By Terry Greene Sterling
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A03
PHOENIX, July 21 -- When Alma Garcia opened her small store here in May, she hoped to attract a clientele of Latino mothers and their children who lived nearby. She stocked the shelves with groceries, toys, Mexican candies and star-shaped piñatas.
Business was good until June 29, when a woman was abducted from a car wash and murdered a block from Garcia's store.
Police believe the woman was slain by a serial killer, known as the Baseline Killer. And Phoenix is on edge, not just because of that killer, but also because of another one known as the Serial Shooter. Together, the two have killed at least 11 people in the past year, police said.
"All the people who own little stores around here are doing the same thing: locking the doors even in the day," said Garcia, 29, who is locking herself in her store most days and has seen a drop in business. "People are afraid. Very, very afraid."
Investigators said that the Baseline Killer, named for his initial crimes along Baseline Road here, launched his crime binge last August. Since then, police said he has killed five women and one man, and committed seven rapes and eight robberies. Descriptions of him vary, leading detectives to theorize he may wear disguises. They said he occasionally engages victims in conversation before abducting them at night from places such as car washes and bus stops.
Operating independently from the Baseline Killer is the Serial Shooter. The shooter has killed five people, three horses and five dogs since May 2005, investigators said. The shooter, who targets people outside at night, also is thought to have wounded another 16 people and four animals. Police say they do not have enough evidence to be certain that the Serial Shooter, despite the moniker, is one person. Investigators said the shootings might have been carried out by more than one person, just as the sniper who was thought to be terrorizing the Washington area in 2002 ended up being two people: Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad.
It is not unusual for two or more serial killers to operate at the same time in large American cities, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of five books on serial killers. In Los Angeles in the 1980s, during the trial of Angelo Buono, who was known as the Hillside Strangler, other serial murderers were on the loose or awaiting trial, Fox said.
The two predators have struck a wide expanse of this sprawling city and its suburbs. The last known attack was July 8, when the Serial Shooter wounded two people in east Phoenix. One victim was felled on the sidewalk in front of Honey Bear's, a well-known local barbecue restaurant.
"It's too close for comfort," said Gary Clark, 44, who owns the restaurant and now makes sure no employee in his late-night crew ventures outside alone after closing.
Like many other local residents, Clark recalls reading sporadic news accounts of the different crimes as they occurred but wonders why it took city officials so long to alert the public about the possibility that two brutal killers prowled the city at the same time.
It was not until mid-July that authorities held a news conference to alert the public that at least two serial killers were at work. On July 11, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon urged people to phone in tips to help police catch the "monsters." Subsequent community meetings were attended by hundreds of residents who wanted to learn from police how to stay safe.
"We are a city on the offensive, not a city under siege," Gordon said on Thursday, noting he had raised about $175,000 from local businesses as reward money. The reward will be distributed to tipsters who help apprehend the killers, he said. After the publicity, police are following up on hundreds of tips.
Phoenix police Sgt. Andy Hill said it took investigators time to connect a series of crimes to the two suspects. He likened the development of the cases to building a house "brick by brick."
Police told local media in September 2005 about several sexual assaults in the Baseline Road area of south Phoenix, Hill said.
"The media covered it, but it didn't get a whole lot of attention until we connected the assaults to robberies and homicides in early May," he said. "As the case progressed and we developed information, we continued to go to the public with updates. We have continually decided that informing the public is a priority, and our actions have followed."
Nine of the 21 crimes attributed to the Baseline Killer have been forensically linked; the other 12 have been linked through method of operation, Hill said.
It took police several months to associate dozens of disparate shootings throughout the Phoenix region to the Serial Shooter, and they routinely updated the local media, Hill said. Four of the cases have been linked with forensic evidence to the Serial Shooter; another 30 cases have been linked by geographical location and method of operation.
Currently, 120 detectives are assigned full time to the two cases. Neighboring departments, as well as officials from federal law-enforcement agencies, are assisting Phoenix police, Hill said
As the investigation continues, many residents have stocked up on pepper spray and flocked to self-defense classes.
Alan Baer, 63, lives near Alma Garcia's store in a tidy Latino-Anglo, middle-class neighborhood. Baer has severe lung disease and is tethered to an oxygen tank. "My wife carries her car keys with her when she takes out the garbage at night, so that if she feels she is in danger she can set off the car alarm and I can get out to help her," Baer said.
Baer's neighbor, Jim Bownds, 65, relies on Buddy, his pit bull, for safety.
"I am more attentive, but I do exactly what I did before the Baseline Killer struck," Bownds said. "I've heard on the national news that we're all shut down and scared to death, but that is an overstatement. We're taking care of ourselves. After all, this is the West, you know."