Inmate confessed to prostitute slayings, lawyer claims

The lawyer for a Salem County handyman under scrutiny in the murders of four Atlantic City prostitutes said yesterday he has given authorities taped conversations in which another man confesses to the killings.

The lawyer, James J. Leonard Jr., said the man contacted him by phone last week from the Atlantic County Jail, where he was being held on an unrelated charge, and admitted strangling the women last November.

The man provided more information in taped follow-up conversations, saying he had sex with the women before killing them, Leonard said. The man sounded remorseful, even suicidal, telling Leonard he had tried to take his own life several times in the wake of the murders, the lawyer said.

"He indicated that he did not want to see an innocent man go to jail and that he basically wanted to get this off his chest," Leonard said. "He indicated he wanted to 'do the right thing.'"

Leonard -- who contends the recordings will clear his client, Terry Oleson, of suspicion in the case -- said he provided copies of the tapes to the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office about 10 days ago. The Star-Ledger is withholding the name of the man who called Leonard because he has not been charged in the killings.

First Assistant Prosecutor Murray Talasnik declined to confirm yesterday whether his office had received the tapes, saying only that investigators follow every lead they receive in the hunt for a killer.

"This continues to be an ongoing, open and active investigation, and at this point, there is no credible evidence that would warrant bringing a criminal charge today," Talasnik said.

The prosecutor said his office, as a rule, does not comment on suspects or confessions, noting in general that not all turn out to be true. He cited as one example the case of John Mark Karr, who made headlines around the world last year when he issued a bogus confession in the 1996 murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey.

Leonard said he found the man's account credible, though ultimately, he said, "It's law enforcement's job to determine that."

"Do people come out of the woodwork and confess to things?" Leonard asked. "Yes, they do. But I don't think there are many people who would interject themselves in a quadruple homicide just for the hell of it."

He said the man "seemed obviously troubled by what he had done" and apparently attempted suicide again in recent days.

The man, a 45-year-old South Jersey native, was transferred from the Atlantic County Jail to another institution Thursday for an unspecified "evaluation," said the jail's warden, Gary Merline.

"It's a medical-related thing, and I really can't get into it," Merline said. He said he was unaware of any confession.

The man is known to investigators in the case. A petty criminal with a long record that includes convictions for theft by deception, forgery and shoplifting, he was interviewed extensively shortly after the killings because he knew at least two of the victims. At the time, he denied any involvement.

"I partied with a couple of these girls," he told The Press of Atlantic City last year. "I know I didn't kill nobody and didn't hurt nobody."

The bodies of the women -- Kim Raffo, 35, Tracy Ann Roberts, 23, Barbara Breidor, 42, and Molly Jean Dilts, 20 -- were discovered Nov. 20 just over the Atlantic City line, in Egg Harbor Township. Their barefoot bodies lay about 320 feet apart behind a low-rent motel.

Oleson, Leonard's client, lived in the motel at the time, leading investigators to look more closely at him. In April, authorities questioned him, impounded his car and searched his home in rural Alloway Township.

It was during the search that authorities found evidence he had allegedly videotaped a 15-year-old girl in the nude two years earlier. Charged with invasion of privacy, he has been held in the Salem County Jail since then in lieu of $100,000 bail.

Leonard, who contends the bail figure is disproportionately high because of the Atlantic County murder case, said he now expects Oleson will have his bail reduced either before or during his next court appearance Oct. 12.