LONSBERRY: The avenue of tragedy

A generation ago there was a killer loose on the streets of Rochester, whose victims seemed clustered or linked to the prostitution trade along Lyell Avenue.

I wrote for the newspaper then and tried to learn that street and its ways in hopes of giving insight or telling a story. It was a hard and sad duty, as the world of the sex trade and the strip bar is a lonely and dysfunctional place where broken people facilitate and debase one another in a relentless downward spiral.

It was a place of tears and bodies, lifeless and listless, where the devil laughed and the tragedy rained. 

And some things never change.

The shift work on the westside that first brought prostitution to the avenue is long since gone, dried up in the economic collapse that has hung like November clouds over this town for more than 20 years. Three times a day men would drive past in hordes up or down Lyell, getting off or going to, and the women would stand in doorways and furtively beckon them over. The factories and the jobs are gone, but the reputation lingers, passed like the clap from one assignation to another, and the men and the women still come, drawn like moths to their respective flames.

The men are misfits and the women are addicts and the condoms lie on the sidewalks and back alleys. It's cash or barter, and that long-ago murderer paid a woman once with a bag of potatoes: an undercover cop negotiated another down to a Garbage Plate. 

And it was an undercover cop who last Thursday night put the handcuffs on some 17 women.

It's the odd synchronicity of mayoral elections and prostitution crackdowns. In the week or two before the mayor of the day asks for another burst of four, they run raids on Lyell Avenue. Pure coincidence, no doubt, but a coincidence with a long history. And history repeated itself last week. It was johns on Wednesday night, and prostitutes on Thursday night.

Of course, on Saturday night into Sunday, the third anniversary of the murder of a Rochester police officer, there were six people shot and one person killed, and that sickening reminder that chaos rules the streets.

But on Thursday night City Hall was taking a stand against the whores on Lyell, protecting the interests of the people in the Lyell-Otis Neighborhood from the sad practice that long predates their tenancy.

Which is how Kelly Mollnow came to get caught.

That was about 1 o'clock in the morning. 

Kelly Mollnow is the one-eyed prostitute on Lyell. The right one is bad, white and unseeing, and sometimes she combs her hair down to cover it. A pimp got pissed at her one time and, instead of beating her again, he held her down and pried open her lids and put a cigarette out in her eye. 

She was a sweet kid, an elementary-school teacher remembers, but life went wrong and it went wrong hard. By 12, some thought she was already using drugs. "This is by far the saddest story of any of my former students,"the retired teacher says. At 42, some who know her say she's been an addict of one sort or another for more than 25 years. At the jail, they hate her on intake, as she's so nasty, but when she sobers up she's one of their favorites, courteous and kind.

She probably has four children. At least two seem to have been taken away at birth.

One of them, Ashlee Geer, she conceived when she was 17. 

Ashlee was already in the lock-up when the sting bit Kelly.

She was arrested about four hours before her mother, a couple of streets over, on the same charge. Ashlee Geer is 24, officials say she has long-standing addiction problems. Last week, she and her mother had the distinction of having their mug shots sent out in the same prostitution-sting press release.

Next week, the woman accused of murdering her daughter goes on trial.

That was little Brook Stagles, who was 3, living with the guy who knocked up Ashlee and his girlfriend. They allegedly beat the hell out of her, and finally, about a year ago, she gave out, and her smiling picture still haunts a community. 

Like it probably haunts Ashlee Geer.

That's pretty sad, but Lyell Avenue's the kind of place that likes to double down on grief, and that leads to another picture in that press release. Among the 17 women caught that night, along side Kelly Mollnow and Ashlee Geer, was Crystal Vrooman.

You can watch her interviewed on YouTube, and read her quotes in the paper, from what she said when they buried her son.

He was a little fellow named Tyler Doohan.

And in 2014 in a single-wide in a trailer park in Penfield there broke out a fire where he and eight or nine others were crammed for the night. 

Tyler was 9.

A 4-year-old cousin woke to the fire, and that roused Tyler, who awakened six others and hurried them out of the trailer. Then, outside and safe, he didn't see his handicapped grandfather -- Crystal Vrooman's father -- and ran back in to get him. 

Firefighters found them together, huddled together in the old man's bed. 

At the funeral, the firefighters honored Tyler as if he was one of their own, and Crystal Vrooman spoke of love and loss and the purity of a little boy.

She was a woman of medium weight then, with a smooth and youthful complexion. In her booking photo, she is gaunt and has the meth pox across her face. 

And she looks typical of those in her trade, in various stages of death and decline, walking the avenue in their tragic parade. 

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