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British police arrest suspect in murders of five prostitutes

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IPSWICH, England — Police on Monday arrested a 37-year-old grocery store clerk on suspicion of killing five prostitutes — slayings that struck terror in this quiet English community.
    British media quoted the suspect as saying he knew all the victims and had been repeatedly interviewed by police about the killings.
    But the man, identified as Tom Stephens, said he did not kill the women, whose naked bodies were dumped in rural areas around Ipswich, 70 miles northeast of London.
    ‘‘I don’t have alibis for some of the times (of the killings), actually I’m not entirely sure I have tight alibis for any of the times. But I’m not worried about being charged. I’m innocent,’’ he was quoted as telling The Sunday Mirror.
    Stephens, who also worked as a part-time taxi driver, was known to have visited an Internet blog site under the pseudonym ‘‘The Bishop,’’ where he listed his interests as ‘‘keeping fit’’ and music from the ’80s. His hero, he said, is the cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey.
    The arrest, which came 16 tense days after the first body was found dumped in a stream, caused a sensation in Britain. It prompted comparisons with Jack the Ripper, the notorious Victorian serial killer who murdered at least five East London prostitutes in 1888.
    Photographers and news crews swarmed the street where the suspect lived in Trimley St. Martin, eight miles southeast of Ipswich. Television news helicopters buzzed overhead.
    ‘‘Well it’s all just very frightening knowing ... a possible murderer was where I used to walk alone sometimes,’’ said neighbor Evelyn Davey. ‘‘My husband doesn’t let me out of his sight since all this happened.’’
    Suffolk police said they arrested the suspect at 7:20 a.m. but refused to identify him or say where he was being held.
    ‘‘He has been arrested on the suspicion of murdering all five women,’’ said Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull.
    In the Sunday Mirror interview, Stephens was quoted as saying he had already been questioned by authorities under caution — meaning he was regarded as a suspect and had been warned of his legal rights.
    ‘‘From the police profiling it does look like me — white male between 25 and 40, knows the area, works strange hours. The bodies have got close to my house,’’ Stephens was quoted as saying.
    ‘‘If new information, coincidental information, crops up, I could get arrested,’’ he added, maintaining he was confident he would not be charged.
    The victims have been identified as Paula Clennell, 24, who died of compression to her neck, and Anneli Alderton, 24, who was strangled. Forensic examinations of the bodies of Tania Nicol, 19, Annette Nicholls, 29, and Gemma Adams, 25, have reached no conclusion on the cause of death.
    Stephens said he was a friend of all five victims.
    ‘‘I was closest to Tania. And Gemma as well. I was close to the others as well. But I should have been there to look over them,’’ The Sunday Mirror quoted him as saying.
    He said he had visited around 50 prostitutes in the year after his eight-year marriage collapsed. ‘‘Over time I have been involved with most of the (dead) girls,’’ he was quote as saying.
    At one point he described himself as a ‘‘protector’’ of the women, but he also said he was as ‘‘close as there was to a pimp.’’
    In excerpts from an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. aired Monday, Stephens said he sometimes drove the women to collect their drugs.
    A neighbor said police had searched Stephens’ house earlier this month.
    ‘‘About a week and a half ago, forensic teams were at that house for four to five hours,’’ said Geoffrey Bond, 53. ‘‘They took some stuff away in boxes from the area.’’
    Three of the bodies were found near the main road and the rail line between Ipswich and Trimley; the other two were discovered near the same road in areas south and southwest of Ipswich.
    Lesley-Anne Barber, 50, who lives near Stephens, described him as ‘‘a bit of a weirdo.’’
    ‘‘He used to just wander around in the back garden. He didn’t seem the sort of person that would want to have anything to do with anyone,’’ Barber said.
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