The third of four women found face down in a drainage ditch outside of Atlantic City, N.J., has been identified by New Jersey authorities as a prostitute, leading police to fear that a serial killer is on a murderous rampage targeting hookers at the low end of the city's thriving underground service industry.
Last week, the bodies of four women were found in a watery ditch along "Black Horse Pike," a seedy, destitute strip of cheap motels along Route 40 in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., located a few miles from Atlantic City.
The bodies were found within a few hundred feet of each other, all face down in several inches of water, heads turned east, wearing clothes but no shoes or socks.
At least one of the victims died of strangulation; another, officials said, died by asphyxia "by unspecified means."
Based on the decomposition of their bodies, authorities believe the women died on different days, from two days to up to a month before their bodies were discovered.
The three identified victims had worked as prostitutes. Atlantic County prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz said dental records had identified the third victim as Barbara V. Breidor, 42.
She had been in the drainage ditch approximately two weeks before she was found, Blitz said.
Hallmarks of a Ritual Slaying
The killings have many of the hallmarks of a ritualized, serial killing, experts say.
Most serial killers develop a signature style, which in this case could be the creation of a "burial ground," meticulous positioning of the bodies, and removal of only the victims' shoes and socks, according to Eric Hickey, director of forensic studies at Alliant International University in California.
This crime, Hickey says, also suggests paraphilia -- a sexual fantasy or sexual deviance acted out with horrific consequences.
The killer probably receives sexual gratification from grotesque imagery and tortuous acts, and may be reliving and sexualizing traumatic events from his own life, Hickey says.
According to forensic psychologist Stephen Raffle, the seemingly ritualized nature of the murders may also indicate that the killer has a disdain for prostitution that stems from an exaggerated good mother-bad mother mental split.
He aggrandizes wholesome women while denigrating and abusing "depraved" women, blaming his own depravity and sexual problems on the women he victimizes.
Likely to Strike Again
If the perpetrator follows the pattern of most serial killers, he will strike again, Hickey said, but probably in a different location after some time has passed.
While serial killers typically know they could be caught, they hope it happens long after the crime, he added.
These killers, Hickey said, often enjoy the media attention, giving prosecutors and police another reason to withhold information about the crimes.
Serial killers tend to target prostitutes because they are easy prey, Hickey said. Prostitutes, particularly at the low end of the industry, have obvious vulnerabilities: They are alone with strangers, live and work in dangerous neighborhoods, and can sometimes go missing for days without being missed.
For research psychologist Melissa Farley, the problem runs much deeper.
She says that prostitutes are "considered worthless human beings" and that our society denies the social realities of prostitution in order to allow it to continue.
Farley conducted a study that showed that 82 percent of a sampling of prostitutes had been physically assaulted. Murder accounts for approximately half the deaths of prostitute women, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology.
The so-called "oldest profession in the world" is also one of the most dangerous.
The four victims in the Atlantic City slayings were discovered just miles beyond the bright lights of the casinos, hotels and tourist attractions in a dark underbelly of drugs, crime, poverty and prostitution.
"It's a little city with big-city problems," Maj. Kathleen Calvo of the local Salvation Army told ABC News.
On the edge of affluent Egg Harbor Township and bordering Atlantic City, Black Horse Pike shares these big-city problems.
A largely forsaken strip, it is home to derelicts, out-of-luck gamblers, drug dealers, prostitutes, the working poor, and in some cases, according to Bill Southery, president of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, those with social and mental problems who were relocated there and have no other place to go.