A question lingers over the city of Philadelphia, like a dark cloud signaling an approaching storm: is a serial killer roaming the streets?
On June 11, 2020, local news reported that Philadelphia Police Department found a woman’s body inside a suitcase near the corner of Kensington and Allegheny. The story offered few details. White woman, black suitcase. No age, no physical description. The police did not identify any suspects or a motive.
Naturally, this led the Internet to conclude a serial killer was operating in Philadelphia.
Comments on social media and online forums began to appear identifying the murder as one in a possible series; individuals responding to local news outlet NBC10 Philadelphia’s Facebook post about the story linked the death to another series which occurred in 2018, also involving a suitcase. Online forums like WebSleuths identified another series of similar murders in 2004.
Soon after, two more cases appeared in the news: a second body found stuffed into a suitcase and thrown into the Schuylkill River, on June 12th; and a third wrapped in plastic in the Grays Ferry section of the city, on June 15th. (In the month since, other potential victims have appeared.)
Discourse on social media intensified, trying to link the three murders. Tweets which argued the existence of a serial killer as definitive fact began to go viral, with replies adding further details to the claims.
The online response offered a compelling theory: a serial killer, operating in some of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods, is murdering and disposing of people police departments historically ignore. The first victim was found at the corner of Kensington & Allegheny Avenue in Kensington, the site of the largest open-air drug market in the United States. The second victim was a Black trans woman. The third was discovered in a predominantly Black but quickly gentrifying neighborhood. These are places and people police departments allow to slip through the cracks—Kensington alone is tracking with the highest recorded number of murders since 2007. Who better, and where better, for a serial killer to target?
This wouldn’t even be the first time something like this occurred in Philadelphia. The 1980s was a grim moment in the city’s history. White flight eroded the city’s tax base as long-time residents left for nearby suburbs, squeezing the budget and putting pressure on social services. The Philadelphia Police Department struggled with yet another corruption scandal. And serial killers owned the night: Gary Heidnik and Harrison Graham preyed on Black women in North Philadelphia; Arnold Mulholland stalked gay men in Center City; and the Frankford Slasher attacked women in the Northeast. It was impossible to pick up a newspaper in the latter half of the decade without seeing a story about a new victim of at least one serial killer.
Yet the problem with adding the June 2020 murders to the history of serial killers in Philadelphia is that there is no evidence showing this is the work of one person. The murders of June 2020 have little, if anything, in common with each other let alone the murders in 2004, 2018, or 2019. The victims in each case come from different backgrounds and neighborhoods, and at least two cases appear to have different suspects. A few days after the discovery of the second victim, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, police issued an arrest warrant for a man named Akhenaton Jones. Police announced the arrest of another man, Aaron Mosher, in connection with the death of the woman found at Kensington and Allegheny. There appears to be nothing linking these cases to each other or the other victims.
Similarly, the 2018 murders are so dissimilar to one another that it’s hard to find anything in common. The murder of Vianelba Tavera occurred at the hands of her boyfriend, Luis Negron-Martinez. Police in Virginia arrested Negron-Martinez driving a car which allegedly contained Tavera’s blood in the backseat. Police also stated he confessed to a murder, although not Tavera’s in specific. The other three murders — one involving the skeletal remains of a womanfound in a suitcase in the Kingsessing neighborhood of West Philadelphia, another involving a man wrapped in plastic near the 1900 block of Spring Garden Street, and a third again involving a man, this time found lying by Interstate 95 in Port Richmond—remain unsolved or unreported.
The 2004 murders have a bit more in common, as three of the four cases were strangulations occurring along Kenginston Avenue. The three women, Charisse Eschert, Evelyn Rolon, and Jena Tadryzynski, were found in Northeast neighborhoods (Holmesburg, Kesinginton, and Bridesburg), but this does not appear to have played a role in their deaths. Tadryznski’s murderer was a West Philadelphia resident, Ralph Pitt, as reported in two stories by Howard Altman of Philadelphia City Paper on March 4, 2004, and March 11, 2004. According to Altman, Pitt knew the victim and dropped her body in Bridesburg because of his familiarity with the area. Pitt was never linked to Eschert’s or Rolon’s murders. Information on the final victim, Karen Lynn Dewitt, is even harder to come by. She was found in a burning car in Frankford, though it’s unclear how she died because police never released an official cause of death.
In response, the Associated Press ran the headline “Police fear serial killer after fourth woman slain in Philly” even though a representative from the Philadelphia Police Department denied the existence of such a killer. Cpl. Jim Pauley told the AP, “We’re not saying we have a serial killer on our hands here … at this point in the investigation, it’s too early to tell.” What these cases do share is a particular problem in crime reporting: media outlets are quick to jump on stories involving murder, yet lose interest if the cases go unsolved for longer than a few weeks. Initial coverage relies on speculation to generate engagement (sell papers and/or capture clicks) but press interest wanes or outright disappears in the absence of a smaller, community-focused paper like an alternative weekly. Unfortunately, beyond the reporting of Howard Altman at Philadelphia City Paper on the case of Jena Tadryzynski, no other news outlets appear to have followed up on the outcomes of the other cases so there is no way of knowing if there are any other factors linking them. The headlines and partial accounts of victims’ lives are the only pieces of information left, creating the impression that something (or someone) sinister is hiding in the shadows of their city’s streets.
Worse, news outlets might even attempt to mislead readers. In 2018, content mill Your Content News was the first publication to claim a link to a serial killer in the four murders that had occurred that summer. The article in question, “POLICE IN PHILADELPHIA LOCATE THIRD SUSPICIOUS BODY, EXPERTS SAY SERIAL KILLER”, appeared on July 11, 2018, shortly after the fourth murder. It contained no author, attributed only to “Your Content Staff,” making it difficult to authenticate its credility, and was poorly sourced. One quote stands out:
‘It’s a horrifying discovery for everybody involved here,’ Philadelphia Police Lt. John Walker said. ‘From the people living here to the officers arriving here and dealing with the situation.’
YC ripped the quote, without attribution, from an article published on July 17, 2018, by David Chang of NBC10 Philadelphia. The two other sources quoted in the YC article, “a frightened neighbor” and a “former federal agent,” aren’t identified by name. A reader has no way of verifying if they are real or not. This is particularly galling in the case of the alleged federal agent who YC identifies as someone “who worked on infamous cases involving serial killers such as the Zodiak [sic].” YC quotes the agent as stating that serial killers place bodies in public locations for police to find, which is sometimes true, but fails to point out that serial killers are highly selective of their victims and don’t kill at random. They rarely cross race or gender and tend to focus on availability.
This makes a bit more sense, however, when viewed in the light of the fact that YC News has gained a reputation for playing fast and loose with journalistic ethics. Editor-in-chief Nik Hatziefstathiou was recently charged with multiple crimes including tampering with public records and identity theft in connection to a story reported on YC’s site. The story, “RACIST HIGH-RANKING OFFICIAL TELLS FRIEND HE’LL HAVE “AIRTIGHT JOB SECURITY SO LONG AS THERE’S A N — ER” IN TOWN”, claimed that the company had obtained documents showing racism among parole officers from the Delaware County Adult Probation & Parole Department through the use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. But an investigation by the state of Pennsylvania found instead that the email YC News cited in their story may have come from communications Hatziefstathiou received from his own probation officers and later altered himself. Hatziefstratiou has denied the charges and the case is still working its way through the courts.
So are these three sets of murders over a 16 year period the work of an anonymous serial killer, or are they the result of weaknesses in crime reporting exacerbated by a proliferation of fake news? The current reality is that most murders remain unsolved—around one-third are never prosecuted. That creates an information gap in the instances where victims’ families and the public don’t see justice. Frequently, cases just lack a suspect. Poor follow-up and outright conjecture by reporters, intentional or otherwise, also over-exaggerate the threat and heighten perceptions of criminality.
This is only one part of the problem. Bad information exists independent of the news; online forums and social media perpetuate feedback loops. Humans as a species want to see patterns in information. To accomplish this, we attempt to reduce the complexity of issues like crime by finding links among individual cases. Communities form around specific issues (serial killers) or cases (the Golden State Killer) and members share bits and pieces of crime stories and shocking headlines, in a desperate hope to make things make sense.
Herein lies the problem.
We don’t want to believe crime is arbitrary but in neighborhoods like Kensington it often is, where the drug trade and sex trafficking turn living, flesh-and-blood human beings into statistics. Violent crimes are 30 percent more likely to happen in Kensington. How do you fix that? Serial killer narratives not only help to make unanswerable problems like this answerable, they allow digital communities to create folk tales out of collective suffering as a way coping with the trauma.
Call it the HyperNormalisation Theory. Filmmaker Adam Curtis argues in his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisationthat societies governed by markets, which is to say statistics, algorithms, and data, are too complex for people, least of all those in power, to understand and communicate in a coherent manner. When a problem occurs, societies must then create obvious fabrications to explain them in the simplest terms possible. In one of the film’s most disturbing examples Curtis highlights how the United States Air Force engaged in a counterintelligence operation against American citizens to convince them UFOs are real. The purpose of the program was to disguise the existence of military black projects like the B-2 stealth bomber through the strategic over-sharing of information. The Air Force leaked disinformation to the American ufology community because officials determined it would be more receptive to the idea of aliens than the reality of what was actually happening on military bases.
Today we layer simple fictions on top of our problems so we can find answers. Instead of addressing the root causes of poverty and addiction, which drive high murder rates and are beyond the control of our leaders, communities turn to an easily identified solution, one problem instead of many, a serial killer. Alternatives like harm reduction and decriminalization are either unpopular or unachievable. No one stands in the way of these simple truths, no one asks how one person could commit so many different murders, in so many different places, because a community has gained some level of agency over its suffering by naming the cause of its pain.
To answer the earlier question, is a murderer roaming the streets of Philadelphia? I couldn’t tell you. We don’t have enough information on any of the existing cases to know for certain. What I can say is that one person isn’t responsible for these deaths. It was a system — many people, in fact — that killed them. State legislators, city officials, police. The problems that drive crime aren’t easily solved so we continue to push them off onto institutions which function by doing the bare minimum to maintain themselves. We look for the easy answers so we can ignore the difficult ones. We tell stories because we can’t confront reality.