INSIDE STORY: How Falls Police detectives finally cracked the cold case murder of Terri Lynn Bills

  • In US
  • 2022-09-23 11:21:00Z
  • By Niagara Gazette, Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Sep. 23-EDITOR'S NOTE - In mid-December 2019, Falls police reached-out to reporter Rick Pfeiffer to alert him that they were on the verge of cracking an infamous cold case homicide. They offered Pfeiffer a chance to report, in detail, on the diligent and dogged detective work it had taken to find a suspect in the murder of Terri Lynn Bills. A heavily edited version of this story was first published on March 4, 2020. That story was edited to comply with a protective order requested by Niagara County prosecutors and issued by then Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon. This is the unedited inside story of how Falls cops caught the man who would later admit that he was Terri Lynn Bills' killer.

The call to Terri Lynn Bills' family came in early January 2020.

Falls Police investigators wanted them to come to headquarters for a meeting.

"They thought we were calling them to tell them we had found more (body) parts," now retired Criminal Investigation Division commander Capt. Kelly Rizzo said. "It never occurred to me that they would think that."

But Rizzo, and then cold case Detective, now Criminal Investigation Division Lt. Troy Earp, had other news. They were ready to charge a suspect in the gruesome dismemberment killing of Bills.

The five-year-old cold case had gotten very warm.

A horrific discovery

The investigation into the death of Terri Lynn Bills began unfolding on the night of June 16, 2015.

Two women, passing by an abandoned home on Willow Avenue, noticed a terrible stench coming from inside the home. One of the women decided to investigate the smell and went inside.

When she looked into the stairwell that led to the basement, she saw what appeared to be a human torso. The head and limbs had been removed from the body.

Police were mystified.

"We have a dead body in the house, we don't know if it's a man or woman yet," now retired Falls Police Capt. Mike Trane said at the time. "We don't know how long the body has been in the house."

Two days later, the torso was identified as that of Bills, 46. She had not been seen for about 10 days before the discovery of her torso.

A sense of fear immediately gripped the city. The case, already classified as a homicide, bore shocking similarities to the unsolved murder of Loretto Jo Gates almost three years earlier.

The Gates' murder mystery began on Aug. 29, 2012, when Canadian law enforcement agencies recovered a torso that was found floating in the lower Niagara River. DNA testing on the torso led to a preliminary identification of the body as Gates, a then missing Falls mother of three.

A week later, Canadian authorities in Niagara Falls, Ont., recovered an arm and leg that were spotted by a fisherman in the Whirlpool Rapids. Those remains were also linked to Gates.

Two days after that discovery, on Sept. 8, 2012, a passer-by noticed a bag floating in Hyde Park Lake, just off Duck Island, and pulled the bag to shore. Inside the plastic garbage bag, investigators found Gates' head and her other arm.

Gates, who was 30 when she disappeared, had last been seen four days before her torso was found, when she left her home to go to a convenience store across the street.

Some in the city were sure a serial killer was on the loose.

"It is hard not to make that connection due to some of the similarities, most notably the condition of these ladies when they were discovered," Rizzo told reporters not long after Bills' torso was identified. "They are also related through marriage, share some physical characteristics and led similar lifestyles."

But Rizzo said Earp, the lead detective in the Bills case, never bought into that theory.

"Of course, there was the fear it was the same person (in the Gates and Bills cases).You have the fear, is this a pattern?", Rizzo said. "But Troy always stuck to the idea it wasn't the same guy. I don't know how he knew, but he knew."

Chasing leads

Veteran homicide investigators have a saying, "Everyone is a suspect." And that was certainly the case in the Bills investigation.

"A lot of suspects," Rizzo said of the list of potential killers.

And that led Falls cops, in the weeks after the discovery of Bills' body, to seek the assistance of other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. A task force of 90 officers and agents hit the Cataract City streets, knocking on doors and searching fields looking for leads.

They ended up with 700 leads and even more suspects. But in Rizzo's words, "None of them panned out."

As the leads from the task force were drying up, Earp began looking at Bills' two cell phones. He painstakingly traced all the numbers he could find on the phones.

One of the numbers traced back to Yasin Abdus-Sabur. The phone number was subscribed to Abdus-Sabur, and a girlfriend he was living with in the Falls.

There also appeared to be a connection between Abdus-Sabur and Bills.

"Abdus-Sabur had some text message exchanges with Terri," Rizzo said. "There were actually a large amount of exchanges. And the texts stopped on the day she went missing (sometime after June 5, 2015)."

Earp began looking for Abdus-Sabur, without much luck.

"Then suddenly, one day, he just turned his Facebook page back on," Earp said. "So we kinda watched him from afar."

Investigators discovered that Abdus-Sabur had moved from the Falls to Gasport. And that he had a new girlfriend.

Then Abdus-Sabur "went ghost" again.

"We looked at him in the beginning," Rizzo said. "We had him on our radar, but it didn't pan out at first."

Enter the FBI

In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation offered the assistance of a forensic anthropologist, an expert in serial killers and dismemberment slayings. The anthropologist poured over the physical evidence from both the Gates and Bills cases.

In his report, the FBI expert agreed with Earp. He believed that there had probably been two two killers.

"When you have a serial killer, they tend to get better at what they do," Rizzo said. "But (the anthropologist) said the cuts (on the bones) in the Bills case were not as clean as in the Gates case. That suggested to him we had two killers."

The feds were on the same page as Earp. And Earp was working to find Abdus-Sabur's former Falls girlfriend.

Fleeing from violence

"We were looking for the person who lived with him at the time (of Bills disappearance and murder)," Rizzo said. In 2017, Earp located her on the west coast.

The woman said she had dated Abdus-Sabur from 2013 to 2015. At first, she agreed to speak with Earp, but the detective said the woman was extremely guarded.

"Her experience (with Abdus-Sabur) was somewhat brutal," Rizzo said. "He would traffic her. He would beat her. She fled (to a location on the West Coast) to get away from him."

In their conversations in 2017, the woman said nothing to Earp about Bills. But she did tell the detective that Abdus-Sabur had killed her dog in an act of intimidation.

"She just kept repeating her fear of him," Rizzo said. "She was terrified."

In March 2018, Earp and the woman spoke again. This time she offered some assistance to find Abdus-Sabur, but the leads were all dead ends.

"I think it was clear she was afraid of him," Rizzo said. "She didn't want to talk."

A move to South Carolina

While Earp worked to earn the trust of Abdus-Sabur's ex-girfriend, the suspect and his new girlfriend were on the move.

In what that woman would later describe as an effort to re-set their relationship, the pair moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina. The move didn't appear to work.

On April 11, 2018, Abdus-Sabur popped back up on the radar of Falls Police detectives when they learned he'd been arrested on domestic violence and child neglect charges in South Carolina. The complaining victim was the girlfriend he lived with in Gasport and had moved south with.

It was an enormous break in the case. Not only did investigators know where Abdus-Sabur was, they knew he was behind bars and no longer a threat to the public.

"It allowed us to not rush, without worrying he'd (kill) again," Rizzo said.

Earp reached out to the South Carolina woman and she gave investigators their first tie between Bills and Abdus-Sabur.

"She told a victim advocate that (Abdus-Sabur) told her he killed a girl in 2015," Rizzo said.

Building a case

Earp contacted the South Carolina woman and she told a tale not unlike Abdus-Sabur's other girlfriend. The woman said he assaulted her and beat her children.

She also told investigators that Abdus-Sabur had told her the story of killing the dog of his former girlfriend. Rizzo said that indicated to the detectives that the West Coast woman was being truthful with them.

Now, they wanted to know more.

"That's when we started jumping up and down and thinking, this might be it," the detective captain said.

The Pierce Avenue connection

Earp had developed information that Abdus-Sabur and the West Coast woman had lived in a home in the 1500 block of Pierce Avenue at the time of Bills' disappearance. The home was well-known to police, with ties to both gang activity and a 2008 homicide.

In May 2019, Earp and then Crime Scene Unit commander Capt. Nick Paonessa reached out to the home's current owner and asked to take a "walk" though the house. As they went to the stairway that led to the home's basement, Paonessa spotted a tiny spot of red on a door frame.

It was the needle in a haystack.

"That's the joy of having a guy like Nick. It was blood," Rizzo said. "And when it was tested, it came back to Terri Lynn Bills."

Key witnesses

Police arranged to bring Abdus-Sabur's South Carolina victim back to the Falls for an interview and the tale she told was chilling.

Not only did Abdus-Sabur tell her he had killed a woman, he told her how he disposed of the body: by dismembering her.

"He told her he dismembered his victim because the Gates case was still open," Rizzo said. "And he thought if he dismembered (his victim) it would give him an alibi because he was incarcerated when Gates went missing."

She also told detectives that the West Coast woman "would say the same thing."

As the summer of 2019 rolled around, Earp again reached out to the woman on the West Coast. His calls went unanswered.

When he texted the woman, she asked him to stop contacting her. So Earp, undaunted, got on an airplane and flew to the West Coast.

A living nightmare

When Earp arrived on the woman's doorstep, accompanied by a local FBI agent, she let them in.

And then she told them, she had been in the Pierce Avenue home when Bills was killed.

The woman said she was recovering from back surgery, something the South Carolina woman had also told investigators. Though she was lying on a couch, she could hear the voice of a woman, arguing with Abdus-Sabur, in a different room.

"She heard what sounded like a struggle and then a female yelling, 'It wasn't me'," Rizzo said. "The screaming became so loud, she said she knew what was happening."

Then the screaming stopped. Detectives believe Bills was either beaten to death or strangled.

Sometime later, the woman said she heard the sound of a saw and smelled a terrible odor. The woman said she never saw Bills' body, but she saw a lot of blood in a bedroom and a lot of blood on the basement stairs.

"She said (Abdus-Sabur) became paranoid about the smell in the basement," Rizzo said. "Then the next day (after the murder), she said she was taking a shower and (Abdus-Sabur) came in and asked if she wanted to see what a human hand looked like."

Abdus-Sabur pulled back the shower curtain and displayed a severed hand.

Disposing of the body

The woman told Earp she went along with her then boyfriend as he disposed of Bills' body parts.

She said he would put the human remains in plastic bags and then they would take "walks." As they walked through alleyways in the Falls, Abdus-Sabur would throw the body parts into garbage totes.

But getting rid of the torso presented a bigger problem.

So Abdus-Sabur found a shopping cart, that didn't make much noise. He put Bills' torso in a large garbage bag and then placed it in the shopping cart.

Abdus-Sabur then took garbage bags filled with empty bottles and cans and placed them on top of the body in the bag. He told the woman in South Carolina that he did that because, "The cops don't stop guys out at night with bags full of cans."

Rizzo said Abdus-Sabur's planning was perfect.

"He's right. The can collectors, they blend-in like furniture," Rizzo said. "They aren't causing any trouble and (police) stop noticing them. And his ability to think like that is crazy."

Abdus-Sabur pushed the cart about a block and a half, to an abandoned home at 1129 Willow Ave., and dumped Bills' torso inside.

Back to Pierce Avenue

In September 2019, police returned to the home at 1526 Pierce Ave., armed with a search warrant and a transportable storage pod. Detectives with the Criminal Investigation Division, Crime Scene Unit and investigators with the Traffic Division's Crash Management Unit spent four days at the home gathering evidence.

Despite Abdus-Sabur's efforts to clean-up what police viewed as the murder scene, investigators said they found ample amounts of forensic evidence. That evidence, along with the witness testimony, became the foundation of the case against Abdus-Sabur.

The motive for the grisly slaying, however, has remained a mystery. It may never be known.

It's not clear how Abdus-Sabur and Bills originally came to know each other.

"We're learning toward a drug connection between them, but we're not positive," Rizzo said. "She had some addiction issues."

What's next?

With Abdus-Sabur pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree murder and being sentenced to 18 years to life in prison, police and prosecutors believe the witnesses in the case can finally feel safe. An order of protection has been issued for the West Coast woman.

And now Earp has returned to trying to solve the Gates homicide.

"The downside, (with Abdus-Sabur's arrest, conviction and sentence) is it doesn't put us any closer to solving Gates," Rizzo said. "The upside, is the people in this city can put their heads on a pillow knowing there isn't a serial killer running around."


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