Maybe they have a killer in common. Or maybe all that the victims had in common was a way of life that made them prey.
Stripper. Druggie. Prostitute. Or some combination thereof. The lines blur, but this is clear: It is no way to live, if you want to live long.
Five women in "high risk lifestyles" were killed in or around Niagara Falls, Ont., the past decade, three in the last three years. Police formed a task force to check possible links. The latest victim, Cassey Cichocki, was buried last week in Port Colborne, Ont., dead from "blunt trauma" at 22 and found in a field. Police said she was wrapped up in drugs and lived in a rooming house.
The killings shine a light on the sex, strip club and drugs subculture the victims, to varying degrees, were part of. It can look glamorous from the outside, the bright lights and long-limbed dancers at upscale clubs that are havens for bachelor parties and special occasions.
But strip-club Internet chat rooms are full of chatter about women who work OTC (Outside the Club), leaving with a "date" they may have met only minutes before. The only reference he needs is a bankroll. At least two of the five victims spent time as exotic dancers.
"It's been a long time since I've been in the area. Just wondering if Alex still works here . . . I would really like some OTC fun." -- B Bob, on Strip Club Network comment line.
"I wanted to come down and work before the holidays but was quickly told that [strippers] can't go to Niagara by themselves, they need to bring a man or risk becoming owned by one at force." -- Hmmmm, from Strip Club Network comment line.
"Being a girl that works in the falls who is not owned by anyone, if a guy does give you a problem tell a [club] manager and they'll get rid of him. Watch where you stay too, get a good hotel room where there is no crack heads hanging out." -- Reply from K Hun.
The strip club culture is a lot of things, but glamorous isn't one of them. The drugs and the dancing sometimes mingle, a formula for a fall.
"Women who get into hard drugs, they don't last long in the [strip club] business," said Valerie Scott, a longtime sex worker. "If you don't keep yourself in reasonably good condition, you don't get hired. Then you're on your way down."
The further down you go, the more vulnerable you are.
"Eventually you end up on the street, where you're just working [to pay for] your habit," said Scott, head of Sex Professionals of Canada. "That's what these psychos prey on."
Scott said changes in Canadian law jacked up the risks. In the old days, hookers worked in clusters and watched each other's back. When one got into a car, another would conspicuously write down the license number.
"Now you're busted if you congregate," Scott said. "So you've got women working alone, they don't have time to check out the guy in the car and no one sees them get in."
John Weir, 22, passed by Cassey Cichocki's funeral Thursday afternoon.
"There's nothing much to do around here," Weir said. "A lot of kids turn to drugs. My brother killed himself. I had two friends who killed themselves a few years ago."
Weir and his girlfriend are new parents. He is looking for work.
"Everyone wants flashy clothes, a nice car," he said. "A minimum-wage job or living off your parents doesn't get you that kind of money. But sex sells, and young girls know that.
"I guess some of these girls help themselves with the dancing," he added. "But if you end up out on the street, it's trouble. You don't know who or what you're getting yourself up against."
No, you don't know who you're getting yourself up against. Not, sometimes, until it's too late.