Killer admits murdering at least 19 prostitutes

The deadly trail of John Eric Armstrong, the Detroit killer who has confessed to murdering prostitutes all over the world while serving with the US Navy, is slowly being unwound. But the number of his victims is still uncertain, as police are unsure whether his rambling confessions are fully reliable.

Armstrong, who was arrested last week, says he killed one man, a transvestite, and 17 women, all of them prostitutes. "Basically, he told us he either killed, or tried to kill, every prostitute he'd ever had sex with," said Assistant Chief Marvin Winkler of the Detroit Police. But it will be months before police know precisely how many people he may have killed. "It's a long, tedious process," said Assistant Chief Winkler. "It's going to be a while before we can get an idea of the extent of the damage this guy has done."

Armstrong says his motivation was a hatred of prostitutes. He claims that his first victim was in North Carolina in 1991, though that remains to be proved, and local police are having difficulty finding a crime that matches the confession. While serving on the USS Nimitz between 1993 and 1999, he says he killed at least another 10 women: three in the Seattle area, two in Hawaii,two in Hong Kong and one each in Virginia, Thailand and Singapore.

It was also on the Nimitz that he met Katie Rednoske. They married in 1998 and have one child, with another on the way. He moved to Detroit after leaving the Navy and worked as a security guard, a store clerk and an aircraft refueller.

At night he cruised the streets in his Jeep, picking up prostitutes, beating them and murdering those who did not get away. His first alleged victim was Monica Johnson, who was found on a road and died in hospital last December.

But one of the more controversial elements of the case is that police had been investigating Armstrong since January, and came close to arresting him two months ago. He came to the attention of police in January when he reported seeing a body in a stream, saying he had spotted it after he went to throw up over a bridge parapet. Police found the corpse of Wendy Jordan, and began investigating. By mid-February, they had evidence against Armstrong from fibres found in his car and tried to get a warrant for his arrest. But the prosecutor's office deemed the evidence insufficient.

Police then produced DNA evidence tying him to the killing on 28 March, but still there was no warrant. On 10 April, three more bodies were found in a railway yard in south-west Detroit: Robbin Brown, aged 20, Kelly Hood, 34, and Rose Marie Felt, aged 32.

By that time, Armstrong had also picked up transvestite Devon Marcus. He tried to choke him but Mr Marcus broke free and was able to give the police a detailed description. On 12 April, Armstrong wasarrested.

He broke down, confessed, and quickly gave police all the details they needed. He said he did not want a lawyer, and told police he wanted to tell them everything. "His demeanour was shifting quite often from being calm to irritable to sometimes sad," said Wayne County Sheriff's Detective James Hines. "Once he began to talk, he was freely giving very intimate details about the case."

Armstrong has painted a picture of himself as a victim. He was sexually abused as a child and teased by his schoolmates, he has said.

But the scale of the claimed killings have created doubts. The five women he killed in the Detroit area have all been traced to him but the wider pattern is as yet unproven. "There are gaps in his time line that we are concerned about," said Commander Dennis Richardson, head of the major crimes division at Detroit Police.

As he was led into court on Friday, reporters asked him how he felt. "So bad," he said. Asked if he had anything to say, he said, simply: "Sorry."

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