My Friend the Statistic

Last Saturday night, I was talking to a childhood friend who also knew Patty Vance and he wondered aloud about whether her murder might have gotten less attention than it deserved because she was a known prostitute. This is what he said:

“She didn’t have the social status to warrant…who knows what the cops are like? She is just a kid that’s a prostitute/drug addict. We don’t want to waste our time on it.”

I want to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt.  I want to believe that the police would have treated and are treating Patty’s case with as much diligence as any other case.  There is my anecdotal experience with law enforcement — which has been largely positive — and then there are statistics.

I spoke to Melissa Gregory of NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) back in 2016 about my own concerns that Patty’s case might have been shuffled to the bottom of the stack, so to speak, back when it occurred in 1980.  We met briefly at the AISOCC (The American Investigative Society of Cold Cases) conference when I approached Ms. Gregory while she was tabling for NamUs.

“I can’t help think it’s going to be hard to get help with this one.  You know, I heard on this true crime tv show I Am Homicide how there are million-dollar homicides, and five-dollar homicides.  My friend was definitely a five-dollar homicide.  You know, she was a prostitute,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Melissa said.  “It’s too bad she just squeaked over the 18-year mark.  If she was a minor, I could get our people on it right away.”

“She was not quite nineteen, I know,” I said.

So, on a gut level, I think a lot of people assume that prostitutes who are reported as homicides don’t get a fair shake in the criminal justice system.  And not only might they not get fair treatment, they are far more likely to fall victim to a homicide.  A double whammy.

It’s difficult to get statistics on how much more likely a prostitute is to be murdered than the general population.  Here are a few paragraphs from on the topic along with some other not-so-fun facts about prostitutes and violence:

2004 statistics put the homicide rate for female sex workers in the USA at 204 per 100,000. The next riskiest jobs in the country were male taxicab drivers (29 per 100,000) and female liquor store workers (4 per 100,000).

I (the author of article) was recently asked to explain why men murder prostitutes, and it’s been rather an interesting question to explore.

Contrary to general belief, women are just as capable of cruelty and murder as men, but men are more likely to be physically violent and destructive.

Women tend to be personally involved with their victims: husband or boyfriend, child or parent.  Men seem more likely to murder randomly, opportunistically, wanting to get away with it, to do it again.

Occasionally there’s a religious zealot or fanatic who sees “fallen women” as being sinful and causing others to sin, and therefore deserving to die.  Maybe to a minor degree such ideas may help other killers feel justified, even though their motives are deeper and darker.

Such people are more likely to be mentally disturbed, even psychotic, with garbled explanations why they need to play the role of executioner.

The main reason prostitutes get killed is probably because they are uniquely vulnerable, which means that their killers may have a better chance of escaping justice. There aren’t many people who will agree to meet with you in a private place, not telling anyone where they’re going, not expecting to know your name or identity, and keeping no record of the meeting.

They’re like runaways and street people, in the sense that nobody will miss them if they disappear. These are marginalized people who tend to steer clear of the police and their disappearance is therefore unlikely to be reported. When Joel Rifkin confessed to killing 17 prostitutes around New York from 1989 to 1993, not one of them had ever been reported missing.

They’re the ideal victim, and this attracts predators.  Working girls don’t want to attract attention and rarely report crimes committed against them, or, for that matter, the disappearance of a colleague. They trust to their instincts in choosing whether to go with a client, though such instincts aren’t infallible.

If they’re prepared to engage in sadomasochistic activities, they may allow themselves to be tied up or otherwise rendered helpless. The relationship between sexual activity and murder varies: some killers may attack the woman after they have had sex, or during sex, and some may prefer to have sex after killing them.

And here’s another article I dug up:

In his article “Prostitute Homicides,” C. Gabrielle Salfati, et al., projects that prostitutes may be up to 120 times more likely to be victims of homicide than women not working in the field. Law enforcement doesn’t seem over eager to get to the bottom of these homicides either if statistics are to be believed. According to an abstract submitted by Michele Decker in her “Prostitution-related Homicides” nearly 2 to 1, non domestic homicides of this type result in no arrest, or the identifying of the perpetrator. Solving prostitute homicides presents all sorts of unique problems.

If these statistics are to be believed, the friend I spoke to last Saturday night was not pulling his ideas out of the air.  His hunch that Patty Vance’s case might not have gotten the attention it deserved perhaps is supported by what Decker’s research revealed.  (How would one measure a detective’s bias on the matter?)

Obviously, it’s not necessarily true that Patty Vance’s case was given short shrift by the San Francisco Police Department.  In fact, the first detective I spoke to said Patty Vance’s file was 8 inches thick.  The statistics in this article only support the idea that it was much more likely — twice as likely — that her case would not solved.

My young friend.  She was alive one minute, a statistic the next.

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