The Kensington Avenue Strangler

On a nightmarish street infested with heroin, rape, and violent crime, prostitutes keep showing up dead. Jeff Deeney visits the city's notorious neighborhood and finds hell on earth.

11.18.10 1:11 AM ET

The rusting, blue steel frame of the El, the elevated portion of Philadelphia's subway, looms over dilapidated Kensington Avenue like a giant centipede's decaying exoskeleton. Known as "the stroll," Kensington Avenue is the hub of Philly's street prostitution scene, where young, drug-addicted women turn tricks for dope money—and where lately, a serial killer stalks them in the sickly orange glow of the streetlamps under the El.

Elaine Goldberg was only 21, a nursing student at a local university who seemed to have a lot going for her, except for a dope habit she couldn't kick. She was found half-naked and strangled to death in a vacant lot not far from the stroll on November 3. A Facebook page went up in the wake of the popular young woman's death. Her life was full of family and friends who were pulling for her to get clean; the memorial page has attracted more than 1,500 followers and a flood of support and condolences from well-wishers.

Thirty-five-year-old Nicole Piacentini, on the other hand, was an Avenue veteran with a history of drug and prostitution charges. Her death, discovered November 13, didn't make the cut for a Facebook fan page. Her mother was quoted in the paper saying her worst nightmare was her daughter dying like this, alone on the streets and strung out on drugs.

And thanks to a third, unnamed woman who narrowly escaped the Kensington Strangler and came forward on Monday, police now have a sketch of the suspect: a young, light-skinned black or Latino man with a neatly trimmed goatee and close-cropped hair.

The Kensington Avenue stroll forms the eastern boundary of North Philadelphia's notorious Badlands, the nexus of the city's heroin scene for decades. The stroll is set off far enough from the dope corners that the girls don't usually get caught up in the gun violence that routinely erupts over territory—but close enough that they can walk over and cop a bag when they need one. The drugs and the sex are inseparably intertwined here; it's rare to encounter a girl who's not tricking to get her day's dope money up.

The two murdered women are alleged by the prostitutes on the stroll who knew them to have met the same fate in similar ways, by having gone on what the girls call "walking dates." In such a transaction, a John approaches on foot instead of in a car and asks the girl to walk with him to a nearby lot to set a price and have sex. The expansive lot where Elaine Goldberg was strangled is comprised of waist-high weeds with a path cut through them. Following the path into the weeds from the sidewalk feels like disappearing into a Dantean wilderness of addiction-driven depravity. The path is strewn with discarded women's clothes, a toilet turned on its side, and ultimately, a clearing where the muddy ground is coated with empty 1CC syringe wrappers, dirty needles, empty dope bags, used condoms, and a filthy mattress in the dirt where the women turn tricks.

“If you got a drug habit, you got to support it one way or another,” she said. “I’m scared out here, sure. I got raped two weeks ago.”

The nearby lot where Nicole Piacentini was strangled is smaller but similarly nightmarish. Set across from a warehouse loading dock, yellow crime tape was still tangled in the weeds where a second path opened immediately into yet another clearing strewn with drug detritus. As I approached the scene, a police officer who was sitting in a cruiser still parked by the crime scene rolled down his window.

"There's a lot of human shit back there so watch where you step," he deadpanned. "It ain't mud."

Back on the Avenue a woman named Cat was sitting huddled in a doorway, trying to keep out of the rain. She said she's 30 but looks easily 15 years older. While she looked rough, she was soft-spoken and kind and freely shared the details of her life under the El. She said she was born and raised here in Kensington, started shooting dope when she was 20, added coke to her daily drug regimen four years ago, and has been working the stroll on an off ever since to keep her habit up.

"If you got a drug habit, you got to support it one way or another," she said. "I'm scared out here, sure. I got raped two weeks ago. A couple days ago, a John tried to grab my money and punched me in the nose before I could jump out of the car. That shit happens to all of us but it doesn't make us want to get off the street, though. It's crazy, I know."

The more women you talk to out here, the more you come to understand how pervasive sexual violence is on the stroll. It's a fact well-known to social workers who encounter the women in drug-treatment settings, the criminal-justice system, and the prisons. In this population, extensive sexual trauma histories are basically universal.

Cat says she used to get high with Nicole Piacentini before she was murdered. She says she was a good, protective friend; she was part of a sort of sisterhood that many of the women here mention when they talk about life under the El.

"I would look out for her and she would look out for me. We do that out here, we watch out for our own. If we go on a bad date, we walk up and down the Avenue to let other girls know about it. We take a John's license plate when a girl goes on a date in case she don't come back, that sorta thing. She was a nice person."

While she was a nice person, Cat admits that Piacentini had a crippling drug habit she couldn't shake.

"She would stay up for days shooting coke, and then she would get all schitzy, you know. She thought the cops were always about to break the door down, shit like that."

Cat warned of the danger of the "walking date" that all the women working the stroll say sealed the fate of both Piacentini and Goldberg.

"I don't like to do dates with guys who are walking, it's more dangerous. They want you to go down an alleyway, or off somewhere nobody can see you. If I'm in a car, I can always jump out. I can tell a guy to park somewhere I know somebody's going to hear me if I scream, where there's doors I can bang on to get someone to call police if I need to."

Another woman who works the stroll named Jamie echoes the need for this safety precaution.

"I went with a guy who was walking one time and once we were off the street he hit me in back of the head, knocked me down and raped me," she says with a shudder.

A young prostitute named Patty says her parents went to the coroner's office to identify the body because they saw the news about young Elaine Goldberg and thought it was her.

"They called the police district and gave them a description of me. The police thought it was so similar they told her to go down the coroner's office and looked at the body. When they showed the body to my parents, it was covered with a sheet but her hair was sticking out from under it. We have the same color hair, same length of hair, so they assumed it was me. My mom had a nervous breakdown on the spot."

Patty says she and a lot of the women on the stroll are letting the shock of the incidents motivate them to get off the streets. Prostitutes are fleeing to detoxes and sober houses to lay low and try to get clean before they get killed.

"I'm going to Kirkbride (detox) on Thursday, man, I'm scared. I'm scared for all my girlfriends out here who are hooked on dope and living in abandoned houses with no protection. I never been to detox before, this is my first time and I want to get this under control before it gets uncontrollable. My number could come up next."

All of the women I spoke to said that the Philadelphia Police Department bears some responsibility for ignoring episodes of physical and sexual violence against prostitutes so routine they are committed almost casually by the Johns who frequent the stroll. Johns, they say, don't fear repercussions for raping a street walker because they know the cops don't do anything about it.

Patty told me, "I been raped out here so many times and every time I told the cops that I was tricking at the time I was raped they told me to just keep walking. They wouldn't even make a report. And the Vice Squad cops are scumbags, man, they'll put you in the squad car and make you suck their dick or they'll arrest you."

These sentiments were mirrored by all of the prostitutes I surveyed. There is unanimous agreement among the women working the stroll that the police feel that sexual violence is simply an occupational hazard that women who choose this way of life should cope with on their own. That a serial killer would view the stroll as fertile territory for finding easy kills among disposable women, to them, only seems a logical outcome of the long standing unwritten police policies that condone the violence against them.

The police department denies that they actively ignore reported incidents of violence against prostitutes, stating that the incidents don't get reported, because the women are afraid to come forward for fear of catching drug and other criminal charges themselves.

Nonetheless, despite the constant threat of death and violence most of the women return to the stroll, unable to control their addictions.

"I come down here to get beat up and raped over what," Patty asks rhetorically. "All that for a little blue bag [of heroin]. I can't take even one step out of Kensington anymore. This El," she says, pointing at the train tracks rusting away above her head, "It sucks you in and don't let you go."

Jeff Deeney is a social worker and freelance writer from Philadelphia. He works with felony drug offenders in the criminal justice system and writes about urban poverty and drug culture.