String of Murder-Rapes Hits Belize
BELIZE CITY (AP) _ The bones, found behind a quarry, had been picked clean by vultures.
But a mother whose 9-year-old daughter had disappeared three weeks earlier recognized a hair band and a Tweety Bird ring, and was able to identify the body as her daughter, Erica Wills.
It was the latest in a string of disappearances and rape-murders of girls that has residents of Belize concerned that a serial killer is on the loose in their usually quiet Central American nation.
A thousand people turned out in Belize City late Monday for a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims. Citizens have marched to demand more aggressive police work, and Belize City authorities have imposed an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for everyone under 17.
Besides Erica, whose remains were discovered July 18 near Gracie Rock, a village 20 miles west of Belize City, the bodies of three other girls have been found in the countryside surrounding the capital. Two more were found in northern Belize and another was raped, beaten with a rock and left to die in the southern town of Dangriga. She survived and told her story to police.
In March, authorities charged a 40-year-old mechanic with one of the mutilation murders near Belize City, and people took the arrest as confirmation that the serial killer was behind bars.
But now, with the discovery of Erica’s body, people wonder whether police have the right man or whether another killer is still on the loose.
With a population of only 200,000, Belize has long been relatively free of sex crimes and murder.
So there was little widespread concern when the first victim, 13-year-old Sherilee Nicholas, disappeared in September. A month later authorities found a body; there were signs of rape and more than 40 knife wounds. Sherilee’s mother identified the body.
Soon after, 9-year-old Jay Blades disappeared.
Then, in the northern town of Corozal, 13-year-old Rebecca Gilharry was found raped and strangled.
Fears grew when 12-year-old Jackie Fern Malic vanished on March 22.
Jackie’s sister told police that a family friend, mechanic Mike Williams, had offered the two girls a ride just before school, but they turned him down.
Police questioned Williams and released him. Two days later, Jackie’s body was found on a side road a few miles away from where Sherilee’s body was found. The coroner announced many similarities in the two deaths.
The day of Jackie’s funeral, children lined the streets with signs demanding justice. A Children’s Summit was convened and radio listeners heard a little boy ask Prime Minister Said Musa: ``Why are there special police to protect the tourists, but not the children?″
A week later, the curfew was imposed. Wardens were stationed at all schools to monitor children and watch for suspicious characters. Parents began walking their children to school.
Then, police arrested Williams in Jackie’s death and everyone hoped the worst was over.
It wasn’t. In June, a child’s skull and a few bone fragments were found near where the other victims had been located. Had Jay Blades been found at last? Maybe _ only next to the body was a knapsack filled with Sherilee’s school things.
Fearing an error in identification, authorities exhumed Sherilee’s body against her mother’s wishes. They plan to send DNA samples to the FBI.
Also in June, 10-year-old Karen Cruz disappeared from her home in Orange Walk, just north of Belize City, while her mother was on the front veranda. Her body was found the next day near her home.
Newspapers reported suspicions regarding an uncle who lived next door and suggested he had been stalking her. The uncle, Antonio Baeza, 38, has been charged with murder.
Police with little experience in murder have pledged to solve the cases despite concerns they might be out of their depth.
``We just can’t have any more dead children on our hands,″ said Simeon Alvarez, a police investigator in Belize City.