The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As women keep washing up dead, Ohio town fears a serial killer is on the loose

In little over a year, at least six women have disappeared from Chillicothe, Ohio, a town of only 21,000 people. (Video: The Washington Post)

For years, Chillicothe, Ohio, was known as just another notch on the Rust Belt, afflicted by the same old problems of drugs, poverty and unemployment. If the town ever made national news, it was because a presidential candidate stopped by vowing to fix things, only for those promises to evaporate after Election Day.

But in the past couple of months, Chillicothe has crept back into headlines for something other than a stump speech. Something much darker. Something evil.

Chillicothe is no longer just another Rust Belt town. Now it’s the place where women go missing and wash up dead.

In little over a year, at least six women have disappeared from the town of only 21,000. Four of their bodies have been found, almost all of them dumped in creeks or streams flowing away from the town.

The women have similar stories. Most of them were hooked on drugs, and many moonlighted as prostitutes to fund their addictions, police say. Some of them even knew one another.

The similarities between the victims and the crime scenes have Chillicothe terrified that a serial killer is on the loose. Local police, several county sheriffs’ offices and state investigators have banded together to solve the spiraling murder mystery.

Even FBI analysts are assisting with the investigation, busy compiling a profile of a possible serial killer.

“I don’t want to come out and say ‘yes, we have a serial killer,’ but it’s a small community that we live in … and the number of females who have come up missing, and then the bodies that we’ve found, that’s quite a bit for our community,” Staff Lt. Mike Preston of the Ross County Sheriff’s Department told The Washington Post.

“The community is starting to get concerned,” he said. “Everyone just wants answers.”

In the absence of answers — and arrests — residents are getting scared. The fear that a serial killer is stalking prostitutes swirls around Chillicothe.

“Obviously there has to be something going on,” said Jessica Sayre, whose older sister, Tiffany, was the latest victim. Her body was found  in a drainage pipe  Saturday after she had been missing for more than a month.

“Apparently my sister was the next target,” Jessica Sayre said.

The women began disappearing a year ago from Chillicothe, a town about an hour south of Columbus. Ohio’s first capital more than 200 years ago — a title still boasted on city signs — Chillicothe has fallen far.

“We are battling a problem with heroin in our community,” Preston said. Prostitution is on the rise as well, he acknowledged.

Charlotte Trego was the first to vanish. In her late 20s with wavy brown hair and glasses, the mother of two young kids had fallen on hard times. “She started taking pain pills and graduated to heroin,” according to the Columbus Dispatch. In the spring of 2014, Trego told her mother that she was ready to get clean. Her mom found a rehab center.

But then Trego was evicted by her roommate, according to the Chillicothe Gazette. She was last seen  May 3, 2014. It was as if Chillicothe’s increasingly dangerous streets simply swallowed her whole.

That same day, a friend of Trego’s, Tameka Lynch, also vanished. Like Trego, Lynch had drug problems.

“She used and she kind of was struggling, especially after she was diagnosed with lupus,” Lynch’s cousin, Chasity Lett, told the Huffington Post. “Once that happened and she lost her place, it kind of triggered the whole drug thing.”

Lynch, a 30-year-old mother of three, financed her deepening addiction by selling her body, the Huffington Post reported, citing Chillicothe police and a local prostitute.

“I knew her,” said the woman, whom the Huffington Post did not identify. “It was around midnight when she went to turn tricks and disappeared.”

Lynch was the first of “Chillicothe’s missing women” — as the six have been called — to be found. On May 24, three weeks after her disappearance, a kayaker spotted Lynch’s body  on a sandbar in Paint Creek outside  town. The Ross County coroner’s office determined that she had died of a multiple-drug overdose.

But Lynch was afraid of the water, her mother told the Dispatch. “Somebody needs to pay for this,” Angela Robinson said, speculating that her daughter had been murdered. “She was already dead when she was put in the water,” she told the Huffington Post.

In the year since, four more women have vanished. Three of them have come home in coffins.

On Nov. 3, 2014, six months after Trego and Lynch disappeared, another local woman  went missing. Wanda Lemons is a 37-year-old mother of five.

“She just disappeared out of thin air,” her daughter, Megan Hodges, told the Huffington Post. “I just want them to find out what happened to her.”

“I think her disappearance might be related to sex trafficking, but if it were drugs I don’t think it would be related,” Hodges added.

Two months later, Shasta Himelrick’s body was found  floating in the Scioto River outside Chillicothe. In December, she had gleefully told friends that she was “eating for two,” according to the Chillicothe Gazette. On Christmas Day, the pregnant 20-year-old blonde had received a text message while visiting her grandmother. Himelrick left, promising to return, but never did.

A Chillicothe gas station surveillance camera recorded her ducking inside. Hours later, her abandoned car was found on a bridge south of town. The doors were open, the tank was empty and the battery was dead. Himelrick’s body was fished from the water eight days later. The coroner ruled the death a suicide, but Himelrick’s friends are convinced it was murder.

Tiffany Sayre went missing under similar circumstances. It was around midnight on May 11, and Sayre and her friend Jessie Sanford were working at a local motel.

“She was doing business at the Chillicothe Inn,” Sanford told the Huffington Post. “She left to run to her grandmother’s house and was going to go back to the hotel to meet the same people so she could make some more money. I don’t know what happened. I think somebody took her.”

Like the other women, Sayre had gotten involved in drugs and prostitution, according to police and family members.

Kenneth Buell, Sayre’s ex-boyfriend and the father of their two children, told The Washington Post that the couple had done heroin and crack cocaine together. “For a couple of years we were both on drugs,” he said. Buell said he got clean a year ago, but Sayre couldn’t, and the couple broke up.

“She couldn’t kick it,” he said. “It just had a hold of her.”

Jessica Sayre said her sister had met another man and tried to go straight. But when her new boyfriend died in April from a blood clot, Tiffany went back to drugs and the vices that funded her addiction.

“It hit my sister really hard. She really loved him,” Jessica Sayre said. “They had planned on moving, going to this other place, actually getting married and having a life together. I think she did the drugs a little more to help with the pain. She didn’t want to be in her right mind because she didn’t feel like it was the right thing.”

“The night she apparently went missing, she talked about how she wanted to get her life straight and go clean,” Sayre added. “My sister did these things that we did not approve of to get money for drugs, because we didn’t want to be the source of money for those types of things. She did what she had to do.”

“Did she have a problem? Yes, everybody’s got problems,” Buell said. “Hers got a hold of her and didn’t let go.”

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Sayre’s family put out missing-person fliers and held candlelight vigils but heard nothing. While they were waiting, another woman, Timberly Clayton, was found dead: shot in the head three times and left in a ditch near another creek. (Authorities named Jason A. McCrary, a 36-year-old convicted sex offender, as the prime suspect in the killing but have not yet  charged him with the crime.)

Finally, last Saturday, Sayre became the latest victim in the string of deadly disappearances.

A couple out for a Saturday evening walk through a nature preserve south of Chillicothe spotted something white at the edge of a drainage pipe running underneath the road. Sayre’s naked body had been wrapped in a bed sheet and hidden inside the culvert with a crown of duct tape around her strawberry blond hair.

“She’s wrapped up in a blanket and you can see her breasts, her stomach, duct tape, a white blanket,” the female passerby told a 911 dispatcher.

“We were hoping that she was still alive,” Jessica Sayre said. “You’re wishing and hoping and then all of a sudden you get a phone call saying that your loved one has been found, but not the way you wanted to find her.”

“She got murdered,” Buell said more bluntly. “Somebody took her away and it was intentional.”

Authorities have ruled Sayre’s death a homicide. The grisly discovery helped launch the task force, which now includes more than a dozen members, including the FBI analysts, according to Preston. The task force is investigating the cases of all six women, even those formerly considered suicides. According to media reports, the investigation could also expand to at least three other women who went missing from nearby Portsmouth and Columbus.

A serial killer is a possibility, Preston admitted. He said officials were studying the apparent pattern of the dumping of the bodies along waterways outside the city.

“This wasn’t just a simple overdose,” Jessica Sayre said of her sister’s death. “They could have called the police. We didn’t have to find her like this.”

“These motherf—— are gonna get done,” Buell said, promising vengeance. “What would you do if somebody took your life away?”

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is analyzing the forensics found at the scene for traces of a suspect, Preston said. He added that the task force had received more than 100 tips in just a few days but is still searching for a witness.

“A lot of those people may be afraid to come forward,” he said. “If they are afraid, they can let us know anonymously. We just want the information. Somebody saw something.”

But as authorities delve into the growing number of deaths and disappearances, some locals say the police are part of the problem.

“The day I reported her missing was very upsetting to me,” Trego’s mother, Yvonne Boggs, told the Huffington Post. “The cop said, ‘Women like your daughter take off because they don’t want to be bothered.’ It was like they looked into it up to a certain point and then quit looking.”

“The police didn’t take it serious and just blew me off,” Lynch’s mother, Angela Robinson, told the same Web site.

Sayre’s family said they had also been kept in the dark. Buell even blamed the authorities.

“These police down here are pieces of s—,” he said. “They even go around and pick up the prostitutes.”

Both he and Jessica Sayre said police and authorities had long ago abandoned Chillicothe.

“It’s not safe,” he said. “The last five, six, seven years it’s gone to hell. You can’t walk around by yourself, especially females.”

“I feel like Chillicothe has turned for the worst,” Jessica Sayre said. “Now they are going to start picking up the pieces, but this town has really gone down with drugs. It’s got pretty bad.”

She said that despite the discovery of her sister’s body, her family would continue to hold vigils for Trego and Lemons.

“It’s been a nightmare for us,” she said of Tiffany’s death. “Nothing is going to bring her back, but we are going to get justice. And we are going to pray for these two other women who are missing in Chillicothe.

“This town has beauty,” she said. “This town can come together.”