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Originally published February 17, 2012 at 9:20 PM | Page modified February 18, 2012 at 10:42 AM

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Fears of a serial killer puts Bremerton on edge

Since May 2011, two women have been killed and a man attacked on streets in Bremerton, a city that had a total of two homicides from 2006 to 2010.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tip line

Bremerton police say people can call the department tip line at 360-473-5481

to offer information

on the attacks.

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As someone living in Bremerton, I can attest to people being a bit uneasy. The last mu... MORE
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BREMERTON — Starla Ackerman isn't taking any chances.

Ever since her neighbor, Melody Brannon, was slain earlier this month and police announced it could be the work of a serial killer, Ackerman has carried a knife in her purse, pepper spray on her key chain and a panic alarm.

When the 34-year-old is on foot, she said, her "finger is on the pepper spray at all times."

Ackerman is not alone in her caution.

Brock Jackley, the owner of Dave's Loans and Guns in Bremerton, says the sale of pepper spray and other nonlethal forms of protection has skyrocketed over the past few weeks.

"There's been a lot of husbands buying it for their wives and daughters," Jackley said Friday.

Amanda Boustead, who works the early morning shift at the Fraiche Cup Coffee shop near the ferry terminal, has taken to carpooling and parking closer to work.

"I'm not going to walk alone until this is over," Boustead said.

Since May 2011, two women have been killed and a man attacked on streets in Bremerton, a city that had a total of two homicides from 2006 to 2010. Last week, Bremerton police announced they had enlisted the help of the FBI and were looking into possible connections in the three apparently random and unprovoked attacks.

"We can't conclusively say they are linked," said Lt. Peter Fisher, "but we are investigating the possibility."

Fisher said that police believe all three victims were walking alone when they were attacked from behind. All are believed to have been followed before the attacks, he said.

According to police, Sara Burke, 19, was walking alone in the 800 block of Warren Avenue around 9:30 p.m. May 3, when she was attacked. Neighbors reported hearing what sounded like raised voices and an argument before Burke was found dead of a stab wound to her neck.

The next month, 51-year-old Kenny Cobb was walking on Burwell Street, less than a mile from where Burke was killed, when he was struck in the head and stabbed by an unknown man, police said. The attack happened in the midafternoon and was witnessed, police said, by a man in a gold pickup who stopped to confront the attacker.

Fisher said police have yet to find the driver of the pickup. "We believe he could have vital information," he said.

Brannon, who moved into her home on High Avenue within the past few months, was killed in a yard between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 3. Police said they are intentionally holding back further information about her slaying to protect the investigation.

Police recently have released a sketch of a man they describe as a person of interest in the attacks. The sketch, bearing the message "Seen Him? Call the Police," is posted throughout the city, on utility poles, bus stops, convenience-store counters and in the ferry terminal.

Police describe him as a light-skinned black or mixed-race man in his late teens or early 20s, slender and about 6 feet tall with a distinctive blemish or mark near his mouth and nose that could be a mole or other mark.

Police have announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for the deaths of Brannon and Burke.

In response to the attacks, extra police patrols have taken to streets. The department's entire force of 60 or so officers is devoted to at least a part of the investigation, Fisher said.

In addition to seeking leads in the case, Fisher said, the extra officers are reassuring citizens and offering them tips on how to protect themselves.

Police warn people to avoid walking alone, even on well-traveled streets. They're advising against wearing hooded sweatshirts or headphones because they could hinder peripheral vision and awareness. They're also urging residents to carry a flashlight and a loud whistle.

Boustead and her mother, Sindy Collins, who owns the Fraiche Cup, said the possibility of a serial killer in the area has been the topic of much discussion.

Last week, Collins said she watched as a woman stopped and turned around to look in fear at a man who appeared to be following her. The man, who Collins described as a "shipyard worker," saw the woman's fear and held up his hands in mute understanding.

Not everyone, however, is afraid. "Where I come from," said native New Yorker Tom Harvey, "one guy running around doing something crazy happens every week." He said he understands the fear, but after four years in the Marines, "I think I could handle it."

Jesse Gale, 18, said he heard about the attacks but hasn't changed his behavior.

"I just don't think anything's going to happen to me," he said. "It's like, what, a one-in-a-thousand chance or something?"

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed

to this report.

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