TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) – Dianna Lehman was an 18-year-old single mother trying to build a life for herself and her infant son when she moved from her small, rural hometown to a rundown city neighborhood.

Cassie Harris, 48, and Tanette Dickison, 18, worked as prostitutes not far away, and shared a relationship that witnesses likened to that of mother and daughter. All three were strangled over a four-year span, the victims, police say, of a man who may have preyed on young women across the country for nearly two decades.

The arrest last month of Kevin L. Hampton, 43, of Terre Haute, in the three slayings brought together cases that have stymied investigators since Lehman’s body was found in her home in May 2000. She had been raped and strangled with a pair of blue jeans.

Investigators have offered few details beyond those included in court records and declined to categorize Hampton as a serial offender, although police said DNA evidence links him to sexual assaults on 18-year-old women in California and Las Vegas in 2000.

“I would not characterize him as anything other than a defendant charged with the crimes he’s charged with,” said Jim Walker, a deputy prosecutor handling the case.

Police have not said if Hampton will be charged in the California and Nevada cases, or in another Indiana rape investigation that gave them a break in the case. Police had known since at least the fall of 2001 that DNA from the scene of Lehman’s rape and murder matched that from other cases, including the rape in Las Vegas. What they needed was a suspect.

They focused on Lehman’s neighborhood of modest homes, an area about 80 miles west of Indianapolis that residents say struggles with drug dealers and prostitution.

“We’re in the center of one of the worst poverty areas of western Indiana,” said John Etling, who recently retired as executive director of Catholic Charities of Terre Haute. “I’ve done a lot of work in there, but I don’t really want to live there. It’s got a lot of problems.”

Harris and Dickison attended a karaoke night at The Dew Drop Inn, a neighborhood bar, on Nov. 28, 2004, hours before they disappeared. The two prostitutes were often together, working the area near the bar for customers.

Witnesses told police the younger woman left the bar that night with Hampton, a self-employed contractor who lived less than a mile away. Her body was found two days later in a creek in a neighboring county. Within weeks, Harris’ family reported her missing, too. Her body was found in February, but investigators say she was strangled shortly after she disappeared.

Police began to tie the cases together in February after another woman came forward and accused Hampton of rape. Court records show Hampton, who was in jail on unrelated drug charges, provided a blood sample that month as part of the investigation.

When the sample was fed into a national database, it matched samples taken from the Lehman murder scene and the assaults in California and Las Vegas, according to court records. Investigators then went to Hampton’s house and said they found blood tied to the Harris and Dickison deaths.

Hampton had prior convictions for theft and was arrested on kidnapping and sex charges in California in 1988 under an alias. He pleaded guilty to false imprisonment.

He did not respond to an interview request placed through the Indiana Department of Correction. He is serving a 40-year sentence for drug dealing and could face 235 years if convicted of killing Lehman, Harris and Dickison.

Lehman’s mother, Delores VanSant, said knowing someone has been charged in her daughter’s death brings some comfort. But she wishes she had known more about the neighborhood before her daughter moved there a few months before her death.

“She was essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was in a house in a bad neighborhood, and apparently he lived close by,” said VanSant, who is raising Lehman’s 6-year-old son.

“He took advantage of that.”

AP-ES-08-05-05 1501EDT

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