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British police hunt for a modern-day Jack the Ripper

IPSWICH, England—In the first weeks after 19-year-old Tania Nicol was reported missing on Oct. 30, the pleas of worried family members drew little attention outside this city of 140,000 about an hour northeast of London.

Nor was there much response when 25-year-old Gemma Adams vanished on Nov. 15, at least not outside England's eastern agricultural belt.

Now all England is abuzz after three more young women turned up dead in what the local newspapers are calling one of the biggest serial crimes since Jack the Ripper preyed on London prostitutes in the 19th century.

Tania Nicol. Gemma Adams. Anneli Alderton. Annette Nicholls. Paula Clennell. All were between the ages of 19 and 29. All are rumored to have been drug addicts and prostitutes. Nicol and Adams were found naked in the same stream within the space of 10 days. The last two victims were found yards apart on Dec. 12.

"There are striking similarities, clearly, between all five deaths," said Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull of the Suffolk County constabulary. "All five were prostitutes, all were found in a rural environment and all were naked."

Some 350 police officials are now scouring the countryside and Ipswich's red-light district in search of clues.

None of the women had been sexually assaulted. All were killed elsewhere before their bodies were dumped south of Ipswich, within a radius of about six miles. A coroner has ruled that one died of asphyxiation and another of "compression to the neck," but Gull said that "no significant trauma" was apparent in the other cases. Toxicology reports are under way, but they could take six weeks, he said.

About five miles outside the city, a winding lane barely wide enough for one vehicle intersects the shallow stream where Gemma Adams, Victim No. 2, was found submerged on Dec. 2. A few yards up the road, deep tire ruts and condoms mark the muddy entrance to a horse pasture that's thought to be a spot frequented by prostitutes.

A nearby farmer who declined to give his name said the isolated trails sometimes attracted bothersome visitors, but he said he'd "never known any real trouble."

"It does put a fear in you," he said. "But it don't matter what job you do, that shouldn't happen to anybody."

The body of Tania Nicol, the first to disappear, was found in the same stream six days later, under a bridge a few miles downstream. An animal feed factory overlooks the stream, and a small subdivision and a village pub are across the well-travelled road.

The next victim discovered was Anneli Alderton, 24, who'd been missing for a week when her body was found on Dec. 10 in the woods a few miles from the other women. Then, on Dec. 12, a dog walker reported seeing a body just off a side road not far from two major freeways. Police soon found Annette Nicholls, 29, and Paula Clennell, 24, their bodies about half a football field apart.

Clennell had been interviewed on television after the initial disappearances, and she said that she'd continue to solicit on the streets because she needed the money. Floral tributes to her and the other murdered women were left at a popular gathering spot in the red-light district, with condolence notes highlighting some of the women's laughs, smiles and generosity.

Police say that little evidence has been found at the scenes, though some of the victims were still wearing their jewelry, and police were examining a few pieces of clothing thought to belong to some of the women.

In a country where closed-circuit television cameras are nearly everywhere, police said they have a few grainy shots of two of the victims, and they're appealing to potential witnesses. They also hope to track mobile phone calls to determine whether the women may have arranged meetings with customers before they disappeared.

Police said they're sifting through information from more than 2,000 phone tips and from interviews with some of the 30 to 40 known prostitutes in Ipswich and their customers. They also may seek assistance from experts from Europe and the United States.

"We have to keep an open mind," Gull said. "We could be looking for someone local."

That speculation—shared by local villagers and Ipswich residents—only fuels the angst hanging over the area.

Last week, shoppers bustled through Ipswich's picturesque market area, illuminated by holiday decorations hung from centuries-old buildings. Among the carolers and carts of roasted chestnuts, Suffolk police officers handed out pamphlets on personal safety.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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