January 08, 2007 12:00 PM

It was a gritty and chilling moment in what might be called reality TV: Three prostitutes had vanished from the red-light district in Ipswich, England, and were presumed dead. Now another Ipswich prostitute, Paula Clennell, defiantly told a news reporter she didn’t intend to stop working the streets. She was “a bit wary of getting into cars,” she told ITV News on Dec. 5 but would continue because “I need the money.” Four days after that interview, Clennell, 24, a heroin addict, disappeared. Police found her naked, strangled body on Dec. 12 in a field five miles south of Ipswich. “She was sharp and wily. I am sure she would have fought back,” a friend told reporters. “I just can’t believe that someone caught her. I would have thought she was too streetwise.”

Streetwise or not, Clennell was one of five prostitutes found murdered in just 10 days. The killings terrorized Ipswich residents—many women ceased going out at night—and galvanized the rest of the country. Authorities mobilized 500 officers in one of Britain’s biggest-ever manhunts. Inevitably, comparisons were made to the infamous Jack the Ripper, who killed 5 East London prostitutes in 1888, and Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, who killed 13 women between 1975 and 1980.

Finally, on Dec. 19, police arrested truck driver Steve Wright, 48, and he was later charged with the murders. Wright so far hasn’t entered a plea, and his lawyer Paul Osler says it would be “inappropriate” to speculate about it. Even so, women in Ipswich still fear walking alone, and men are still taking off early to pick up wives and girlfriends. “It will take a lot more than one man being brought before a court for things to return to normal,” says Rachel Bottomley, a single mother who lives near Wright’s house.

Ipswich, 64 miles northeast of London, is a pleasant port town with a red-light district that, even without a serial killer on the prowl, can be dangerous. Prostitution and drug abuse feed off one another, residents say. In fact, some of the victims seemed to have had surprisingly middle-class backgrounds, or at least aspirations, until they became involved with drugs. The first to disappear was Tania Nicol, 19, described by a former boss as a “placid and quiet girl” who had dreams of being a pop star but who turned to prostitution after she developed a drug habit. She went missing on Oct. 30 while on her way to work, but police didn’t find her naked body until Dec. 8, in a stream. Gemma Adams, 25, was a former Brownie who as a child loved riding horses and playing piano and raised a puppy abandoned by its owners. Anneli Alderton, 24, was an “artistic, bright little girl,” her family told the Times. Her father died of cancer when she was 17. “When her dad died, her world fell apart,” her step-sister Jane told the Daily Mail. “She was very vulnerable.” Annette Nicholls, 29, studied to be a beautician. Clennell, described by her father as a “mischievous but wonderful person,” developed a crushing drug habit; one former boyfriend said she could spend as much as 500 pounds a day (roughly $1,000) on drugs.

Police haven’t said how their investigation led them to Wright, a former steward on the QE2 ocean liner, but several prostitutes have said he was a regular customer. Friends, though, describe him as a “gentle giant” who took great pride in his appearance. He and his longtime partner, Pamela Goodman, moved recently into a rented house on the edge of the red-light district. “They were very happy,” says Sheila Davis, who runs a pub the couple frequented. “Pamela is absolutely adamant that there is no way he was sleeping with prostitutes. [She] cannot believe he would have anything to do with those murders.”

While questions abound, the families of the victims are left now to grieve. Adams’s parents, who raised their daughter in a middle-class home, had no idea she was a prostitute. “She was bright and bubbly and full of fun,” says Brian Adams. He and his wife, Gail, tried to get Gemma into rehab several times, but she only drifted further away. “We think she cut us out of her life because she didn’t want us to know what was going on and the depth of the problems she was dealing with,” says her mother, Gail. Their only comfort now is that Gemma’s pain is over. “All our thoughts are that Gemma is now at peace,” says Gail. “We will remember her as she was before and will love her always.”

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