"No woman in Louisiana is safe," state Rep. Yvonne Dorsey-Welch (D-Baton Rouge) said at a Feb. 6 news conference in which all 23 members of the Louisiana Legislative Women's Caucus announced a reward for information leading to the capture of the so-called Baton Rouge serial killer.
It was a bold statement then, and it's an even more poignant warning today. On March 3 -- almost a month after Welch's declaration -- Carrie Lynn Yoder, a 26-year-old graduate student in ecology at Louisiana State University, disappeared from her residence just off the LSU campus. With each passing day, the public's fear mounted that Yoder might have been kidnapped by the serial killer.
Anxiety wrenched up again late last week, the day after a prayer vigil for her safe return. Authorities in nearby Iberville Parish reported that a fisherman had found the partially decomposed body of a woman in Whiskey Bay, off Interstate-10 and some 30 miles west of Baton Rouge. By Friday, the remains had been identified as Yoder's. One of four known female victims of the serial killer was found in the same area last summer.
Previously, there had been 63 unsolved murders of women in the Baton Rouge area, dating to 1985. Authorities are also still looking for clues in the Christmas Eve disappearance of Mari Ann Fowler, wife of imprisoned ex-state elections commissioner Jerry Fowler.
While the Baton Rouge Multi-Agency Homicide Task Force has reviewed those other cases, investigators are concentrating on DNA evidence that scientifically links the serial killer to four victims -- including a New Orleans native. The four known serial victims are:
· Gina Wilson Green, 41, a nurse, found strangled in her Baton Rouge home Sept. 24, 2001.
· Charlotte Murray Pace, 22, stabbed to death May 31 in her Baton Rouge townhouse, one week after receiving a master's degree in business administration from LSU.
· Pam Kinamore, 44, an antiques dealer who grew up in New Orleans, abducted from her Baton Rouge home on July 12, 2002, and sexually assaulted. Her body was found in a wooded area near Whiskey Bay.
· Trineisha Dene Colomb, a 23-year-old U.S. Marine, found beaten to death Nov. 24, 2002, in a wooded field near Grand Coteau. She was the first African-American victim and the first victim outside Baton Rouge linked to the killer.
"Before Dene Colomb, I think people in the outlying area thought it was Baton Rouge's problem, then once he struck in the Lafayette area they realized it is a concern for women everywhere," says Baton Rouge police Cpl. Mary Ann Godawa, the chief spokesperson for the serial killer task force. "We do not know what will happen next. So, we do want to stress to people everywhere to be very cautious and be very vigilant."
The serial killer task force -- an ensemble of federal, state and local law enforcement officers established Aug. 1, 2002 -- can expect increased criticism after the panel's earlier optimistic statements. At the task force's Jan. 23 news conference, Lafayette Sheriff Mike Neustrom hailed the accumulation of new leads and evidence from the Colomb murder. "I think the momentum's building," the sheriff said.
Now, the momentum appears to have shifted. Peter Scharf, director of the University of New Orleans Center for Society, Law and Justice and a consultant to a number of other serial killer task forces nationwide, last week stepped up his criticism of the Baton Rouge effort. "This business about there only being four cases ... get over it," says Scharf, who has consulted pro bono with the family members of several victims. "It may be that there are clues that are outside the set of four victims that can lead you to solve the case. ... You are going to see calls for a growing level of sophistication in this investigation. Right now, we are really in trouble here." Ed Piglia, the brother of Pam Kinamore, says his family will decide soon whether to transfer a $100,000 reward to an investigative fund to hire outside experts to help solve his sister's murder.
In fairness to the task force, the police have been confounded by a public reluctance to report suspicious activity quickly. Still, the task force could increase public confidence by inviting outside experts such as professors Scharf and Robert Keppel, the chief criminal investigator for the Washington State Attorney General's Office and a consultant on more than 50 serial killer probes.
As we learned from a serial killer investigation based in Jefferson Parish during the mid-1990s, an aggressive task force will also turn up leads and evidence for prosecuting unrelated crimes. A sidelight of the Jefferson Parish probe was the state prosecution and firings of nine deputies for malfeasance in office for various crimes involving prostitutes. Publishing the positive results of spin-off investigations from the Baton Rouge probe, such as "peeping Tom" cases, burglaries and other crimes, can boost public confidence. Then, the investigation can regain the momentum it needs to make Louisiana safe.