When the bodies of three women were found in secluded parts of Daytona Beach, Fla., in late 2005 and early 2006, police feared the worst — a serial killer seemed to be targeting women who were involved in the city's shadowy sex trade.
As the months went by, after police investigated hundreds of leads, the cases went cold. No other bodies were linked to the slayings and the killer seemed to disappear.
That was until last week, when another body was found, reigniting fears that a serial murderer may again be on the loose.
Police say the death of 30-year-old Stacey Gage, whose body was found near an abandoned church, is probably linked to the three earlier murders.
The cases are "eerily similar," said Daytona Police Chief Mike Chitwood.
"It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up," he said. "When you look at the victimology, at Stacey's past, the topography of where the bodies were found and obviously other signs and clues at crimes scene, you begin to think, 'Wow, are we heading down this road again?'"
Chitwood would not discuss details of Gage's slaying. The other three women, LaQuetta Gunther, Iwana Patton and Julie Ann Green, were all shot in the head. All three had histories of prostitution and their naked bodies were found in relatively secluded areas of the city.
"Obviously, the attacks are motivated by sexual gratification. Obviously, there's power because of the positions the women are in," Chitwood said. "They're basically executed."
DNA evidence from two of the bodies matched as did ballistics from the bullets, Chitwood said. He would not say whether they matched evidence from Gage's murder.
Gage did not have a criminal record for prostitution, though she did have a history of drug problems, said Cmdr. Mark Barker of the police department in Holly Hill, Fla., where Gage lived. She had been arrested several times for minor offenses, he said.
"My understanding is that she was trying to work her way through those issues," Barker said.
Gage was reported missing by her grandmother in mid-December. She had gone to the convenience store and had never come back, Barker said.
Cpl. Gina Baker of the Holly Hill police said Gage struggled with drug use. "It was almost like a roller-coaster ride with her," she said.
Baker said she last saw Gage in November, and it appeared that she was using drugs again. "She was going down that spiral again," Baker said.
Gregg McCrary, a retired criminal profiler for the FBI who was not familiar with the case, said that men who kill prostitutes commonly come from the same socio-economic background as their victims and often have visited prostitutes in the past.
"They are comfortable in that arena," he said.
He said that killers also frequently have a sexual disorder. "Prostitutes represent sex," he said. "There's some sort of sexual disorder that's driving this. He's drawn to these women for something other than anonymous sex."
"He's picking on women who are viewed as disposable to society, who he can obviously dominate," Chitwood said.
He said undercover officers were posing as prostitutes and setting up stings through Web sites where men search for anonymous sex.
"It's heartbreaking," said Detective Tammy Pera, who has been investigating the four murders. "We were hoping we would get some break before he struck again. And it just didn't happen."