Detroit has seen its share of violence, from the boot leg wars of Prohibition to the catastrophic riots of the latter 1960s, fueled by street gangs, racist groups and drug rings, yet by any estimation 1980 was a "special" year. From January through December, eighteen women were dispatched in brutal fashion, twelve of them strangled, all but one discarded outdoors, with little or no effort made to conceal their remains.
Their murders spanned Detroit, without apparent pattern, but when plotted on a map they formed a narrow corridor of death, running northwest from the Detroit River at Belle Isle to Eight Mile Road, then westward to the city limits. Despite the arrest of two separate suspects -- and the ultimate conviction of one -- at least thirteen of the slayings remain unsolved today. Lois Johnson, a 31-year-old alcoholic barmaid, was the first to die, on January 12. Her frozen body was discovered by a trucker in the early morning hours, torn by a total of 26 stab wounds in the neck, chest, and abdomen. An autopsy proved she was falling-down drunk when she died.
A month later, on February 16, 26-year-old Patricia Real joined the list. A known prostitute and heroin addict, she had been shot to death on the street, her death scarcely causing a ripple in greater Detroit.
Helen Conniff was a different story. At age 23, she was a devout "born-again" Christian and a student at Oakland University, determined to succeed on her own terms. On the night of March 10, she left her class early to visit her boyfriend, but Helen never arrived. When the man's roommate arrived home at 10:30 p.m., he spotted Conniff's body hanging from a nearby fence, strangled with a dog leash.
Twenty-year-old Cecilia Jacobs was next, found strangled in a Detroit alley, fully clothed, with no apparent effort made at sexual assault.
The same lack of motive was evident on March 31, when 26-year-old Denise Dunmore was strangled in the parking lot of her apartment complex with no sign of rape , her expensive jewelry undisturbed. Arlette McQueen, 21, had been working the night shift at an Oak Park supermarket over four months, but April 9 marked the first night she had taken the bus home. Her strangled body was found the next morning, dumped between houses a block from her destination.
A known prostitute, Jeanette Woods was twice hospitalized by beatings in the months before she met her killer. Nothing kept her off the streets, but she would sometimes take a break from "business," and on April 18 she was scheduled to meet her boyfriend around nine o'clock. She failed to keep the rendezvous, and it was 1:30 a.m. before a pedestrian found her body -- battered, raped and strangled, with her throat slashed in an ugly coup de grace. Two weeks later, 20-year-old Etta Frazier was discovered in an old garage behind a burned-out house. Nude, bound hand and foot, she had been beaten about the face, tortured with lit cigarettes, and sexually abused before she was finally strangled to death. While not a prostitute, the victim had a record of arrests for disorderly conduct and neglecting her young son.
Rosemary Frazier was no relation to Etta, but the 28-year-old's death bore striking similarities to that of her immediate predecessor. An epileptic and long-time mental patient, Frazier was found nude, battered and strangled on a grassy slope near the Rosedale Park Community House. In the wake of her death, relatives staunchly denied police reports characterizing Rosemary as a streetwalker.
On May 31, Linda Monteiro was murdered four blocks from the Conniff crime scene , in almost identical style, strangled in her own driveway as she returned home from a nightclub.
Two weeks later, Diane Burks made the list, found with hands tied behind her back, nude but for panties and slacks that had been lowered to her knees. The 22-year-old prostitute and drug addict had been strangled to death with an intertwined chain and telephone wire.
Cassandra Johnson was the victim for July, described by police as a 17-year-old prostitute; her bludgeoned body was discovered shortly before noon on July 2.
Another working girl, 23-year-old Delores Willis, was last seen with a "trick" on the night of August 26, found strangled the next morning, her scalp laid open to the bone.
On September 29, 19-year-old Paulette Woodward phoned her mother from business school, around five o'clock, to say she was on her way home. Anxious relatives were still waiting the next morning, when police reported the discovery of Paulette's body. Beaten and strangled to death, she had not been sexually assaulted by her killer.
Betty Rembert, age 26, was found beneath a hedge October 8, her legs protruding toward the sidewalk. Cause of death would be a toss-up, with a stab wound in the victim's neck and crushing injuries inflicted to her skull.
Two months later, on December 17, 30-year-old prostitute Diane Carter rounded off the list. Last seen around 3 a.m., she was found eight hours later, Iying in some bushes on a vacant lot, a single bullet wound in the base of her skull. By that time, police had two suspects in custody, charged with a total of five homicides.
David Payton, age 23, was locally famous for high school athletics, employed since graduation from college as a girl's basketball coach. Arrested on November 17, he was grilled by police for 84 hours prior to arraignment, ultimately signing confessions in four of the slayings. According to Payton's statements, he had murdered Jeanette Woods, Rosemary Frazier, Diane Burks, and Betty Rembert in arguments over the price of oral sex, beating, strangling, or slashing each in turn as they rejected his paltry offers. It appeared to be a solid case, but problems soon developed. On December 15, homicide detectives bagged another suspect, Donald Murphy, charged with murdering two Detroit prostitutes in October and November. Confessing those crimes, Murphy also copped to the slayings of Woods, Burks, and Rembert, providing enough details that several investigators found themselves "absolutely convinced" of his guilt.
Despite the flagrant contradicting evidence , prosecution continued in both cases, Payton charged in four murders, Murphy facing trial on the original two. On March 20, 1981, a judge dismissed the murder charges in Payton's case, finding that a previous magistrate had "abused judicial discretion" by admitting Payton's confessions as evidence. (Payton still faced charges of rape and armed robbery in unrelated cases.) Prosecutors vowed to appeal the decision, but some authorities seemed quietly relieved. A source close to the investigation told newsmen that police were "convinced Payton was the wrong guy after Murphy came along," using the recent dismissal as a means of "saving face." Advised of the reports, Prosecutor William Cahalan replied, "That's interesting. All I can say is we have the right man (Payton) charged with the right crimes." However that may be, Dave Payton never went to trial for any of the murders in Detroit, while Donald Murphy was convicted only in the two originally charged. Assuming Murphy's guilt in other crimes that he confessed, we find ourselves with thirteen victims unaccounted for, their killer(s) still at large.