Kathy Menzies felt her gut tighten when the phone rang last weekend. It was a Santa Ana detective calling about her daughter, Kianna Jackson, who had been missing for months.
A naked woman’s body had been found at a recycling plant in Anaheim. But the detective told Menzies that it wasn’t her daughter and that the 20-year-old woman’s whereabouts remain a mystery.
And so the vigil began anew for a distressed mother, whose fears have been heightened by the slaying of five young women and the disappearance of two others in Orange County since February 2013.
“I cringe every time the phone rings and it’s the 714 area code,” said Menzies, who lives in Mendocino County.
The eight cases involve women between 17 and 34 with ties to prostitution or escort services, records and interviews reveal. Suspects have been identified in three of the killings. No arrests have been made in the other cases.
The cases have raised concern that Orange County sex workers are being targeted. Investigators are looking for links. Outreach workers are urging extra caution. Some in the sex trade have started arming themselves.
“It scares me a lot. Is there one single (person) taking these girls off the street or are there numerous (persons)? That’s the hard part, not knowing,” Menzies said.
In the past, prostitutes have been targets of serial killers in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere, but police say no pattern is apparent in the Orange County cases. All except one case remain under investigation.
“We don’t have the evidence to say they’re connected,” said Anaheim police spokesman Lt. Tim Schmidt.
Chanel Harris, who describes herself as a former Santa Ana prostitute and now picks up aluminum cans along First Street, said the area has become a scarier place. Harris said women continue to take needless risks.
“They just get in the cars with anyone and anything can happen,” said Harris, an unlit cigarette dangling between her fingertips.
About 20 women are killed in the county each year and most typically involve domestic disputes. Some outreach workers say five deaths of women tied to sex work is a high number.
“My gut feeling is there is a large cluster in a very localized area,” said Francisco Barragan, who works with an anti-human trafficking group. “At a certain point, the FBI needs to be brought into it.”
Schmidt said the county is beginning to see the realities of prostitution that major cities have faced for years. Violence, even death, is viewed by some prostitutes as an everyday risk. They walk dangerous streets at night, often alone.
“We have to confront it,” Schmidt said. “We have to recognize it’s occurring all over Orange County, and there’s violence associated with it.”
Courtney Aoki, a 20-year-old exotic dancer and escort, was the first to be killed.
Aoki worked under the alias Kitty Kitanna and was pictured on an escot service Web page under that name. She met a man at his Ladera Ranch home in February 2013. The man shot her and two others and then shot himself.
The next two bodies turned up a few miles apart in Newport Beach. Tina Hoang, 20, was lying face-down in the sand. Nancy Hammour, 28, had been dumped under a bridge. Both had rap sheets including prostitution charges.
Hoang’s killing remains unsolved. Prosecutors have charged two men in Hammour’s death; police say both are documented gang members.
Aubreyanna Parks, 17, was next. She left a shelter for sex trafficking victims last month and was found dead in Yorba Linda days later. Prosecutors have charged a Yorba Linda man with stabbing her to death.
Then, on March 14, workers at an Anaheim recycling plant discovered a naked body in a trash heap. The victim was Jarrae Estepp, 21, who was convicted of prostitution in Oklahoma City and spent her last days near Beach Boulevard and Ball Road, a prostitution hub.
Meanwhile, three Santa Ana women have been missing for months. Family members say each woman frequented First Street near Interstate 5, another popular prostitution area. They pray the women are only held captive, not dead.
The women are Martha Anaya, 28; Monique Vargas, 34; and Kianna Jackson, 20. Vargas and Jackson both have a history of prostitution arrests in Santa Ana. Friends acknowledge that Anaya sometimes worked First Street.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department and police in Newport Beach, Santa Ana and Anaheim are investigating the cases. After Estepp’s death, Anaheim police said they were examining whether her case may be related to Hoang’s killing, the missing women or other incidents.
The District Attorney’s Office is also looking for potential connections, chief of staff Susan Kang Schroeder said.
‘TARGETING SEX WORKERS’
When former sex worker Meg Munoz heard about the deaths and disappearances, she immediately contacted women she knows in Orange County.
“Keep your ears open and be more alert,” she said. “Do it religiously. You make sure someone has your (contact) information.”
At a Fullerton-based nonprofit called Abeni, Munoz offers support services to people working in an industry ripe with abuse. Selling sex has always been risky. But now she advises extra precaution.
“My first concern is that you do have someone out there targeting sex workers,” Munoz said.
Other advocates raised similar alarms. The number of cases in roughly a year is what worries them. Orange County’s streets have had a relatively safe reputation.
“Something is going on,” said Stephany Powell, executive director of the Mary Magdalene Project and a retired Los Angeles police sergeant. “Four within a year – that’s a lot.”
It’s unknown whether a similar string of cases has ever occurred in Orange County. Law enforcement authorities said they don’t specifically track killings of sex workers; news archives don’t show any similar cluster in recent years.
“It’s hard to know if there are more of them (killings) or if they are being more publicized,” said Schroeder of the District Attorney’s Office.
Families of the missing women have held bi-weekly vigils, distributed fliers and criticized police for not doing more in their investigation. Santa Ana police insist that all possible efforts are being taken to find the women.
“We’ve checked the morgues, we’ve checked the jails, we’ve checked the hospitals. There’s nothing to indicate something happened to them,” department spokesman Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said. “I’m not sure what the families think we should be doing. We have three detectives working full time on this.”
In the past year, prostitution has received more attention as law enforcement agencies adopted new strategies to fight it. Their initiatives broadly view sex workers as victims of abuse and focus enforcement efforts on buyers and organizers.
The District Attorney’s Office formed a new unit last year to focus on human and sex trafficking cases. Aside from cracking down on customers and pimps, the office started publicly shaming them online in an attempt to deter others.
These shifts stem in part from new trends in the illicit sex business. Authorities say street gangs have become more involved and women are being brought into the trade at younger ages through force or coercion. Violence might also be growing, police and advocates said.
“There’s always been violence against prostitutes but now it’s talked about a little more,” said Lois Lee, president of Children of the Night, a Van Nuys-based shelter for youth involved in prostitution. “It’s an occupational hazard. (Prostitutes) are dealing with the lowest level of people on the street.”
Based on the details released so far, Lee doesn’t believe Orange County has a serial killer or the amount of violence is particularly unusual. With more agencies treating sex workers like victims, she said, people seem more open to realizing the everyday injuries they sustain.
“It’s just a high-risk job,” she said.
In the months since Parks’ death, her family has collected more questions than answers. Michelle Allen, her aunt, said the family is angry with the lack of communication from investigators. How did Parks go from a victim shelter to death in a matter of days? Authorities should do more to protect victims, Allen said.
“They’re in a fragile situation, and most of the time they’re confused,” she said. “They don’t know who to trust.”
Advocates worried about a connection between the cases say injuries and motives would be key indicators of broader problems. But many of these details are being withheld or unknown. No motive in any of the killings has been publicly released.
Police haven’t said how Hoang or Estepp were killed because no suspects have been arrested. Releasing that information, police said, could jeopardize their ongoing investigations.
More information is available in the deaths of Aoki, Parks and Hammour.
Aoki met her killer, Ali Syed, 20, at his Ladera Ranch home, but investigators don’t know why. Her family presumes it was related to her work as an escort. However, investigators found a suicide note indicating that Syed had planned a suicidal rampage.
The Aoki case is considered closed.
Days before Parks’ death, court records show, the 17-year-old told police that she’d been beaten and threatened by a pimp. She said the man knew where her family lived and feared he would retaliate against her by “killing someone.”
But prosecutors say she died at the hands of a different man, Larry Soo Shin, 35. He’s been charged with asking Parks to meet him, stabbing her to death and then leaving her body on a public strip of lawn. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail.
Irvin Tellez, 26, and Jaime Prieto Rocha, 41, have been charged in connection with Hammour’s death. Prosecutors say the men and Hammour, all friends, were together when Tellez shot a woman in the face. Then, while fleeing the scene, Tellez fatally shot Hammour.
Both men have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Tellez is being held on $1 million bail. Rocha is being held without bail.
WOMEN ON EDGE
While advocates fear the cases may be connected, sex workers themselves have mixed reactions. Along Beach Boulevard in Anaheim, they voiced little concern. Near First Street in Santa Ana, women have started arming themselves.
“They’re all carrying knives and pepper spray – and two girls are carrying guns,” said Priscilla Vargas, Monique Vargas’ mother. “I tell them aren’t you afraid of cops and they say, ‘I’d rather go to jail for a gun than for someone to take me.’ ”
Chanel Harris, the former First Street prostitute, said she knew the missing women, especially Monique, whom friends call “Giggles.”
“Giggles took a lot of chances that I wouldn’t take, dealing with people she didn’t know,” Harris said. “She would wander up and down the street all night and all day long.”
After Estepp’s body was discovered, Santa Ana police contacted Herlinda Salcedo to assure her that it wasn’t her daughter, Martha Anaya.
“I’ve never had very much faith that police are doing everything they could,” Salcedo said.
Anaya’s boyfriend, Jesse Fisher, said she had a troubled past that involved drugs but had improved after her daughter Deja was born five years ago.
“She was working there (First Street). But, that doesn’t really matter. She should have been found by now. She just didn’t disappear out of her own free will,” he said.
Staff writer Claudia Koerner contributed to this report.
BY/ ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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