Over a five-week span last summer, the bodies of five women turned up in South Bend.
Three were pulled from the St. Joseph River. One was found in a garage behind a vacant home, dead from neck trauma. Another was found to have been dumped in an alley, her death attributed to cocaine overdose.
Of the 10 dead bodies found in public places this year, 9 have been women.
Police have said publicly they see no link between any of the deaths and no evidence of foul play in the river deaths. But women's safety advocates are still concerned.
"It's pretty alarming to see those kinds of statistics for our community," said Linda Baechle, executive director of the YWCA of St. Joseph County.
Baechle said women in the community voiced alarm at news of the deaths this summer, but she notes 98 percent of female homicide victims are killed by people they know.
But Baechle said there are other messages women can take from some of these cases, especially the ones in which the women were found to have been intoxicated.
"Clearly being under the influence of intoxicants, women are unable to protect themselves in a way they normally would, and their sense of fear is lessened," Baechle said.
Women who are going out to drink should do so in moderation, she said, and arrange for another person to keep an eye on them in case they drink too much.
"But I certainly don't want to create the impression that they are bringing what happens upon themselves," Baechle said.
At the Tribune's request, Kenna Quinet, an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis associate professor of criminal justice, law and public safety, and an expert on serial killers, reviewed a list of this year's cases. For one thing, she was struck by the high number of women who drowned. Typically, 80 percent of drowning victims are male, she said.
"That's not necessarily suspicious, but it is unusual in a town your size," Quinet said.
While Quinet said she sees no clear pattern between South Bend's cases this year, she thinks police should not rule that out. Serial killers tend to use the same method of killing with each victim, but some have been known to vary their tactics from victim to victim, Quinet said.
For years, experts have been underestimating, by a factor ranging from two to six times, the number of serial killer victims each year in the United States, she reports in "The Missing Missing," a new study published in the November issue of Homicide Studies, an academic journal.
Serial killers most often victimize society's most transient, and therefore, most vulnerable, individuals, such as prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless. Few people ever report such victims missing, so they haven't traditionally been counted in serial killer victim estimates, Quinet found.
As an example, Quinet pointed to the skeletal remains of a black woman found Sept. 29 in an empty lot at 608 N. Blaine St. An autopsy Oct. 1 was not able to identify how she died or who she was. The woman, believed to be between the ages of 20 and 40, had been dead for at least a month. Police have taken her remains to a forensics lab in Indianapolis to try and learn more and are still awaiting test results.
"She may be what I would call the missing missing," Quinet said. "It does seem that you have something going on there. Whether they're related, I can't say, from the limited information I have on those cases."
On Sept. 11, the nude body of Melissa Shields, 35, was found strangled in Ravina Park on the South Bend's near southeast side. Shields had a criminal record that included prostitution.
Quinet's study theorized that far more prostitutes are killed by serial killers than prior estimates.
Deaths raise worries
Of course, the deaths should be viewed in context with past years. South Bend has seen just seven murders in 2007, police say, down from 16 in 2006 and 12 in 2005. This year, like last year, three of the murder victims have been women.
By June, the recent deaths of three black women had sparked a rash of rumors on the city's west side. Some said that a male stalker pedaled his bicycle around, looking for young women.
Others said a man in a red pickup truck was roving South Bend, bent on killing women.
Police dismissed the talk as rumors, but at one point, residents organized a discussion at the city's Martin Luther King Center to discuss their concerns.
Others worried about the number of women whose bodies investigators found in the river.
Investigators said then -- and still maintain -- that those deaths were unconnected accidental drownings, but several women who live or work in downtown South Bend said the deaths led them to change their habits and become more vigilant.
Even now, months after such deaths have ceased to dominate news coverage and spark public concern, investigators concede that some worries linger. Capt. Mike Grzegorek, assistant commander of the county Metro Homicide Unit, says that's only natural.
"When they end up in the river, or as the case may be, and we handle the case, people think, "'It's the homicide unit!' -- and they remember it as a homicide," he says.
But such worries don't reflect reality, he says.
"We look at that," he says. "When we have any type of commonality, or even if there isn't, we always look to see if any of our cases are connected.
"Obviously, when we have several female victims, we want to make sure they're not connected," he says. "(But) there is nothing to connect any of these cases."
River deaths challenging
Local experts who investigate deaths say that it can be more difficult to glean evidence from a body recovered from the river.
"We're at the mercy of the weather, we're at the mercy of the river ... on the river deaths, it's all serendipitous as to when we find a body," says Dr. Michael O'Connell, St. Joseph County's coroner.
Deputy Coroner Randy Magdalinski agrees. In colder weather, he says, the river's waters act as a cooler, preventing bodies from bloating and rising to the surface where they can be found.
In warmer weather, he says, the river allows bodies to decompose quickly. And in either case, currents sweep bodies against bruising rocks and leave them unprotected when hungry fish approach.
"It makes it a little more challenging," he says. O'Connell says that makes it important for investigators to gather other details about the dead person's last moments before they rule on how the person died.
"A lot of times it's going to be dependent on the witnesses, the family physician, any medications they were on," he says. "You rule things in and rule things out. Sometimes the body gives up evidence, and sometimes not."
Regardless of whether any of this year's deaths have been connected, Baechle said she hopes police solve the mysteries as soon as possible.
"These women were somebody's mother, somebody's sister, somebody's daughter," Baechle said. "It's a tremendous loss to our community. I hope that law enforcement can solve these cases and give these families some closure."
By the numbers
7 -- number of murders in South Bend this year -- down from 16 in 2006 and 12 in 2005.
3 -- number of women murdered in South Bend this year -- the same number as last year.
4 -- number of bodies recovered from the St. Joseph River this year.
3 -- number of women's bodies recovered from the river this year.
Source: South Bend Police Department.
Women's bodies found
Police have investigated the deaths of nine women whose bodies have been found in South Bend in less than seven months.
Dec. 8: 33-year-old Delia Lerma found dead in her van in the 2100 block of South Carlisle Street. Investigators say she was stabbed to death. No arrests made.
Sept. 29: Skeletal remains of a black woman between 20 and 40 years old found in an empty lot at 608 N. Blaine St. Autopsy fails to establish identity or cause of death. Coroners still awaiting the results of forensics tests in Indianapolis.
Sept. 11: Nude body of 35-year-old Melissa Shields found strangled to death in Ravina Park on the city's near-southeast side. She was seven months pregnant. No arrests have been made.
Aug. 17: Body of 54-year-old Mary E. Sonneborn found floating in a pond at Irish Hills Apartments. Authorities rule her death an accidental drowning with acute alcohol intoxication. Police say they found no signs of trauma on her body. Coroner said he didn't know her blood-alcohol content.
June 29: Body of 56-year-old Sandra Dobson found in the St. Joseph River. Autopsy reveals no evidence of injury, and her death is consistent with a drowning, authorities say. Coroner says she had a "minimal" amount of alcohol in her system and was not legally intoxicated.
June 21: Nude body of 41-year-old Thelma Roland found in a garage behind a vacant home at 602 N. Euclid Ave. Investigators say she died from neck trauma. No arrests have been made.
June 11: Body of 34-year-old Lanita Bonds-Newman discovered in an alley off Medora Street. Autopsy reveals no evidence of injury. Toxicology tests reveal she died as a result of the toxic effects of cocaine. Body consistent with that of dumping. No information is available about who dumped her body.
May 26: Body of 47-year-old Brenda Walker discovered in the St. Joseph River, near where the East Race Waterway empties. Autopsy reveals no injury, and authorities call her death a probable drowning. She had a blood-alcohol content of 0.288.
May 18: After being missing for three months, 54-year-old Vivian Borysiak's body is found in the St. Joseph River, about a half-mile north of the Angela Boulevard bridge off Riverside Drive, near where she lived. Her dog was found March 27, just north of the state line. There are no signs of foul play, and police believe it to be an accidental drowning.http://www.southbendtribune.com/apps/pbcs....7/1130/Sports01