Kensington Avenue Strangler: Philadelphia Prostitutes Speak Out

As another possible victim of the Kensington Avenue Strangler is discovered, The Daily Beast's Jeff Deeney and Gregory Gilderman talk to the women of the city's notorious neighborhood about living with addiction, prostitution, and fear of a serial killer.

discovered, The Daily Beast’s Jeff Deeney and Gregory Gilderman talk to the women of the city’s notorious neighborhood about living with addiction, prostitution, and fear of a serial killer.

A fresh wave of fear chilled Philadelphia’s Kensington Avenue over the weekend, when 22-year-old Allison Edwards was found strangled in an apartment in the nearby Juniata Park neighborhood. The police have yet to confirm a connection between Edwards’ death and those of confirmed Kensington Avenue Strangler victims Nicole Piacentini and Elaine Goldberg, but the similarities are enough to rekindle concerns of a serial killer stalking women in North Philadelphia.

The victims are far from random: They are the cocaine and heroin addicts who score on the drug corners near Kensington Avenue, known as “the stroll,” and risk their lives on “walking dates” that take them to the neighborhood’s abandoned buildings and lots. A few of these women spoke with us on camera.

Two young women describe lives of addiction and abuse.

The apartment Edwards was found in is less than a mile from Harrowgate Park, or Needle Park, as it is known to local addicts, a short walk from the heroin corners that dot this patch of North Philadelphia. Juniata, the nearby neighborhood where her body was discovered, isn’t a place of total desolation like the abandoned lots that line Kensington Avenue, but it isn’t exactly Mayberry either.

“Juniata,” as one former resident who was born and raised there describes it, “is Kensington with lawns.” But it isn’t far removed from one of the city’s most dangerous locations: the industrial train tracks that run perpendicular to the Market-Frankford Line, in whose tall weeds prostitutes turn tricks, addicts shoot heroin, and the occasional body is discovered.

Recovering addict Tony Rogers talks about the hidden train tracks that cut across Kensington.

Like Goldberg and Piacentini, Edwards was a drug addict who was known to frequent the Kensington neighborhood when she was getting high. And like Goldberg and Piacentini, Edwards, who was first thought to have died of an overdose, was discovered to have been strangled to death. Edwards hasn’t been confirmed to have been involved in prostitution on the Kensington stroll, but she did know one of the prostitutes who was killed, and talked about the murder with her concerned mother. Her mother told the Philadelphia Daily News that she recently relapsed on heroin after a stint of sobriety; in the months prior, she frequented local support groups for young people in addiction recovery, where she was known as a sweet but quiet girl who mostly kept to herself.

That description fit many of the women on the streets we spoke with, including one calling herself Michelle, who spoke movingly of the dangers she faces and the consequences of her choices.

“Michelle” talks about the dangers she faces, and the family she’s left behind.

It was the morning of Dec. 6, this time under the El, just blocks from the lot where Nicole Piacentini was strangled. The man approached on foot and walked next to her, reminiscent of the “walking dates” that Goldberg and Piacentini went on with the Strangler, according to the prostitutes who knew them. The attacker pulled the woman into an alley, bashed her in the head with a brick, and attempted to stab her with a pair of scissors. When questioned about the man’s appearance, the woman affirmed the details of the police department’s composite sketch of the Kensington Avenue Strangler produced last month after a previous victim came forward upon learning of the murders.

On Dec. 7, yet another woman reported to police that she had been raped near the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny avenues, the heart of the stroll. Police have not linked this attack to the others.

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The women the Kensington Strangler has targeted are frightened but not deterred. “I’m afraid,” a 34-year-old prostitute calling herself Diana said. “I’m definitely afraid. I have drug habit. And, you know, I have to support it somehow.”

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.

Gregory Gilderman is a senior editor at The Daily Beast and a former writer for Philadelphia magazine. In 2007 he was a finalist for the Livingston Award, a prize that recognizes journalists under 35.