Acccording to Charleston police and the woman’s own interview with KPTV, she realized that something was wrong shortly after 45-year-old Springfield, Oregon, native Neal Falls arrived at her apartment after answering an escort ad she’d placed on Backpage.com.
“I knew he was there to kill me,” the visibly shaken woman told KPTV after being released from the hospital, where she was treated for broken vertebrae and lacerations. “I could tell that he had already done something because he said that he was going to prison for a long time. And that’s when I knew he was gonna kill me.”
When Falls began to strangle her, she said, she reached for a nearby rake. Falls put down his gun to try and wrestle the rake out of her hands—that’s when she grabbed the gun and shot him. Falls died from the gunshot wound, and she ran outside to get help.
When police arrived, they found an extensive “kill kit” in the trunk of Falls’s Subaru. In the trunk were knives, a shovel, a machete, several axes, a sledgehammer, a pair of hiking boots covered in dirt, trash bags, and cleaning supplies.
In Falls’s pocket, said police, they found a list of names of future targets: all sex workers who advertised on Backpage. Police have not released the names, or the exact number, of women on the list.
“We have been able to locate most of them and they were all on a website advertising for escort services,” Lt. Steve Cooper of the Charleston, West Virginia, police department told the Huffington Post on Wednesday. “The stuff that we found is so alarming that we want law enforcement across the country to be aware of it.”
Cooper told the Huffington Post that the police department is investigating Falls, and knows, so far, that he previously worked as a security guard in Oregon, and may have been living “off the grid” out of his car.
Police also said that Falls’s DNA is being entered into CODIS, the national law enforcement DNA database. They already suspect that Falls may have been connected to a series of murders of sex workers in Chillicothe, Ohio, just two hours from Charleston.
Chillicothe is a small town of only 21,000 people, and six women went missing within the space of a year. Four were found dead, and the other two were still missing as of a June CNN report.
Police in the town oddly scoffed at the idea of a serial killer, but locals told CNN that’s exactly what had happened. Most of the women knew each other from the same drug rehab, and many had engaged in sex work. All four deceased women were found in or near bodies of water, one wrapped in a sheet and another shot in the head.
Sex workers have long accused law enforcement of not taking cases seriously when their community is targeted by violent serial offenders. When Gary Ridgway—also known as the Green River Killer—finally confessed in 2003 to the murders of at least 48 women throughout the Northwest, he admitted that he thought no one would notice if he killed sex workers.
“I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,” Mr. Ridgway said in his statement. “I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”
In a way, Ridgway was correct. When four young women were found murdered in Long Island in 2011, one victim’s mother told the New York Times that she had struggled to get law enforcement to care about her daughter’s death.
“I think they look at them like they’re throwaway,” said Mari Gilbert, mother of 24-year-old sex worker and aspiring actress Shannan Gilbert, whose bodied was discovered that May. “They don’t care.”
With Neal Falls now dead, police are playing catch-up, trying to connect his DNA to murders of sex workers all over the country.
CPD says they have been in contact with police in western part of country about unsolved homicide. They believe Neal Falls "viable suspect"— Leslie Rubin (@LeslieRubinWCHS) July 23, 2015
On Twitter, sex workers were mysteriously silent on the Neal Falls case on Thursday.
Backpage, which is perhaps the biggest and most common outlet for placing escort ads, has been under attack recently as credit card companies refused to process ad fees and law enforcement in various states pressured the site to shut down. They allege that Backpage is frequently used by sex traffickers.
But sex worker advocates have said that Backpage and other online outlets are a safer way to meet clients and actually can reduce trafficking, coercion, and violence. Others pointed out the irony in targeting a website that runs classified ads of all kinds but failing to address the use of guns and other weapons used in violent attacks on sex workers.
Lt. Cooper called Falls a “bad actor” and pointed out what many sex workers might recognize as a tell-tale sign of a serious problem.
“He made a deal with the victim to exchange money for her services as an escort,” Cooper said. “He brought no money with him. What he brought with his was a firearm, four sets of handcuffs, and all of the items you have photos of from the trunk of his car. So… clearly his intentions were dark.”
The national sex workers advocacy group Sex Workers Outreach Project offered safety tips on its website, directed at not only escorts but workers in several areas of the adult industry. In a section titled “Screening 101,” the Chicago chapter of SWOP detailed steps to increase safety when meeting a new potential client for the first time. Those include things like asking for ID, taking down the details about a person’s car (including the license plate), and asking for a place of employment and other references.
For now, the unnamed woman who shot and killed Neal Falls in self-defense stands as an example of bravery and survival in an often dark climate of violence against sex workers. For that, she’s a sort of sex worker superhero.