Is there a serial killer loose in the state?

State and local authorities hesitate to use that sinister phrase, but say there is plenty of evidence to warrant posing the question.

Authorities will sit down Tuesday and share information about the slayings of six women in the Hartford area and five or six other unsolved homicides in the state dating to 1987.

It's too early to say whether a serial killer is responsible for some or all of the cases, said Henry Lee, director of the state's forensic lab. But authorities plan to look closely at how the women were killed and any links among the cases.

"We are going to reassess everything case by case," Lee said.

If investigators found even three of the killings were committed by the same person, that alone would meet the FBI definition of a serial killer: someone who kills three or more times with "a cooling-off period" between each "event."

And the concern is warranted by just looking at unsolved slayings in Connecticut, said James Alan Fox, dean of the criminal justice college at Northeastern University in Boston.

Fox, who is a consultant on the Gainesville, Fla., serial killings, said a review of unsolved killings of women in Connecticut during the past 15 years is cause enough for alarm.

Fox has studied serial killers for 12 years, conducting one of the first statistical studies of the grisly phenomenon and serving as a co-author for a book, "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace," on mass murderers and serial murderers.

At The Courant's request, Fox examined a computer database composed of police reports on about 2,000 Connecticut homicides from 1976 through 1989, of which about 25 percent -- the national average -- were initially reported unsolved.

During that 14-year period, Fox found unsolved cases of about 32 minority women, ages 10 to 30, who were strangled, stabbed or beaten to death in the state. Those occurred at a rate of slightly more than two a year.

Since January 1990, the rate has doubled. A database put together by The Courant from newspaper stories and medical examiner records showed at least six similar unsolved slayings from January 1990 to June 1991. 1990.

The overall number of cases since 1976 is too few to prove a pattern of serial killings. After all, the addition of a few killings can give the appearance of a huge increase in the rate.

But Fox said apparent similarities in the backgrounds of some of the women -- particularly indications of prostitution or the trading of sex for drugs -- suggest that a serial killer may be active.

"The numbers alone give rise to the strong suspicion that a serial killer is at work," he said. "When you get a string like that you have to take a look."

Fox said, in general, police are hesitant to say they have a serial killer because of what the phrase implies.

"It means you have a killing machine out there. That's what it does," Fox said. "And it will keep killing until it is caught or it dies. And often the killings will become more brutal and more frequent."

Investigators, who will meet Tuesday, will include state police, Hartford police, South Windsor police, Lee from the forensic lab, the state medical examiner's office, the Hartford state's attorney's office, and local agents from the FBI.

Those authorities will face many of the same problems many have encountered throughout the nation. Initially, investigators may not recognize evidence of a serial killer because he often begins by preying on prostitutes. Prostitutes are easy marks because they willingly get into a car with strangers.