you started talking with her, she’d cry.”
Back to the Status Quo
In the two weeks since the discovery of the four dead women, life here has largely returned to the sensory overload that is Atlantic City’s status quo. Busloads of tourists stream off the highways and head straight for the casinos, passing the swath of land where the bodies were found, as prostitutes and drug dealers do business in plain sight.
Local buzz quickly turned from concern over a serial killer roaming the streets to claims by a radio talk show host that she had been given a videotape of a city councilman receiving oral sex from a prostitute on the Boardwalk.
“It is important that business now gets engaged in seeking solutions,” said Joseph Kelly, president of the Atlantic City Regional Mainland Chamber of Commerce, though he acknowledged that “the business community doesn’t have an existing plan.”
Mayor Robert W. Levy has said little about the killings and even less about the city’s approach to enforcing vice laws. Reached at his home Saturday night, he emphatically declined to discuss Atlantic City’s prostitution and drug problems.
“This is my home, this is my night, this is my weekend,” Mr. Levy shouted. “I just came home from a funeral. I got nothing to say about nothing.”
Detectives are still not certain whether the killer may have claimed more victims, and have been inquiring about other streetwalkers not seen in weeks.
The authorities have also been searching for links between the current case and the attacks on three prostitutes whose throats were slashed earlier this year, leaving two of them dead, though Mr. Blitz has said they appear unrelated.
Despite those violent deaths — and the prospect that there may actually be two serial killers preying on the city’s prostitutes — local officials say they don’t expect any decrease in the number of people drawn to the excitement of Atlantic City.
“There are 30 million people a year who pass through this little town with 36,000 residents,” said William Southrey, president of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. “So if someone is looking for action, there are things going on all the time, legal opportunities and perverse ones.”
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.