NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) _ Prosecutors on Monday dropped a murder charge against a lawyer named as a suspect in the killings of at least nine women, and the trail leading to a killer appeared cold.

The bodies of nine women were found along highways around this old whaling port in southeastern Massachusetts between July 1988 and April 1989. Police believe the murders were the work of a serial killer.

Lawyer Kenneth Ponte, 41, was indicted last August in the 1988 killing of Rochelle Clifford Dopierala. He had remained free.

But Special Prosecutor Paul V. Buckley has said a grand jury did not have enough evidence when it indicted Ponte on the murder charge. Winning a conviction would be virtually impossible, he said.

''We always have to have hope in this business, otherwise you'd just give up,'' said Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh Jr. ''But given the length of time, it sometimes increases the difficulty in finding someone.''

All nine victims had histories of drug abuse and some were prostitutes. Two more women are missing and presumed dead.

Ponte became involved with Dopierala in April 1988 when he accosted a man who she said had raped her, according to authorities. Ponte has said he had a relationship with Dopierala and had served as an attorney for three of the other victims.

Buckley said he will pursue drug conspiracy and assault charges against Ponte that grew out of the investigation.

The murder charge was dropped two days after the body of Anthony DeGrazia, 29, another suspect in the killings, was found outside a house in Freetown. Authorities did not suspect foul play.

Walsh said his office has other suspects, but he would not provide details.

''We'll sit down tomorrow to start again,'' he said.