Editor’s note: There were 341 unsolved murders in East St. Louis between 2000 and 2018. In many of these cases, police had evidence and suspects, but no charges were filed. Here is one of those cases. This article originally appeared in the Belleville News-Democrat.
The darkened streets near St. Clair Avenue in East St. Louis were good places to hunt for women.
Fifteen years ago, St. Clair Avenue was known as “The Stroll,” a place where prostitutes looked for clients, and vice versa. There are dark overgrown pockets on streets that branch out from the two-lane road leading to old National City.
These pockets offered privacy to turn tricks, to hide, or to dump bodies.
The bodies started turning up on trash heaps, in abandoned buildings and in vacant lots beginning in late 2003. Six women over three years, four of them strangled. Five of the six were dumped in the same general area. No one has been charged with their murders.
“I think police should actively consider these the work of a serial killer,” said Thomas K. Hargrove, a former reporter who studies serial killers’ patterns, after looking at the cases at the request of the BND.
Hargrove developed an algorithm that organizes homicide reports into groups based on the victims’ gender, geographic location, and method of killing. The algorithm searches for murder clusters in cities with extremely low clearance rates, such as East St. Louis, which has an average clearance rate of 25 percent.
It started on Oct. 2, 2003, when a demolition crew on their lunch break found the body of a naked woman among a heap of old tires, garbage and broken furniture,
For a time, the body was known only as Jane Doe, unable to be identified because of advanced decomposition. Police later learned her identity by comparing fingerprints.
April Shaulanda Jackson, 30, had convictions for hitchhiking and loitering — charges typically connected with prostitution. Police had taken her fingerprints during booking for arrests. The charges ended with convictions with time-served sentences.
Jackson lived with her mother nearby in the Samuel Gompers Homes, a public housing complex in East St. Louis. Unable to believe Jackson was dead, her family members demanded to see her. They walked away convinced and began funeral arrangements.
In the weeks and months that followed, the bodies of five other women were found:
- Antonia Vecenzenia Brummund, 33, found March 6, 2004, in an abandoned candy store at 1541 Bond. She was missing a shoe. She used cocaine and was a sex worker.
- Brandy Roby, 26, found March 7, 2004, on a creek bed near the 2500 block of Morris Avenue. She was partially nude. Roby had no drugs in her system at the time of her death. She had only minor misdemeanor convictions of battery and riding public transportation without a ticket.
- Jennifer Vent, 19, found June 5, 2005, in a vacant lot north of 925 Winstanley in East St. Louis. She was a sex worker and drug user.
- Dora Rogers, 55, died from head trauma and manual strangulation. She was found lying in the weeds in a vacant area in the rear of 1411 Exchange Ave. on Sept. 17, 2005. Toxicology samples taken during the autopsy showed she had cocaine in her system. She was naked from the waist down.Police testified in the coroner’s inquest of Rogers’ death that they had a suspect, but he had died before they charged him.
- Jane Doe, age unknown, found Jan. 21, 2006. The cause of death was undetermined due to decomposition. She was found in a wooded area on railroad property in Brooklyn Illinois. Autopsy results revealed she may have been dead for two years.
It’s unclear whether police ever connected these murders, but Hargrove, founder and chairman of the Murder Accountability Project, said there’s enough similarities that these deaths could be connected.
The Murder Accountability Project, based in Alexandria, Virginia, is a nonprofit organization that studies homicides, especially unsolved killings and serial murders in the United States. It was established in 2015 by a group of retired detectives, investigative journalists and forensic psychiatrists.
The circumstances of the East St. Louis murders were the most telling, Hargrove said. Serial killers largely target women. In a Belleville News-Democrat study of the 453 murders that occurred in East St. Louis from 2000 to 2018, only about 15 percent of the victims were women. From the discovery of Jackson’s body in 2003 to Jan Doe’s in 2006, that percentage rose to nearly 25 percent.
Hargrove noted that strangulation — the determined cause of death for Roby, Rogers, Vent and Brummund — is a relatively rare way to kill someone with only 5 percent of murders committed this way. But serial killers use strangulation 25 percent of the time.
Serial killers are so much less likely to use a firearm, Hargrove said, and are much more likely to use methods that allow them to be up close, like knives, beating and strangulation. In addition to strangulation, Rogers was beaten. Brummund, who the locals called “Freckles,” was also stabbed, as well as strangled, police said.
Also, the proximity of the dump sites is close. Vent, Jackson and Rogers were all dumped only a few blocks from each other.
Hargrove said there are two primary motivations for murder: love or money.
“It’s the guy who kills for the sheer love of killing that is every cops’ nightmare because he’s so hard to pin down,” he said.
Legacy of serial killers
There have been serial killers operating in East St. Louis before.
The arrest of Donald Younge in January 2002 cleared the murders of three women in late 1999 to 2000. Younge was charged in the “garbage bag” murders of three East St.Louis sex workers: Seriece Johnson, 33; Ramona Sidney, 31, and Tracy Williams, 38. He was also a suspect but not charged in the killing of Yvette House, 33.
Before he could be tried, prosecutors agreed to extradite him to Utah to face rape and murder charges there.
The bodies of Sidney and Williams were found in May 2000 after someone saw a dog the neighbors called “Roscoe” gnawing on a human thigh bone. Each of the women were found in trash bags that were tossed near a railroad bridge called “The Black Bridge” in the southern part of East St. Louis.
It was evidence taken in a sexual assault that ended Younge’s murdering spree. He was charged after his DNA matched a rape kit taken from Antonina Brummund. She became a witness in the murder case against Younge. As he was held in the St. Clair County Jail awaiting trial, Brummund was found beaten, stabbed and strangled in an abandoned candy store.
Prosecutors dismissed the Brummond rape case. He was convicted in Utah and is currently serving 31 years to life in prison.
Six months later, Maury Travis was arrested. A letter sent to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch contained a map of the location of one of his victim’s skeletonized remains in West Alton, Missouri.
Police believed he dumped four of his victims in East St. Louis; Mary Shields, 61; Brenda Beasley, 33; Yvonne Cruse, 50, and Alysa Greenwade, 34. Travis videotaped the torture and murders of some of his victims in the basement of his Ferguson, Missouri, home. He quickly became a suspect in the murders of unidentified women who were dumped near Highland, Columbia and Mascoutah.
Police were never able to tell whether Travis was as prolific a killer as he claimed. After confessing to killing 17 women, he killed himself in the St. Louis County Jail.
Both Travis and Younge were unable to commit these later six murders; Travis was already dead and Younge was in the county jail when they began.
Missing and presumed dead
Besides the six dead women, there is also a missing woman from this same time period.
In 2004, Wisconsin police stopped getting calls about fights between Sherri Ripp, 36, and her then-husband. The domestic battles were so common an occurrence, police noticed when they stopped.
Ripp was known to go on drug binges, according to police reports.
She could be gone for days or weeks, her relatives told police. The last time anyone remembered seeing Ripp was on Valentine’s Day in 2003 when she showed up, gave her daughter a teddy bear, then disappeared again.
Her husband had enough. He filed for divorce. Ripp never appeared for any of the court hearings.
Eight months after that Valentine’s Day visit with her daughter, Ripp turned up 350 miles south in the East St. Louis area.
On Nov. 4, 2003, she was arrested during a prostitution sting in Madison County. Thirteen days later, on Nov. 17, 2003, she was arrested in Fairmont City trying to get a ride.
A little more than a week later, on Nov. 28, at about 8 a.m., Edwardsville police were called to check on a person walking down South Buchanan and East Park streets. It was Ripp. She told them she was homeless and was staying with friends who lived on East Park.
No police agency has had contact with her since. None of her family has heard from her, said Sgt. Mike Gehn of the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department.
Police presume Ripp is dead; her body has never been found.
For a time, police thought Ripp was the Jane Doe found in the railroad easement near Brooklyn, but DNA ruled that out.
Addiction makes women a target, police and criminologists say. Rogers, Jackson, Brummund and Vent all had cocaine in their system at the time of their death. Ripp was known to use cocaine, too, police said.
John White, a forensic psychologist and former police officer who teaches at Stockton University in New Jersey, has compiled a list of 500 serial killers. At the request of reporters, he agreed to look at the autopsy reports and crime scene pictures for the six women and the missing person report for Ripp.
White immediately questioned whether the motive for the murders was sexual.
“Did anyone look at the rape kits? I would want to know if these women were sexually assaulted. That would be very important,” he said.
Hargrove, too, said the rape kits taken at the autopsies could provde a wealth of information.
White, who is a consultant on the television show CSI, said tracking the movements of the women is important.
It isn’t known whether they were acquainted, but at least three of them walked the same stroll, looking for men to pay them for sex. Brummund, Jackson and Vent all had prostitution arrests.
“Who saw them last? What were they doing? If they were prostitutes, where did they go with their johns? Cars? Abandoned buildings? Hotels?” he asked.
Hargrove suggested local police have a case review with the FBI.
“Put these six or seven files on the desk and go over them again. With a common killer, well, that changes everything,” Hargrove said.
Comparing the results of the rape kits with known criminals in the Combined DNA Index System could close cases, even if they aren’t connected.
“If the rape kits were run, and if there’s a hit, call them up and exploit them,” Hargrove said.
During better times, these women might have put their kids to bed, cooked dinner and wished their mothers happy birthday, or delivered a Valentine’s Day gift.
Janet Permenter, Brummund’s mother, who called her daughter Nina, recalled her daughter fondly. A photo of Nina smiling hangs in her living room.
“She was a very loving person. She loved her kids. She deserved better than the way she ended up,” Permenter said.
Brummund was a mother of two children. They were raised by their father and their grandparents. The lingering questions about Brummund’s death continue to haunt them today.
About a year before she was killed, two reporters found Brummund in Cahokia walking near her mother’s house. It was after she escaped Donald Younge. They wanted to interview her. She didn’t want to talk. She smiled and waved at them, then turned on her heel and resumed her trip.
While they were alive, there was hope that addictions could be cured, holidays may be spent together, plans for their futures could be made.
That ended when they met the person who ended their lives.
It could have been the same person.
And he still may be out there.
Follow Beth on Twitter: @bhundsdorfer
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