EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Shorty wants her knife back, Terry Oleson wants his life back, and Hugh Auslander wants his wife back.
A year after the bodies of four prostitutes were found face-down in a drainage ditch just outside Atlantic City, none will get their wish.
From the streetwalker spooked by the deaths who wants to arm herself against danger, to the handyman who once looked like a promising suspect in the killings, to the grieving husband of one of the dead hookers, the case has left its mark on the seedy backdoor entrance to the glittering seaside gambling resort.
On Nov. 20, 2006, the bodies of Barbara Breidor, Molly Jean Dilts, Kim Raffo and Tracy Ann Roberts were discovered in a ditch behind a string of cut-rate motels known for drugs and prostitution on a road called the Black Horse Pike.
They were barefoot, with their heads facing east, toward the casinos in Atlantic City, whose border was just a few hundred yards away.
Fear spread amid speculation that a serial killer might be on the loose, and the dark side of Atlantic City, whose motto is “Always Turned On”, became worldwide news for a few months.
Since then, the clues have been few, and authorities have been tightlipped about how the investigation is going, including whether they believe one person killed all four women.
“We fully recognize that it’s been a year since the bodies of the women were discovered,” said Atlantic County Prosecutor Theodore Housel. “This is an open, active, important investigation. We are pursuing a number of investigative techniques including, but not limited to, additional forensic tests.”
Roberts, 23, was a former exotic dancer from Philadelphia. Barbara V. Breidor, 42, of Ventnor, had helped run her parents’ business before developing a drug problem. Molly Jean Dilts, a 20-year-old from Blairsville, had been working the streets for just a short time, while Kim Raffo, 35, had left behind a life as a wife and mother.
All Hugh Auslander knows is that his estranged wife was murdered, and nobody has been arrested for it a year later.
“We get up each day and we wait for answers, some glimmer of hope,” he said. “We’ve been waiting a long time.”
Auslander met Kim Raffo when they were both teenagers in Brooklyn. They moved to Florida, got married and had two children. Auslander worked as a carpenter while his wife took care of the kids and volunteered with the Girl Scouts and the school PTA.
But relatives said Raffo grew bored with life as a housewife. She enrolled in a cooking class at a local technical school, and met a man there who had a long history of drug use.
They started an affair, Auslander took the kids and left, and Raffo and her boyfriend went to Atlantic City. When she wasn’t working as a waitress, they binged on cocaine.
Her habit grew worse and she stopped going to work, eventually selling the only thing of value she had left — herself — on the streets of Atlantic City. She’d start out asking for $100, but often settled for much, much less, according to police records and other prostitutes who knew her.
“They lived a very bad life,” Auslander said. “I basically gave up on her. Then I heard news that she was in trouble.”
The couple’s children had since been placed in foster care and Auslander, who continues to chase carpentry work up and down the East Coast, came back from Florida to New Jersey to help her.
“She was extremely excited to get the hell out,” he said. “We went to Long Island for five weeks. We were happy there, but it wasn’t like we were getting back together or anything. I had another life, she had another life. We were more friends helping each other out.
“Unfortunately, she said she had some unfinished business in Atlantic City,” said Auslander, who added she didn’t elaborate. “We parted ways with the hope of getting together the week after that — a week too late.”
Raffo was the first body to be identified. An autopsy determined she was strangled with a rope or cord and had been in the ditch for a couple of days.
Her ex-husband is frustrated over the lack of an arrest in the case, but says he hasn’t lost hope.
“I have faith in the system; I have to,” he said. “Otherwise, this would be a hard life to live.”
Terry Oleson knows how to fix things. From lawnmower engines to household gadgets, he is known in his Salem County neighborhood as a guy who can take something broken and make it work.
It’s a challenge he now faces with his own life.
Although they never explicitly said so, Oleson, 35, was once prosecutors’ prime suspect in the hooker deaths. He had been staying at the Golden Key Motel — the same $27-a-night hot-sheet hovel behind which the bodies were found — just before they were discovered.
Inside his Alloway Township house that was rigged with hidden video cameras, authorities discovered images of the nude 15-year-old daughter of his then-girlfriend.
They arrested him in April on an invasion of privacy charge, but clearly were looking at him in the four hooker deaths.
Oleson said the questions posed to him in February by Atlantic County homicide detectives appeared to be innocuous. He said he offered to help, and even called them back to the motel when he found a pair of men’s work boots on the building’s roof one day, thinking they might be significant to the case.
Detectives questioned him again April 2, this time for a much longer period.
“They asked me the exact same questions, and their tone was exactly the same,” Oleson said. “Then seven hours into the questioning, there was a 100 percent turnaround. They said, ‘We know you did it.’ That was their exact words.”
At that point, Oleson said, he stopped talking to investigators.
Four days later, he was arrested on the videotaping charge. A judge considering bail in that case commented that bail should be high.
“Does it increase the flight risk for someone to be a suspect or person of interest in four homicidesâ¢ Yes,” Superior Court Judge William Forester said.
Prosecutors asked Oleson to submit DNA samples in June, and he agreed. Authorities still won’t say what the tests revealed.
Oleson pleaded guilty to the nude videotaping charge last month and was released on a drastically lowered bail until he is sentenced in two weeks. He was wearing a tow-truck company T-shirt with the slogan “Off The Hook” written across the chest as he walked free.
“When he walked out of the Salem County jail, that certainly spoke volumes,” said his lawyer, James Leonard. “If they had DNA that linked Terry Oleson to any of these women, without question they would have charged him. I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that would link him to these crimes.”
Oleson said the past seven months have been “a living nightmare.”
“I have nothing to hide; I never have,” he said. “I was not involved in it. There’s no way my DNA was anywhere near them. I never met them. I wish I had some information for everybody. I hope they find whoever did this.”
Shorty is a wiry prostitute who has worked Atlantic City’s streets for the past 10 years, but can still blend in with the tourists on Pacific Avenue outside the casino entrances. Her red-dyed hair tucked under a tweed newsboy cap, wearing a beige corduroy jacket and matching slacks and heels, the 34-year-old cuts a much better image than the gaunt tank-topped hookers in gym shorts or sweat pants that constitute much of the competition.
But she does the same things her friend Kim Raffo did, for the same reason — to feed a drug habit. That is a more powerful motivator than the fear she feels over what happened to Raffo and the others.
“I still think about it every day,” said Shorty, a Philadelphia native who started work as a stripper at age 22 and switched to prostitution six years later when she couldn’t compete with the young, fresh faces that club owners kept bring in. “I had just gotten out of jail on a prostitution charge, and for the first time ever, my family was worried about me. They heard it on the news and thought it might be me.”
Shorty used to carry a knife at all times, but ditched it shortly after the killings, fearing that a violent customer might take it from her and use it against her. But now she regrets getting rid of it.
“I wish I had it back,” she said during an interview in the parking lot of a motel well-known for prostitution. “This one guy recently started acting crazy, and I was afraid he was going to kill me. That scared the (heck) out of me.”
She continues “dating” men who drive up along Pacific Avenue and flag her down, mainly to support her crack habit. The four women in the ditch each had also used drugs, authorities said.
“Nobody misses drug addicts,” she said. “We disappear, and it’s normal. Nobody comes looking for us.”
Still, she takes precautions.
“When a guy wants to go to the Black Horse Pike, that’s a big, big red flag,” Shorty said. “I try to stay in control. I tell them where I’ll go with them. Lose control, and you’re done.”