PHILADELPHIA — It’s afternoon rush hour on Kensington Avenue and business is about to pick up for the half dozen or so prostitutes who are loitering across the street from the Huntingdon train station eyeing passing cars for potential clients.
Traffic has been light today and a few of the girls are already feeling the pangs of heroin withdrawal.
“I’ve been out here since morning and only had one trick so far,” a frail 30-year-old who would only give her initials, D.C., told The Daily Beast. “I barely made enough to get well.”
D.C. doesn’t work nights.
“Too dangerous,” she said.
So she’s counting on the drive-time crowd—mostly older married men looking for 10 minutes of escape—to bring in enough cash to keep the withdrawal at bay until morning.
If she’s lucky she’ll see one of her repeat customers. A vetted regular would offer a welcome respite from the terror that has gripped the avenue since Saturday when a prostitute the girls knew as “Layla” was murdered around the corner from here after leaving with a client.
On Tuesday, police released a surveillance camera image of the suspect, who they believe is also responsible for two other vicious assaults on prostitutes in the area. Earlier in the month an assailant slashed a woman in the neck, severing her vocal cords. And on July 12, a 24-year-old woman was choked unconscious just a few blocks north of here. When she came to, she was naked and had wounds on her head and face. Police say she had been raped. On Thursday officials released a second video showing the man they now suspect of committing all three crimes.
“He fits the profile on a couple of other attacks that Special Victims Unit has had,” Homicide Capt. James Clark told local journalist Stephanie Farr. “Obviously, we’re working together to get this guy off the streets.”
Investigators describe the suspect as being a black male in his thirties or forties with a full mustache and beard. On the video he is riding a blue mountain bike. His face and head are covered.
According to police, 35-year-old Rickie J. Morgan accompanied her killer to an abandoned house that prostitutes tell The Daily Beast is frequently used by prostitutes to service “walk ups”—or clients without vehicles. Once inside Morgan was stabbed in the neck and beaten with a brick. She managed to escape from the house but collapsed a half a block away in the street and died. Witnesses described her lying in the street naked and covered in blood from head to toe.
To her co-workers on Kensington Avenue, “Layla” was a “nice, sweet girl” who “got along with everyone.”
But her life beyond that was pretty much a mystery. As it turns out, she was quite a long way from home.
Public records reveal that Morgan was born Rickie Bowen in a town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, six hours away.
She married a local guy named John Morgan just over a decade ago, but according to her father-in-law, David William Morgan, the two were estranged. Rickie Morgan leaves behind two children, an 11-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. Both have been in the custody of their father.
Calls to the sole phone number listed for a natural relative on the Bowen side of the family went unanswered. The Daily Beast was able to briefly reach Morgan’s husband, who proceeded to hang up abruptly once he learned he was speaking to a reporter.
David Morgan, the deceased’s father-in-law, spoke briefly with The Daily Beast, noting that his daughter-in-law had “been in trouble as long as I can remember.”
Court records seem to confirm as much. Morgan’s rap sheet includes multiple arrests going back to 2003. These were mostly for theft and drug crimes committed in rural counties in western Pennsylvania. Her single prostitution arrest in Philadelphia last January is still open. A bench warrant had been issued for her arrest last month when she failed to make a court date.
Records show that at the time of her death she was also wanted in Montgomery County for failing to show up for a sentencing hearing on drug charges back in May.
This isn’t the first time a sexual predator has terrorized working girls in Kensington.
In 2010, Jeff Deeney reported for The Daily Beast on the case of the “Kensington Strangler,” who murdered at least three sex workers before police caught up with him. His second victim—Nicole Piacentini, who also happened to be 35—was found within eyeshot of where Morgan’s body lay on Saturday night. In 2011, Antonio Rodriguez, 23, pleaded guilty to the murders and was sentenced to three life terms without the possibility of parole.
The killer stalking Kensington today may not share Rodriguez’s precise method of operation—Rodriguez said he was acting out choking fantasies during his crimes, and admitted to having sex with his victims after they died. But their crimes are eerily similar in their exploitation of a community many view as America’s castaways.
Kensington Avenue is the gateway to the largest open air drug market on the East Coast, and random violence is a common threat for everyone struggling to maintain a drug habit here. For women—who often turn to prostitution to feed their habit—the stakes are even higher. Beatings and rape are common as is the ever-present risk of being robbed.
Just as often, there is no discernable motive for the violence at all.
Christine Smith, a 31-year-old heroin addict who’s been turning tricks off and on for six years, said the worst aggression is perpetrated by young men, who she says have learned to “fetishize violence.”
“It’s getting more aggressive, it’s this younger, male cultural thing,” she said. “They like to see you cry, even if they pretend they don’t.”
Every prostitute The Daily Beast spoke with shared at least one story of being raped or assaulted by a customer. Two years ago, D.C. got into a car with a trick only to feel the sharp point of a knife pressing into her side. “Why shouldn’t I kill you,” the driver asked, calmly.
Instead of waiting for an answer, she opened the door of his moving vehicle and jumped out. The escape resulted in 14 stitches to her head, but she says it was a small price to pay.
“At least I’m still alive to talk about it,” she said.
As D.C. is finishing her story, a young woman inches toward us and asks to bum a smoke. She says her name is AJ, 28 years old. AJ is pretty, well-spoken, intelligent, and hopelessly addicted to drugs. She’s had a heroin habit for eight years, punctuated by short periods of abstinence in rehab, and has been engaged in prostitution most of that time.
Between long pulls on a Camel menthol AJ calmly describes the daily struggle to “get straight”—a term used by heroin users to describe alleviating withdrawal symptoms by using the drug—while dodging the ever-present threats of police and predators.
“It’s scary out here, I just seen Layla the other day,” she said. “I can’t believe she gone.”
Asked what goes through her head when vetting a potential customer, AJ explains:
“You have to go by your gut. If someone doesn’t look right to me, or they talk about money right away, or try to get me to go somewhere other than my spot I don’t mess with them.”
A four-inch scar on her right bicep shows that nothing is foolproof.
“That happened in 2014,” she said. “I got picked up here in a car, he was a young Puerto Rican guy and he started driving down toward the railroad tracks, and that’s not the spot I told him. I kept asking him what he was doing, but he wasn’t saying anything. That’s when I knew something was up.”
AJ says she followed her first instinct, which was to run. At the next red light she opened the door and leapt from the car. That’s when she felt the sharp pain of a knife. Still, she kept running, thick ribbons of blood streaming from her wound. Her attacker didn’t pursue and he was never caught.
Intuition aside, the women and girls who work the avenue in Kensington’s Badlands share a common set of best practices designed to protect them from both police and aggressive clients.
In the interest of their safety, The Daily Beast is choosing not to publish them, but “walk-up” clients—like the man who killed Morgan—are generally avoided.
“If you don’t have a car, I’m not going anywhere with you,” said Amber, 23, who is standing across the avenue in the shadow of Episcopal Hospital, shifting nervously from foot to foot. Amber has been strung out for two years, but says she has only been doing “dates” for a month.
She is covered in abrasions and visibly distressed. Amber proceeds to tell me that 24 hours earlier she was approached by a man and a woman in a vehicle who offered to “broker” dates for her and chauffeur her to and from them for an even 50-50 split of the proceeds.
Amber agreed and spent several hours with the pair seeing clients as far away as the Philly suburbs. By the end of the night she had earned more than $500 for her and her new “partners.” But she never saw a dime. Instead the couple kicked her out of the car miles away from Kensington and took all of her money.
She didn’t even have anyone to call for help.
Unlike in some other cities—and even other sections of Philadelphia—the street prostitutes working Kensington Avenue are primarily independent contractors, many of whom scoff at the idea of working for a pimp.
“What’s a pimp gonna do for me?” said Elizabeth Gonzalez, a seemingly fearless 42-year-old who conducts her business from the corner of Jasper and Cumberland Streets, where Morgan’s body was found. “They gonna follow me on their bike when I get in a car? If someone hurts me are they gonna kill ’em? Hell no, they just there for a cut.”
Instead, the girls do their best to keep an eye on each other.
“I pay attention,” Amber said. “I take notice of who’s out and who’s on a date, I make a note of what car they get in and even take down tag numbers if I can. A lot of these girls are so strung out though, they’ll do anything for a bag.”
As for the police, the general consensus is they will come to a sex worker’s aid if they witness her being harassed or assaulted, but in the absence of an acute emergency are more likely to see these girls as targets for drug shakedowns than potential victims of violent criminals.
Christine Smith, who was encountered by The Daily Beast while she was being questioned by two Philadelphia police officers on bicycles, said the vice squad frequently conducts roundups of the girls working the avenue, sometimes posing as tricks. Smith herself has been arrested three times for prostitution.
Fortunately sex workers in Kensington can count on a strong support network in the medical and harm reduction communities. Episcopal Hospital is just one block north of the train station and provides free medical care to victims of rape. Prevention Point Philadelphia offers outreach services including a street-side medical clinic for IV drug users and sex workers, and runs a syringe exchange program within walking distance of the “strip.”
And the group Project Safe compiles and distributes bi-monthly “Bad Date” lists that serve as a forum for sex workers to share information about clients to avoid.
The Thea Bowman Women’s Center provides an array of services for women in need, including health care, substance abuse referrals and emergency housing.
“A lot of danger comes with this kind of work it’s so important for us and other organizations working really hard here in Kensington to build a foundation of support and community so girls realize they’re not alone,” the group’s former director, Kathryn Horan, told the local Fox affiliate.
But Gonzalez worries that the latest round of violence will attract more would-be pimps to the street to prey on and exploit younger girls who are now too terrified to work alone.
“If a pimp come to me, I tell him, you want money? OK, you get in the car and suck a dick, then you’ll get money,” She laughs loudly at her joke.
And just then a brown minivan turns the corner driven by a middle-aged white man with graying hair. He looks toward Gonzalez, who gestures him to pull over a few spaces up the block.
“A regular,” she says, smiling wide. After a brief goodbye she turns the corner and disappears into the passenger seat, safe, for now.