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Van Marsh: Town reels from serial killings

By Alphonso Van Marsh
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Alphonso Van Marsh has been in Ipswich covering the slayings there.

IPSWICH, England (CNN) -- The holiday season is supposed to be about family, exchanging gifts and good times. In England's eastern town of Ipswich, fear that a serial killer may strike again has families keeping in touch even more this year.

The naked bodies of five young Ipswich-area women -- all prostitutes -- were discovered in rural areas here this month. Now the season's best sellers are so-called "rape alerts," pocket-sized sirens sold at department stores as personal alarms.

As hundreds of police investigators pore through evidence, this community is grappling with issues many here thought only concerned the big city: drug use, prostitution and murder.

"Ipswich is not known for things like that. You hear of [serial killings] happening in other parts of the world," said mobile phone shop worker Kelly Nicols.

Murder victims Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell were prostitutes who worked in Ipswich's red-light district. Some of the victims reportedly took to the streets to feed a heroin addiction.

Late Thursday, authorities said they charged Stephen Wright, 48, with killing the five prostitutes. A second suspect, Tom Stephens, 37, was released on bail and not charged in the case.

'They won't have a merry Christmas'

Residents of Ipswich, once they express their initial shock about the killings, display an undercurrent of resentment. Not just over the serial killer label that now looks to forever be associated with their town, but also the media defining the victims by their profession: as prostitutes. Many in Ipswich are quick to note that the victims were women first. They were also daughters, sisters, mothers and friends to others within this community.

A woman who wanted to be called "Victoria" lives with her boyfriend one street over from where forensic investigators are combing the home of Wright for evidence that could link him or clear him of the crimes.

Victoria says she doesn't know Wright, but she did befriend murdered prostitute Gemma Adams -- who Victoria says worked on her street, picking up clients in cars.

"Gemma was always friendly. I remember her long blond hair. When I'd go for walks, I'd run into her and we'd talk," Victoria said. "Her family lost a daughter, they won't have a merry Christmas this year."

Victoria knows all too well what might have driven these murder victims to a life hooking for their next fix. She says she herself was abused by her stepfather, went through a period of heavy drug use and lived on the streets of London for three years before moving to Ipswich to start life anew.

Like many Ipswich residents, Victoria and her boyfriend are debating whether prostitution should be legal, whether more money should go to drug rehabilitation programs, and how more services could be provided for the city's marginal citizens.

At Ipswich's Town Hall, city authorities set up a remembrance book for the public to pay tribute to the victims. Flipping through the pages, it reads like a barometer of public opinion. Most of the messages express condolences to the victims' families or offer a prayer for the deceased. But not all who sign have sympathy: One person wrote anonymously, "The wages of sin is death...repent now."

While most of us get together with family to celebrate the holidays, there will be friends and family here mourning the deaths of five women. They are friends and families who have yet to receive any remains from the police for a proper burial, as this investigation continues.


CNN's Alphonso Van Marsh reports from Ipswich on the serial killings there.

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