Introduction by KJ Howe:
Jode Millman lived a true crime novel—the front porch of her office was used as brothel meet-up spot. Endless calls to law enforcement never resulted in any disciplinary action. But then women started disappearing one-by-one…
This is the deeply disturbing premise Jode used for her novel Hooker Avenue, a must-read thriller.
My Brushes with a Serial Killer
by Jodé Millman
The true crime multiple murders which inspired my latest thriller, Hooker Avenue, occurred in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The small city of Poughkeepsie (pop. 30,500) is situated seventy-five miles north of New York City and was settled by the Dutch in 1609. The city derived its unusual name from the Wappinger Indians tribe–“reed-covered lodge by the little water place,” and little did our ancestors know that their idyllic, pristine place would harbor heinous crimes and mysteries.
When I was growing up, we all considered Potown (as we natives call it) to be a safe place to raise your family. However, somewhere along way, crime rose, and we lost our innocence. I depicted one of the first landmarks of this disintegration in my debut thriller, The Midnight Call. In August 1979, my former Forbus Junior High School history teacher, Albert Fentress, slaughtered a teenage boy trespassing through his yard. In a precedent-setting case, the court acquitted Fentress on the grounds of criminal insanity, but indefinitely confined him to a mental health facility.
Almost twenty years later, another tragedy rocked our community. It was the case of People vs. Kendall Francois, which inspired Hooker Avenue. In 1998, I discovered that the inciting incidents of Francois’ crimes had literally occurred on my doorstep. And in a bizarre twist of fate, my path crossed with this case three times until its conclusion in 2000.
In the autumn of 1995, my business partner and I purchased a converted two-family brick building for our law offices in downtown Poughkeepsie. Unbeknownst to us, the property came with a major flaw. Prostitutes plied their wares on our front porch and serviced their patrons in the covered garage across the street.
Our persistent complaints to the police initially yielded little result. However, gradually, the women vanished from our porch steps, and we believed the cops were doing their job. Years later, we discovered the truth.
In early September 1998, I learned about Kendall Francois. Francois was a 27-year-old black man employed as hall monitor at the Arlington Middle School. The gigantic, 300-pound Army veteran was chameleon-quiet, and unassuming, and he moved unobserved through the community. However, from October 1996 to August 1998, Francois solicited, engaged in sex with, and strangled eight women. Each of his victims had documented histories of prostitution and drug addiction, and were white, petite and between the ages of twenty-seven and fifty-one. His favorite pickup spot—the front porch of my law office.
During that two-year period, the police had ignored the missing persons reports filed by the sex workers’ families. Finally, in August 1998, after vocal criticism by the women’s relatives, a regional task force was created to investigate the mysteries. Unfortunately, the cooperative efforts of the City and Town of Poughkeepsie police, New York State and the FBI proved unsuccessful.
On September 1, 1998, the case cracked wide open when one prostitute escaped from Francois’s City of Poughkeepsie home. She had performed sex with Francois and he had brutally assaulted her. After being detained by the police on the assault charges, Francois admitted choking the victim and strangling four of the missing women. Over the next twenty-eight days, eight decomposed female bodies were found and extracted from Francois’ basement and attic in the ramshackle home he occupied with his parents and sister.
My memory remains clear about the disruptive days following the breaking news. On one such day, my father, my two young sons and I were returning home from errands when the police sent us on a detour as the helicopters whirled overhead. Curious, my kids questioned the police barricades and media presence in our neighborhood, prompting a tough conversation about the dangerous man living down the block. To this day, my now-grown sons vividly recall the incident.
Francois’ arrest is not where the story ends. Because of the coincidental repeal of New York State’s capital punishment law, Francois was spared the death penalty. In August 2000, Francois pleaded guilty to seventeen counts: eight for Murder in the first degree (life without parole), eight for Murder in the second degree (25 years to life) and 1 count of Attempted Assault in the second degree (1 1/3 years to 4 years).
My last encounter with Kendall Francois was in the Dutchess County Courthouse in June 2000, where I observed the plea hearing. It was heartbreaking to listen as the families shared stories about their lost women and pled for justice. Francois, who stood six feet, four inches tall, was unrepentant. It was bone chilling to be in the presence of a ruthless serial killer, and it was an experience that plagued me throughout the years. Yet, it sparked my imagination.
In my novel, Hooker Avenue, the fates of a single mom attorney and her former BFF, a black female detective, collide when a mysterious woman leads them down the path of a serial killer. Besides entertaining the lovers of crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers, I hope to draw attention to the failure of the criminal justice system to prevent, adequately investigate, and punish perpetrators of violence against women. We are all entitled to equal protection under the law, regardless of sex, race, religion or economic status. Let’s hope that happens soon so that Francois’s victims have not died in vain.
JODÉ MILLMAN is the multi-award winning author of THE MIDNIGHT CALL, and the best-selling SEATS: NEW YORK Theatre guidebooks. Her latest thriller, HOOKER AVENUE, is available in April 2022. She’s an attorney, a reviewer for Booktrib.com, the host/producer of the Backstage with the Bardavon podcast, and creator of The Writer’s Law School. Jodé lives with her family in the Hudson Valley, where she is at work on her next novel in her “Queen City Crime” series—novels inspired by true crimes in the valley she calls home. Discover more about Jodé and her work at www.jodemillman.com.