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Dismembered body found inside vacant house in Niagara Falls

NIAGARA FALLS – A woman’s dismembered body was found in an abandoned Niagara Falls house late Tuesday, and the victim may have been related to another Niagara Falls woman whose body was cut into pieces three years ago in a still-unsolved murder.

The eerie connections between this week’s death of Terri Lynn Bills, 46, and the 2012 death of Loretta Jo Gates, 30, included the discovery of Bills’ decomposing body by a woman who went to school with Gates.

“It would be very nice if (the killer) was the same person and they caught him. It would suck if there were two possibles out there. That’s what makes it scary,” said Crystal Frizzell, 33, who found Bills’ body – minus its head, arms and feet – in the basement of 1129 Willow Ave. Tuesday night.

Jody Sedore, a neighborhood resident who knew both victims, also was shaking his head Wednesday.

“I just don’t understand what’s going on around this city,” Sedore said. “First Loretta and now Terri. I can’t help but think there’s a serial thing going on around here.”

Asked if there is a connection between the two murders, Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said, “It’s so early in the investigation, it’s hard to say either way.”

He said police are checking out a report that Bills was Gates’ aunt by marriage, but had not been able to confirm that. Capt. Michael Trane, chief of detectives, said, “Somebody Terri Bills was involved with was related to Loretta Jo Gates, but we don’t know at this time whether the two women knew each other.”

It is no surprise that a second dismemberment murder has made residents nervous.

Wilbert Allen of Willow Avenue said he used to see Bills walking up and down the street or in stores, but he hadn’t seen her in a while. “Now I know why,” he said. “Everybody’s uncomfortable. Stuff like that doesn’t happen over here.”

DalPorto said the FBI has been called in to help city police work on the cases.

“Absolutely, this is a terrifying situation. There is no way to sugar-coat it, but it is highly unusual,” he said. “We are sparing no expense in terms of manpower. Our criminal investigation division (members) are all working on it, as well as our crime scene bureau and any other specially trained officers.”

Frizzell said she was walking home from a friend’s house about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday when she and her sister cut through a yard behind 1129 Willow Ave., a route they had taken before, when they smelled a strong odor from inside the house.

“It was bad,” Frizzell said. She noticed the back door was open and the stench was coming from there.

“We were joking, ‘It smells like a dead body or a rotten cat or something,’ ” Frizzell said. Her sister, whom she declined to identify, urged her to check it out.

“I looked, and when I turned to the basement to look down the stairs, the body was right there,” she said. She was examining the scene by a light in the back of her smartphone, and said the body was partly on the steps and partly on the basement floor.

“I could tell it was decapitated,” Frizzell said. “The body had no feet, as well.” She said it was badly decomposed and that the sight made her “start shaking and start crying.”

“You could see the neck bone where it was cut,” she said. “I ran out of the building, across that field, and I was throwing up in the next field.”

She then ran to a convenience store on 13th Street and called 911.

DalPorto said police believe Bills had been dead for about a week.

Trane said no missing persons report had been filed on Bills. He said her body was identified by a distinctive tattoo.

“It appears the body was placed in this location after the crime,” Trane said. Bills’ last known address was on 30th Street. Sedore’s girlfriend, Kelly Baronich, said Bills had been living with and taking care of an elderly woman on that street.

Gates’ torso was pulled from the Canadian side of the Niagara River Gorge on Aug. 29, 2012, three days after she was last seen at a corner store on Main Street in the Falls, near her apartment. It took 10 days to confirm her identity through DNA testing. Parts of her body were found in a bag at Duck Island in Hyde Park, while an arm and leg were recovered on the Canadian side of the Whirlpool Rapids in the gorge.

Frizzell, 33, said she was a year behind Gates at Niagara Street School in the Falls.

Alexandra Pryor, who lives across the street from where Bills’ body was found, said no one has lived at 1129 Willow in the four years she’s lived across the street.

Pryor said several people in the neighborhood were saying Tuesday night that a red pickup truck was seen behind the house several nights ago.

Frizzell said a neighborhood resident called police two months ago to complain about trespassers, and the owner boarded up the house. Two weeks ago, a neighbor noticed the plywood that had been over the door was on the ground.

Pryor said, “We used to cut through that yard, but the grass is so high, now we go the other way.”

Asked for her reaction to the discovery of the body, Pryor said, “It’s overwhelming. It’s sick. It’s kind of scary.”

Wilbert Allen, who has lived on Willow Avenue for two years, said he’d never seen any activity at 1129 Willow. He commented, “I thought this was a quiet neighborhood when I moved down here. I had no idea stuff like this takes place.”

DalPorto said he understands residents’ fears, especially since the house is near Harry F. Abate Elementary School.

Public records list the owner of 1129 Willow as Thomas Owusu, a onetime Falls resident whose last known address was a post office box in Buffalo. The Niagara County Treasurer’s Office said taxes on the house have not been paid since 2011.

Sedore’s girlfriend, Kelly Baronich, knew Bills through a mutual friend. “She was a kind-hearted person. She would never hurt anybody. I don’t know why anyone would do this,” Baronich said.

Sedore said he had known Bills for about three years, since Bills was a friend of his sister.

“She was just a great person. She wouldn’t hurt nobody. She’s not the arguing type, she’s not the fighting type,” Sedore said.

Police are asking for help from anyone who has seen anything suspicious in the 1100 block of Willow Avenue or in any other undetermined location, since police believe Bills was killed in another location. Tips should be phoned to the Niagara Falls Detective Bureau at 286-4553.

“We are soliciting any and all information,” DalPorto said. “We won’t rest until we bring this case to a successful conclusion.”

News Niagara Reporter Nancy A. Fischer contributed to this report. email: tprohaska@buffnews.com