Fear Factor

The Phoenix homicide detective reaches the crime scene just after 8 p.m. on December 12.

A woman has been shot to death behind a warehouse at 40th Street and Southern Avenue, about five minutes by foot from the busy intersection.

Her body is splayed on the concrete driveway between the building and a retaining wall. A pool of the victim's blood already is coagulating.

It is quiet back here, and the amber-colored lighting from the building's security lamps is dim.

Alex Femenia, who has been assigned this case as lead investigator, finishes a Marlboro in his blue Ford pickup, and then walks to a police car, around which a street sergeant will conduct an incident briefing.

Among those on hand on this chilly evening is Benny Pina, the savvy lieutenant who heads the department's homicide unit, and deputy county attorney Bill Clayton, a well-regarded prosecutor.

Veteran homicide detective Steve Orona will assist Femenia.

Certainly, no one here yet knows what will take authorities weeks to figure out — that the dead woman is the first known Phoenix murder victim of the serial criminal then dubbed the Baseline Rapist.

The fear that grips a population when not one but two serial killers are said by police to be separately roaming Phoenix (and elsewhere in the Valley) is hard to quantify.

Phoenix police suspect that the serials have been responsible for attacks on 41 Phoenix-area residents since the middle of last year. Of that number, 11 have been murdered, six by the man renamed the Baseline Killer, and five by the so-called Serial Shooter.

Residents in and around the Washington, D.C., area experienced something in October 2002 akin to what Phoenicians are going through now, when the Beltway snipers murdered 10 people and injured three during a monstrous three-week stretch.

Even then, according to accounts of the Beltway case, many in the D.C. area held on to an it-can't-happen-to-me mentality during the siege, even though John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were randomly targeting their victims in all manner of locales.

But here in Phoenix, feelings of invincibility (or at least the belief that the odds of something bad happening are long) seems to have vanished, especially in the sections of town where the killers have struck most often.

It is surely no consolation to anyone that, statistically speaking, the crimes attributed to the serials are but a drop in the bucket in this increasingly violent Valley. The murder at 40th Street and Southern last December 12 was the 219th of 2005 within the Phoenix city limits. The vast majority were related to domestic discord, drug trafficking or gang-related issues.

In other words, most murderers and their victims knew each other somehow.

As of yet, according to Phoenix police, no evidence suggests that the Phoenix serial killers have known any of their victims.

It is the randomness, the unpredictability of the sudden and vicious strikes, that has so many people — especially women accustomed to being out alone at night — on a razor's edge.

The cases of the two serial killers have gone national. In the past few weeks, media from all over have swooped in looking for scoops, though developments have been so fleeting that a street interview with a concerned citizen seems to qualify as a scoop at this point.

Neighborhood gatherings to discuss the serials have been filled to overflowing.

What seems to have citizens in such a tizzy is that Phoenix police do not appear close to finding either guy, the Baseline Killer or the Serial Shooter.

That is not for lack of diligence.

More than 120 Phoenix officers have been assigned to work the cases pretty much full-time.

Several topflight homicide detectives — including the lead investigator in the Baseline cases, Alex Femenia — also are working literally around the clock.

Nerves are fraying. Channel 12 recently reamed Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris for attending a law enforcement conference in Toronto for a couple of days in the midst of the manhunt. It was as if the chief had Femenia's job of running down leads, instead of overseeing the entire department.

Until a few months ago, the media had been calling the Baseline Killer the Baseline Rapist, so named because of sexual assaults and robberies he had allegedly committed on or near Baseline Road dating back to August 2005.

A police chart of the Baseline Killer's crime spree suggests he has committed 11 rapes, has robbed 20 people (including some of the rape victims) and has murdered six people, most recently shooting 37-year-old Carmen Miranda to death on June 29 at a car wash on East Thomas Road near 29th Street.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin