A Serial Killer in Florida?

Stacey Charlene Gage, 30, a single mother of a girl and a boy, went out to buy a bag of ice one night last month and never came home. Three weeks later, a few miles from where Gage lived with her grandmother in Holly Hill, a middle-class suburb of Daytona Beach, Fla., Police Officer Chris Reeder parked on a secluded dead-end road near an abandoned church to do some paperwork. He rolled down his window and "smelled something bad." About 15 yards in from the road, Reeder's flashlight fell on the nude, decomposed body of a young woman who was later identified by her fingerprints as Gage. Police say she was apparently killed within a day after her disappearance. And that's all the world at large would have heard about Stacey Charlene Gage, a former drum majorette who dropped out of high school in her senior year and had two children by the age of 21, except that her murder followed by almost exactly two years the unsolved killings of three other young women in Daytona Beach. "It's eerily similar and has all the earmarks of the other cases," says Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood. "I hope to God he's not back," he adds, referring to the unknown killer. "But I'm afraid that's what we're looking at."

For Daytona Beach, a working-class tourist mecca on Florida's Atlantic coast best known for its motor speedway, the murder reawakened memories of the winter of 2005-06, when the killer struck three times within less than three months. His victims--Laquetta Gunther, Julie Green and Iwana Patton--were described by police as prostitutes working the rundown strip of bars, motels and trailer parks near Ridgewood Avenue. (Police suspect that Gage, who had a history of drug abuse, may have been a part-time prostitute, but her family disagrees.) Gunther and Green were naked when they were found, shot in the back of the head; Patton had been shot in the face "which leads us to believe she knew what was going on and tried to fight," Chitwood says. The same .40-caliber handgun was used each time, and although Gunther's body had been dumped in a grubby downtown alley, the bodies of the other two victims were discovered in the woods on the fringes of the city--as was Gage's. Police have not said how Gage was killed.

At least since the nights when Jack the Ripper stalked the smog-smudged streets of London, serial killers have been an occupational hazard of prostitution. The Daytona Beach murders had the usual effect of driving the trade temporarily off the streets and into the light of day. But the killings abruptly stopped at three, and the denizens of Ridgewood Avenue gradually returned to their favorite streetlamps. Until last week, at least, when police Sgt. Paul Stelter pronounced the sidewalks as empty of vice as "a ghost town," and not out of fear of the police.

The question that intrigued detectives was where the killer spent the last two years. He might have been only a visitor to Daytona Beach. But working against that theory, Chitwood said, is that the locations where he dumped the bodies suggests he knows the area well. Or he could have been in prison--although the police have DNA, presumed to be the killer's, from two of the victims, and the national DNA inmate database, to which all 50 states contribute, hasn't turned up a match. (County jails don't, as a rule, take DNA from their inmates, but not many people are locked up in them for two years.) Or perhaps, suggests Pat Brown, a criminal profiler and author of "Killing for Fun: Inside the Mind of Serial Killers," he just took a break from killing. Maybe "he's doing it on a spree when his life isn't going so good. After killing, things in his life maybe got a little better, and he won't do it for a while. A lot of serial killers are like that."

Local and state police had never stopped working on the killings--checking out similar crimes all over the country, interviewing prostitutes and taking DNA samples from their customers. But with Gage's murder, the investigation took on new urgency. Police got what they hope will be an important break in the case Wednesday when the van Gage was driving was found in the lot of an apartment complex popular with young single people and college students. It had been there, according to residents, for about a month, or roughly since Gage had driven off to buy a bag of ice. Or so Gage told her grandmother, Betty Hill; Chitwood believes she was on her way to an assignation she had arranged over the Internet. Hill knows her granddaughter had a long-standing cocaine addiction and several minor arrests, but she insists Gage was turning her life around, and she doesn't believe she was a prostitute. The truth may be known only when her killer's DNA can be made to yield a name and a face, but it's hardly the most important thing about the pony-tailed teenager in a majorette's uniform smiling radiantly from a photograph on her grandmother's end table. "It really didn't hit me until later," says Reeder of the corpse he could smell from 50 feet away, "when I saw her face in the picture, and found out she had kids, that it was a person."