Man is charged with 5 murders

DETROIT - A man suspected of going from port to port strangling women while in the Navy might have begun killing eight years ago, and his victim total could reach 20, police said yesterday.

John Eric Armstrong, 26, was charged yesterday with five murders and is suspected in at least 11 other slayings since 1992: three in the Seattle area, two in Hawaii, two in Hong Kong and one each in North Carolina, Virginia, Thailand and Singapore.

Detroit Assistant Police Chief Marvin Winkler said victims may total 18 to 20 worldwide, including prostitute strangulations in Japan, Korea and Israel.

Many of the cities are ports of call for the USS Nimitz, on which police say Armstrong served for about eight years as a fueler. The carrier was based at Bremerton from July 2, 1987, to Sept. 1, 1997.

All the alleged victims were women who were strangled, except one, a man supposedly killed in Seattle, Detroit police said. Investigators believe he has killed three prostitutes in the Seattle area and one near Spokane.

Seattle and King County police said yesterday they are awaiting additional information from Detroit authorities to determine if Armstrong really is connected with any homicides here.

"They haven't provided us with much yet," said Seattle police spokeswoman Pam McCammon. "But we'll try to track any of the information that they give us as it comes in."

"We get reports monthly of serial killers; it's a pretty common occurence," added King County police spokesman Gregg Walker. "So, until the people that are talking to this guy have enough credible information to say where the killings happened or something, it'd be like fishing for a needle in a haystack."

Dick Steiner, an investigator with the Washington state Attorney General's Office, said officials have not been able to find any open cases of homicides for the dates and locations Armstrong has given Detroit police.

"Nothing has panned out so far," he said.

"The problem is that it turns out now he is changing his story so much, nobody's going to have a tendency to believe much of what he has to say" about homicides in Washington.

Winkler said the first slaying that police think is linked to Armstrong occurred in North Carolina in 1992. He is originally from New Bern, N.C.

Armstrong was arrested early Wednesday in an area of Detroit frequented by prostitutes. Police have been questioning him without an attorney present. He's cooperating and hasn't asked for a lawyer, they said.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Robert Agacinski said Armstrong would be arraigned today on five counts of premeditated murder and three counts of assault with intent to murder. The murder charges carry mandatory sentences of life in prison if convicted.

The Navy began investigating after receiving a call from the FBI on Wednesday, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Larry Thomas said.

Material from The Associated Press, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Reuters and Seattle Times staff reporter Charles E. Brown is included in this report.