By Charles Digges
NARVA, Estonia - Four young women have been murdered since August in this small town on the Russian-Estonian border 150 kilometers west of St Petersburg, panicking residents and galvanizing local officials.
Police are divided on whether the killings - all of women between the ages of 17 and 28 who were beaten to death and discovered in public places - are related. But most locals believe they are dealing with a serial killer, and probably a lone man who dresses up as an elderly woman to get close to his victims.
"The mind of every young woman in town is constantly preoccupied with [the murders]," said Ira Mikhailova, 18, a student. "A local saying has become: 'If you want to die, go out after dark.'"
Last week, Mayor Raivo Murd appeared on local television to warn citizens to stay in after sunset. Murd announced he would step up police patrols and install extra street lights.
Most residents say they have yet to see the extra police or lighting. But parents have heeded Murd's warning, setting up an informal phone tree to help one another keep track of their children.
The streets of this town of 17,000, two hours' drive from St Petersburg, are eerily quiet at dusk; by dark they are completely abandoned. During the day, the town's half-dozen bars and cafes are lively with speculation about the "babushka-killer."
"So many murders in such a short time have cast a pall over the city, so naturally everyone has a theory," said Alexei Vasileyev, a bartender who by day serves beer and alcohol to the city's armchair detectives, and by evening worries about his own 18-year-old daughter, who has a 7 p.m. curfew that she needs little urging to keep.
The "babushka-killer" theory grew out of an incident three weeks ago in which a man dressed as an elderly woman attacked a 17-year-old girl at 2 a.m. on a central square in Narva, before at least one other witness.
According to that witness, who was interviewed by police and by The St Petersburg Times and who asked not to be identified, the assailant was dressed like a babushka, in a frumpy housecoat and a wig, and met the victim as the two walked across the square.
When the victim had walked past, the babushka/assailant back-tracked and punched her in the head, then proceeded to kick her where she had fallen. The victim and the witness both screamed, and the victim managed to rip free the attacker's wig. He grabbed it back and fled.
The victim was hospitalized with severe head injuries and is in stable condition. Had she died, she would have been the fifth young woman murdered in two months here.
Police interviewed both the eyewitness and the victim, and found that their stories corroborated each other, said press spokesman Alexander Sovolyov in a telephone interview Monday.
Sovolyov said that the theory that the babushka-assailant might be responsible for all of the recent murders was one of several that police were seriously considering.
"We are not prepared to say yet what we are dealing with, but it appears to be the work of a serial killer, or killers," Sovolyov said.
News of the killings broke on Aug. 6, when the body of an 18-year-old girl who had been beaten to death was found in a school yard.
On Aug. 17 the body of a 28-year-old woman was discovered in a vacant lot near the Russian-Estonian border check-point. She had also been beaten to death.
On Aug. 18 the body of a 19-year-old was found in the central town park. She had been beaten to death, and had a noose made of a nylon stocking tied around her neck.
On Sept. 7 and 10 the bodies of two more young women were found on the banks of the Narva River. Both had been beaten to death.
Police said the bodies were all found the day after their respective murders. They have declined to identify the victims by name.
With the killer or killers still at large, residents wait and worry. Vasileyev, the bartender, said it had become routine for parents to call one another after dark to make sure each others' children had returned home safely.
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