The morning chill was still in the air December 14 when the news flew up and down Colfax Avenue: "Shorty's dead. Murdered. The midget hooker is dead." The street people knew before the media, before the coroner, before many of the cops on the beat.

Another dead prostitute. But Belinda Bridgmon's murder was different. Even as police uncovered the tiny body--which had been wrapped in plastic, placed in a cardboard box and left in a dumpster--people began collecting to watch and mourn. Street denizens hardened by violence stood by and wept. Several women from a nearby day shelter huddled together and hugged each other as they cried. Police officers--some who'd come to the scene only because they'd heard that the dead woman was Belinda--choked back tears.

Barely nineteen, Belinda was too young to have been working the streets. And at three-foot-ten, she was much too vulnerable. A lot of people had tried to help Belinda go straight, tried to get her jobs. It was just too dangerous out there. But Belinda, who was a dwarf, not a midget, never could--or never would--quit prostitution or her crack pipe. And now, a year after she'd started hooking, she was dead.

One of the Denver cops who came to the crime scene was patrolwoman Snow White, a former rookie officer of the year. She'd arrested Belinda before and had developed a liking for her. Snow White and a dwarf. For the self-styled comics on the street, the possibilities were endless. But White and Bridgmon never joked about it. On Colfax, laughs were hard to come by.

White was on vacation the morning of the murder, but when she heard about it, she skipped a planned breakfast with friends to rush to the alley where Belinda lay. "I wanted to see her," White says. "It just didn't seem right to me." As White watched the crime-scene investigators go about their work, she remembered the last time she'd seen Belinda. She'd arrested her and was waiting with her near a holding cell at the city jail when, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Belinda was crying. "She turned away," White says. "She didn't want us to see her crying. I thought how awful it must be for her.

"It was a rotten life and a rotten way to end a life," White continues. "But it's very, very hard for prostitutes to get out. I haven't talked to many of them that have."

The police still feel the jolt of Belinda's death. For others like her, however, the fear, shock and caution are already fading.

Patsy Hughes works near Capitol Hill, walking Colfax Avenue almost every day in search of customers. Her strawberry-blond hair hangs past the shoulders of her flannel shirt as she strolls slowly, eyeing each car that passes. Her face is dotted with freckles, her blue eyes bright. Her teeth, however, are neglected and rotting. Crack has got a hold on her, the cops say, just as it did on Belinda and most of the others.

"It's so messed up, what happened to her," Hughes says of Belinda. "I heard somebody cut her throat. I heard a bunch of rumors that she was chopped up."

None of that street gossip was true, but Hughes says she was spooked by Belinda's death anyway. "A lot of girls out here are ending up dead," she says, her eyes wide. "God, it's so awful. Lately, it's scary out here. I don't like coming out here at night no more."

But a cohort's murder won't stop Hughes. Belinda didn't stop, either, when a friend of hers turned up dead last summer. "What it comes down to," Hughes explains, "is you do what you have to do."

Sandy Bridgmon and Rodney Fosburgh met in Hammond, Indiana, in the mid-1970s, during the days of "peace, love and understanding," as Rodney is fond of saying. She was 20. He was 24 and "madly in love. I never loved anyone the way I loved that woman."

The two didn't bother much with birth control--Rodney had told Sandy he thought he was sterile. "I'd been with lots of women, and nothing ever took," he says. But a month into their relationship, Sandy became pregnant.

Rodney claims to have been delighted with Sandy's condition, but it wasn't a propitious time for them to be bringing a baby into the world. They were both drinking too much, says Rodney, and had little to no money. One time, when money was tighter than usual, he says, he let a friend talk him into stealing a television set. He was caught and spent a week in the county jail.

When their daughter was born, on October 27, 1975, the doctors knew right away that something was wrong. The baby was underweight, and her arms and legs were disproportionately small. On her birth certificate, doctors noted that Belinda Sue Bridgmon was a Russell-Silver dwarf, afflicted with a rare genetic mutation.