IPSWICH, England – Police on Monday arrested a suspect in the murders of five women whose nude bodies were discovered near here over a two-week period and whose deaths have become one of the country’s most talked about crimes in years.

Police refused to name the suspect, who hasn’t been charged, but news outlets have widely reported his identity and some have published interviews with him in which he discussed his relationship with the dead women.

The British Broadcasting Corp. even posted more than five minutes of audio in which the suspect, Tom Stephens, 37, expressed embarrassment for his involvement with the women, who are believed to have worked as prostitutes.

Stephens said in the BBC interview, done last week, that police had questioned him, but he added that he was innocent.

Under British law, police may not identify a suspect until he’s formally charged and cannot detail evidence outside a court proceeding. “As legal proceedings are now active, Suffolk police will not be issuing any further comment or appeals (for help) at this stage,” a statement said.

The interviews with Stephens and his subsequent arrest provided a bizarre twist in a case that’s transfixed Britain and terrified the people of Ipswich, a city of 140,000 about 75 miles east of London.

The bodies of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell were discovered between Dec. 2 and Dec. 12. Nicol had been missing since Oct. 30.

None of the women had been sexually assaulted. All were killed elsewhere before their bodies were dumped in a radius of about six miles south of Ipswich. A coroner has ruled that one died of asphyxiation and another of “compression to the neck,” but police said no significant trauma was apparent. Toxicology results could take six weeks.

Suffolk police said the suspect was arrested Monday morning at his home in the village of Trimley St. Martin, about two miles from where the bodies of Clennell and Nicholls were found a week ago.

Stephens agreed to the interview with the BBC for background purposes, but a BBC spokesman said the organization decided to make the interview public when it became clear that Stephens had been arrested.

In the interview, Stephens said police had questioned him earlier in the investigation and had taken his laptop and two cell phones.

Stephens said he’d known most of the victims for about 18 months and that he’d started visiting Ipswich’s prostitutes because he was “sad and lonely.”

“I’m embarrassed about the word “prostitute’ being used and that I’m associated with that,” Stephens said. “It’s so shameful that I can’t bear my name to be used in the same sentence as the word “prostitute.”‘

He said that after hearing of Nicol’s disappearance, he spoke to her mother and contacted the other women, asking them to help the police or him with any information about Nicol.

Stephens said, “I really am worried that there will be more victims,” and he told the Norwich Evening News, “I should have been there to watch over them.”

Stephens is an employee of the Tesco superstore in Martlesham, just outside Ipswich and almost within sight of Suffolk police headquarters.

A Tesco spokesperson confirmed that Stephens had been suspended over the weekend “in relation to police investigations.” The spokesperson said Stephens was suspended while police were questioning him about the murders and that he was arrested Monday.

The BBC interview with Tom Stephens can be heard at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/suffolk/6189409.stm

(Potts is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061218 ENGLAND MURDERS

AP-NY-12-18-06 1849EST

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