ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — They spent their nights jumping in and out of strange cars, trolling otherwise empty streets lined with decaying storefronts and boarded-up homes. Many sold sex to support drug habits or children left in the care of worried, hardworking grandmothers.
Even when they were picked up for drugs or prostitution, nights in jail looming, they called home to let their families know they were OK. Then, one by one, the calls stopped.
Since 2005, nine women who lived at the edges of the poor community in this small North Carolina city have disappeared. Six bodies were found along rural roads just a few miles outside town, most so decomposed that investigators could not tell how they died. At least one of the women was strangled, and all the deaths have been classified as homicides. Three women are still missing.
Police will not say whether they suspect a serial killer, but people in the community about 60 miles northeast of Raleigh do, and they're impatient with law enforcement efforts to investigate the slayings.
After the latest body – that of 31-year-old Jarneice Hargrove – was found in June behind a burnt-out house that was once a crack den, local law enforcement and state police formed a task force. In July, the FBI got involved.
But friends and family say it didn't happen soon enough.
"We got someone out here that's snatching up females," said Stephanie Jones, a 28-year-old nursing student. "I mean, next person could be your grandmother, it could be me, it could be my mother, it could be my daughter."
Jones, who knew two of the victims, has founded a group that is raising money to publicize the slayings and search for those still missing. She says the cases are being swept under the rug because of the victims' lifestyles.
The lead investigator, Sheriff James Knight, said he cannot comment.
Rumors swirl about the identity of the killer, if there is just one. Some say he is an ex-military man or an ex-police officer because he leaves no evidence. Others believe he is exacting revenge on local women after contracting HIV from a prostitute.
Forensic psychologist Dr. Michael Teague said the killings are probably the work of one person.
"You're talking about a man who didn't finish high school, probably doesn't have a regular job, probably not married or in a stable relationship," he said.
Vivian Lord, chairwoman of the criminal justice department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that if one killer is responsible, he is likely trying to cleanse the world of prostitutes or deliberately picking victims he knows won't be missed.
If it's the latter, he chose wrong when he killed Ernestine Battle. Her sister, Tynatta James, 64, remembers the February 2008 day the family reported Battle missing. It had been less than 48 hours since they last heard from the 50-year-old, but she always checked in, even from jail.
"We knew something wasn't right because she hadn't called," James said.
A month later, a man putting up a wire fence around his property down a rural stretch of road outside town found a badly decomposed body. The bodies of two other victims were found in the same area in 2007 and 2009.
In May, a DNA test identified the remains as Battle's. She was wearing only her underwear and police told James she was probably strangled, but they couldn't be sure because animals had dragged away a small throat bone that typically breaks when someone is killed that way.
"I'm still frustrated," James said. "I didn't really feel like they were doing all they could. I just feel like they recently started to get involved in the cases after the last lady."
For Alecia Johnson, the killings were a wake-up call. She knew most of the women: They all walked the streets of Rocky Mount together. She said she didn't wait for police to catch a killer. She stopped after the body of the first woman, 29-year-old Melody Wiggins, was found dumped in the woods in 2005.
"I used to walk these streets and jump in and out of cars. But then when that first girl Melody got killed I stopped that because I knew he would kill another," said Johnson, 41. "I hate for that to happen to her, but it probably saved my life. I have five babies."
Counting the names on one hand, she added, "There's probably five or six girls left around here that will jump in and out of cars. He really did kill the whole neighborhood."
Jones' group has raised enough money to post billboards with the faces of the missing and slain women. Now she is raising more to organize search teams for those whose bodies have not been found.
Juray Tucker, the mother of 37-year-old Yolanda Lancaster, missing since February, said she wants to help with fundraising but doesn't get much time now that she has to care for her daughter's children.
"Every day, every minute, every hour, I'm worried," she said. "It's constant on my mind and there ain't nothing I can do, ain't nothing I can do."