Ciudad Juarez, Mexico-
Six months ago, police said they were sure the former chemist from Midland they had in jail on a rape charge was the serial killer who had murdered at least four of the nine young women found stabbed or strangled in this border city last year.
Then, in a three-week span, they found six more bodies.
And now residents of this crime-hardened city of 1.2 million across from El Paso have to face that horrifying truth: One or more serial killers likely remain on the loose.
"I read the newspaper every day and often see reports of another girl found murdered," said 18 year old Haydee Armendariz. "I don't go out alone and none of my friends do either. We talk about the murders all the time, but it seems the police aren't able to do anything to arrest this killer or killers."
The new murderes were discovered as a Chihuahua state judge ruled last week that there was not enough evidence to charge the key suspect, 49 year old Sharif Sharif, with murder.
Although state prosecutors have appealed the judge's ruling, Sharif said in a jail interview that he is "100% innocent" and expects to be released within two weeks.
Even the rape case against him began falling apart when his alleged victim failed to appear in court.
Most citizens of Juarez are somewhat jaded to the routine newspaper accounts of killings by rival drug lords or dueling gang members.
Last year, the city had a record 295 murders, second in the nation to Mexico City in murders per capita.
Law-abiding citizens have generally felt immune to such violence, so the news of serial killings last year led to near mass hysteria.
Before Sharif's arrest, many parents wouldn't let their children go out alone or after dark. Teenage girls cut their hair and dressed in baggy clothes to be less attractive to the mysterious killer. Juarez's busy nightclubs and restaurants reported a drop in business.
The latest victims, murdered in the past three weeks, were discovered in the hilly northwest neighborhood of Anapra - the opposite side of town from where the previous murder victims were found last fall.
Still, there are many similarities between the two groups of slayings.
The six most recent cases involve girls, ages 15 to 17, who closely match the physical description of the nine earlier victims. All 15 victims were in their teens or early 20s, slim and petite, almost always with long, dark hair. Most of the bodies were semi-nude. At least several had been raped, though some bodies were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to tell.
In what might be a "signature" of the killer, the shoes of at least one of the recent victims were placed neatly beside her body, similar to that of four victims last year. Also, the left breast of at least one was mutilated, similar to some of the earlier cases.
Mexican investigators said they are unsure if a copycat killer or possible gang is responsible for the second wave of murders in Anapra. But they said they remain convinced that Sharif, possibly with a partner, killed at least four of the nine women found last year.
They conceded, however, that their case against Sharif rests on circumstantial evidence.
"We have witnesses who saw Sharif with four of the murdered women," said Ernesto Garcia, a spokesman for the Chihuahua State Judicial Police. "But none of them saw him kill the women."
A state police task force formed to investigate the murders claims to have interviewed 500 people. Those who claimed to have seen Sharif with the teenagers include girlfriends and family members of four victims, police said.
Police declined to discuss hair, semen and blood samples obtained from Sharif that they had hoped to match evidence found on the murder victims. A mold of Sharif's teeth also was made in an attempt to match bite marks found on several bodies.
Handwriting samples from Sharif failed to match diaries found last September that had been written by a mysterious author known as "Richy". In the diaries, complete with dates and illustrations, "Richy" brags about the rapes and mutilations. But when Sharif's handwriting didn't match, police discounted the credibility of the diaries.
"They took all that physical evidence illegally and yet still can't link him to the crime," said Sharif's attorney, Mario H. Chacon Rojos.
Chacon maintained that lawmen and prosecutors, desperate to appease public pressure and growing hysteria, pinned the murders on Sharif.
Added pressure to convict Sharif came when Chihuahua Gov. Francisco Javier Barrio Terrazas said in an off-the-cuff remark to reporters last December that Sharif was guilty of the serial killings.
"How do you fight a statement from the governor?" Chacon asked. "The whole thing became political...and they began putting pressure on state and federal judges."
Sharif claimed that Mexican authorities trumped up a sexual assault and battery charge against him last October. The alleged victim failed to appear in court and now the case is on appeal in a federal court.
When Mexican state prosecutors attempted last week - more than five months after Sharif's arrest - to file a charge against him for the murder of Silvia Elena Rivera Morales, a Chihuahua state district judge said there was not enough evidence.
"I'm 100% innocent," Sharif said in an interview at the CeReSo jail here. "I didn't even know those murdered girls and they don't have a trace of evidence."
Sharif, an Egyptian who emigrated to the United States 21 years ago, moved to Juarez from Midland in May 1994 to help set up a Mexican border plant for the US company that employs him.
The recent discovery of more murder victims vindicated him, he said, and proved that the true killer continues to prowl area nightclubs and neighborhoods.
"The police and prosecutor are so afraid of losing their jobs that they continue to stick with the story that I did it," Sharif said. "They are either covering up for someone and may even know who it is or they simply don't have a clue and have botched up the investigation."
Sharif, however, said he has become "obsessed" with finding the serial killer himself.
"It's become a personal thing and I have studied everything I can about the murders while in jail," he said. "If the police and prosecutors would let me, I would like to help find the true killer."
Sharif, who has worked in Florida and Texas, including a stint in Houston, said he belives the serial killer could be a police officer easily able to gain the confidence of young women.
He theorized that the recent string of killings may be because the killer is "mad because they have given me all the attention".
But Sharif's contention finds little support among Mexicans.
Members of a group of Juarez women, calling themselves the "March 8th Group", a reference to the death of one victim, said they believe the latest murder episode could have been conducted by an accomplice of Sharif's in an attempt to mislead the police.
The group, led by Esther Chavez, delivered a petition Thursday to the Chihuahua State Congress requesting that Sharif not be released.
Sharif, described by sources as a "brilliant chemist", admitted to have a criminal record and bouts with alcoholism. But he refused to discuss the past - even the names of companies that employed him - including a six-year prison term in Gainesville, Fla., for assault and battery.
"I meet the wrong people when I'm drinking and I go to the wrong places," Sharif said. "I want to leave all that behind me and start a new life."
Midland police said they investigated Sharif on rape allegations, but never filed charges.
"He was investigated, but I won't get into why charges were not filed," said Detective Sgt. B.G. Johnson.
Sources said Sharif moved to Juarez when he faced possible deportation as a resident immigrant after it was learned that he had served the Florida prison sentence for assault and faced rape allegations in Midland.
Sources said Sharif's employer in Midland - believed to be an oil field services company - moved him to Juarez but kept him on payroll until after his arrest.
Now that Sharif's arrest is being challenged, police sources close to the case complained that infighting and rivalries among high-ranking commanders has hampered their investigation. Another nagging problem has been the inability or unwillingness of at least some Mexican authorities to admit that Mexican nationals are capable of such heinous crimes.
One of those who offered his help during the investigation last fall - Rene Gonzalez de la Vega, a criminologist with the Mexico City Police Department - was quoted by some newspapers as saying serial killings are "not a trait of Mexican character".
As a result, US law enforcement sources familiar with the case said it was far easier to arrest an "outside" like Sharif than focus on any Mexican suspects. They said Sharif's arrest simply illustrates the "blind focus" of Mexican lawmen under pressure to find a killer.
"When the Mexican authorities decide someone is their suspect, they don't care about any extenuating circumstances," said one informed legal source who asked not to be identified. "They don't let the facts that in the way of the arrest."
But others such as Karen Gold, an El Paso forensic psychologist who has followed news of the murders, said that people with a history of assault, like Sharif, could fit the profile of a serial killer. She said people who assault sometiems graduate to "the different kind of high" that comes from murder.
While Mexico has no death sentence and murder carries a maximum penalty of 40 years, the Juarez serial killings have prompted Chihuahua Gov. Barrio to call for more severe prison sentences for heinous crimes, including a possible life sentence.
Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle