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Falls probe into dismemberment killing intensifies

NIAGARA FALLS – The continuing investigation into the dismemberment killing of Terri Lynn Bills saw a massive wave of law enforcement personnel sweeping through parts of the city Tuesday.

About 90 officers from 10 agencies went looking over a wide area for more evidence in the homicide. In terms of the number of personnel, Niagara Falls police called it the largest effort of its kind in the city’s history.

Law enforcement officers on the local, county, state and federal levels searched vacant homes, conducted interviews with residents and – on a voluntary basis – even swabbed some of their mouths for DNA samples. Some residents even consented to searches of their homes, police said.

Investigators had an “overwhelming number of leads” in the case, and the FBI suggested Tuesday’s push in order to narrow that number, police said.

Investigators spent about seven hours Tuesday in two main search areas – the neighborhood surrounding the vacant home where the body of Bills, 46, was found, as well as the 19th Street area, where Bills was known to frequent, police said during an afternoon news conference.

Bills’ decapitated, decomposing body – also missing arms and feet – was found in a home at 1129 Willow Ave. late on June 16.

Investigators said they collected a massive amount of information in the day’s effort – including surveillance video from homes and businesses, as well as other physical evidence – and it will take several days to process it.

While they did not release any specific information about what was found, authorities said they believe that they are closer to finding the killer or killers than when they began Tuesday morning.

Bills’ killing is similar to the 2012 slaying of Loretta Jo Gates, 30, Bills’ relative by marriage.

Investigators acknowledged that while they don’t know for sure whether the cases are connected, they are looking at the possibility that a serial killer may be responsible.

The Bills and Gates cases share similarities, including the women’s physical characteristics, the condition of their bodies when they were found, the fact that the women were related and that they both were involved in drugs and prostitution, said Niagara Falls Detective Capt. Kelly J. Rizzo.

“While we are obviously pursuing the possibility that these heinous crimes were committed by the same person or people, we cannot overlook the fact that these two crimes may have been committed by separate individuals,” Rizzo said.

The huge amount of officers involved also helped the investigation because people saw their neighbors talking with police all at the same time. That made it easier for people to be more forthcoming, compared with when fewer investigators go door-to-door at one time, Rizzo said.

“We did get a lot of good information. It seems as though when you hit the neighborhood in this manner, when everyone on the street is talking to some form of law enforcement official, it makes it easier for people to tell you what they know,” Rizzo said.

In terms of the DNA samples, investigators were tasked with asking everyone they interviewed if they would consent to having a sample taken with a cheek swab. The samples collected will be used primarily to eliminate potential suspects.

“When you have somebody that is left in an abandoned house, you don’t really know who was inside the house,” Rizzo said.

Participating agencies, aside from the FBI and Falls police, included State Police, the Niagara and Erie County Sheriff’s Offices, the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Border Patrol, Niagara Frontier Transit Police, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Homeland Security.

The largest number of law enforcement personnel came from the FBI, followed by the Falls police, which had about three dozen officers participate.

Anyone who may have information about the case is asked to call Falls police at 286-4553.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com