DOWNTOWN — The FBI and Chicago Police have teamed up for a task force to investigate possible links between the deaths of more than 50 women in Chicago.
Activists and community leaders on the South and West sides have long said the slain women’s deaths by strangulation were too similar and suggested a serial killer is on the loose. The Murder Accountability Project, which uses data and an algorithm to investigate possible links between slayings, also issued a report in March saying the collection of killings had “characteristics suggestive of serial murder.”
But the evidence doesn’t point to a serial killer at this point, said Howard Ludwig, a Chicago Police spokesman. The task force, made up of six detectives who have been deputized by the FBI, started its work in late March.
The majority of the murder victims were black women, with the oldest 58 and the youngest 18, according to the Murder Accountability Project. Their bodies have been found throughout the city but mostly on the South and West sides, largely in abandoned buildings or outside in alleys, garbage cans and vacant lots.
Detectives are focusing on DNA from the dozens of murders and seeing if they can match DNA from the women’s bodies to known offenders or to DNA from other victims. The DNA could lead to new information, Ludwig said.
So far, the detectives haven’t come up with any matches.
The task force faces several challenges, Ludwig said: Collecting and working with DNA was different in the past, meaning it can be difficult to work with DNA from the older murders, which date back to 2001. Detectives are “combing through” that DNA now to see if they can turn up anything, Ludwig said, and it’s possible they’ll come up with matches.
And some victims had sexual partners before they were slain, meaning it can be harder for detectives to create a profile from the DNA left by those partners, Ludwig said. If a match is made, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person who left DNA on a victim is a killer.
The detectives are also using the Murder Accountability Project’s algorithm as part of their work on the task force.
Thomas Hargrove, the chairman of the project, said he felt relief when he heard Chicago Police had formed the task force. The group’s algorithm has worked in the past when it came to identifying serial killings, he said, and he thinks it’s working again in Chicago.
“I’m glad they’re doing this and I’m very glad they’re including the FBI,” Hargrove said. “The Chicago pattern is really quite classic. A serial killer often will kill a significant number of women and leave them in abandoned buildings or alleyways or trashcans. That is exactly what’s been happening in Chicago for the last 18 years.”
Recognizing victims are being slain by a serial killer can be “really quite difficult,” Hargove said. That’s because murder cases often just have a detective or two assigned to them, and they might not know of other murder cases with similarities.
“It’s a very common problem and in a big, big city like Chicago with a high crime rate, it’s really difficult to recognize the pattern,” Hargrove said.
Many of the women slain in the killings identified by Hargrove were women forced into the margins of society, he said. Many had histories of sex work or illegal drug use, he said, and some were not particularly close to their families at the time of their deaths.
“They had a challenged life and they didn’t have a whole lot of support in their lives,” Hargrove said. “This is the first time, to my knowledge, that there’s been an organized look” into whether the killings are related.
Last summer, a group led by Aziya Roberts, 13, a youth leader with Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), marched in Bronzeville to protest the unsolved murders and missing persons cases involving black women and girls.
At the time, police said stories circulating on social media about a serial killer were false, and some of the missing girls had been located, but many other unsolved cases remain. When black women are missing or murdered, the cases rarely get as much media or police attention as cases with white victims, said Tricey Robinson, Aziya’s mom.
“That’s what the whole march was about,” Robinson said in June. “Black women coming up missing in Chicago then being found raped, slain, or not found at all. The whole march is about us and what we are going through and no one is helping us.”
Putting together a task force like Chicago now has is often an “extremely positive occurrence in a serial hunt,” Hargrove said. A task force can lead to detectives identifying common factors in victims’ deaths and can mean officers develop new leads in the cases, he said.
“Quite often, just knowing that it’s a possible series is a gamechanger,” Hargrove said. He hopes “they catch somebody. … Frankly, we have no reason to believe the series won’t continue, the pattern won’t continue.”
Read the Murder Accountability Project’s report:
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