On guard: Women brace against serial rapist

He's already picked his next victim. In fact, police believe the serial rapist currently terrorizing women in Charlottesville may have identified as many as a dozen or more targets.

Police Chief Tim Longo calls this man's effect on the community "devastating." Even a simple pleasure like taking a child to the park in the middle of the afternoon has been violated.

"You don't expect to be knocked to the ground," says Longo, referring to the December 30 attack on a woman at Greenleaf Park that police suspect is the work of the serial rapist. "You don't expect to have sexually inappropriate remarks made when you're out with your child in a park."

And fear of the rapist has turned a community where women normally feel safe walking alone into one where they're walking or jogging in groups of three or four.

Police have known that a serial rapist was on the prowl in town since 1999, when DNA evidence linked a Charlottesville attack with one in Waynesboro two years earlier. The rapist struck twice more in 2000, and then there was an apparent hiatus, until attacks police think are linked started again in August 2002.

It was the brutal assault of a woman in the Willoughby subdivision off Fifth Street Extended on November 11 that provided the genetic evidence that told police for sure their man was back.

So far, DNA has connected the predator to five assaults, and he's a suspect in seven others– including the most recent Greenleaf Park attack, where similarities in the method of assault, comments the attacker made, or in the descriptions of him have drawn the attention of police.

"There are circumstances in each of these [other cases] that make us want to look at them," says Charlottesville Detective Sergeant Richard Hudson.

Local law enforcement is encouraging people to call 911 if they see someone out of place: a man sitting in a car alone at 1am, or one who makes a woman feel concerned or uncomfortable for any reason.

"There's a serious predator out there," says Hudson. "He's a shadows kind of guy."

Here's a chronology of the attacks so far and police are quick to point out that there may be others that haven't been reported. The list starts with the five assaults that have been linked through DNA. Seven others follow that police suspect may be the work of the same man.

 

Positive DNA links

February 11, 1997

 A professional woman in her late 20s was on business in Waynesboro. She returned to her room at the Comfort Inn around midnight, and then left her room door open while she went to her car to get her laptop computer. She was attacked when she returned to her room, but she wasn't sure whether the attacker had been inside all along or followed her in, according to Waynesboro police.

The woman was raped, but she wasn't beaten as women in the more recent attacks have been. She provided a description of a black male with an athletic build and hair short on the sides and flat on top.

By the end of 1999, DNA from that incident would be linked to another rape in Charlottesville. And as all the other attacks have taken place here, police wonder: Why was he in Waynesboro that night?

 

June 12, 1999

 It was before midnight when a Brazilian woman in her early 30s returned from work to her house in the 2300 block of Jefferson Park Avenue, an area near Fry's Spring that houses more graduate students and UVA employees than undergraduates.

The attacker entered through an unlocked window and was waiting for the woman in her bedroom. He choked her and pulled her hair, and more chillingly, told her he'd been watching her.

The room was dark, which made it hard for the victim to give a good description of her attacker. And yet, she told police she felt like she'd seen him before, perhaps on her street.

After the attack, in the dust on the rear window of the woman's car, "RICK" was written, which she hadn't noticed before. Is it a clue? Police aren't sure.

Virginia's DNA databank was making its first cold hits around this time, and on December 10, 1999, Charlottesville police were notified that DNA from this rape matched that from the Waynesboro attack two years earlier. It was the first link in two jurisdictions to an unknown assailant through DNA.

 

April 15, 2000

 A UVA student in her early 20s was awakened around 2am by a man's hand over her mouth and his arm around her neck. He threatened to choke her if she made any noise.

So while another person slept in the ground floor apartment in the 400 block of 13th Street NW, the young woman was raped, a "serious sexual assault," says Capt. Chip Harding, without providing further details.

The assailant entered through a kitchen window in the back of the apartment, continuing his pattern of unforced entry into a residence.

Once again, because of the darkness of the room, the woman was unable to provide enough of a description for a composite drawing. She did describe a medium to light-complexioned male weighing between 180 and 200 pounds.

And once again, DNA from this assault was linked to the two earlier attacks.

By now, police realized they had a serial rapist. "We were taking DNA evidence from every burglary to the lab to see if it linked to these," says Detective Sergeant Ralph Barfield, who's in charge of forensics for the Charlottesville police. "The state lab was aware and looking for a match."

 

May 3, 2000

 A little more than two weeks after the April 15 attack, a UVA undergrad was in the Lambeth Parking lot off Emmet Street across from U-Hall at 2:40am. Her attacker jumped from beside a parked car and grabbed her. Using "excessive force," according to police, he choked and beat her. And he indicated that his intention was a sexual assault.

This woman knew karate, fought back, and was able to escape. "She was a better fighter than he was," Lieutenant J.W. Gibson says.

Her injuries did not require hospitalization. However, university police noticed blood on the coed's clothing. They sent it away, and again found a match with the serial rapist.

Afterward, several witnesses reported noticing a man in the vicinity who was looking at women. "If people see a man looking at women, we'd like them to call," says Harding.

Like the previous attacks, this one occurred between 10pm and 4am, when police believe the predator is looking for victims at a time when there aren't a lot of witnesses around.

Unlike the earlier cases, the level of violence in this assault had escalated since the Waynesboro rape. Another difference was that it took place outside a dwelling.

And it would be the last police heard of this guy until 2002, when attacks resumed with a vengeance.

 

November 11, 2002

 The 40ish woman had been out running errands on a Monday morning. When she returned to her home in the middle class Willoughby neighborhood around 9am, she thought her house was secure because of the deadbolt on the door. What she didn't know was that a back door inadvertently had been left open.

This would be the rapist's most horrific attack yet. Police decline to say whether a weapon was involved, but they do say the woman was brutally beaten. She was hospitalized, and her serious facial injuries required multiple surgeries.

The attacker used what police and criminologists call a blitz attack. He catches his target by surprise and strikes quickly with a blow that incapacitates her.

The woman described the man as a black male approximately six feet tall, weighing 200 pounds. "It's very difficult for someone who's suffered a trauma like this to have a complete and accurate recollection of the assailant," says Sgt. Hudson.

Several other attacks had occurred since August, but the DNA from this one confirmed to police that they were dealing with the same rapist involved in the earlier unsolved attacks. Where had he been the past two years?

Concerned with the escalating violence of the attacks, police formed a multi-jurisdictional group with investigators from Charlottesville, Waynesboro, Albemarle, and UVA police departments.

And on November 25, Charlottesville police held a press conference to announce the genetic links in the five cases and to alert the public that a dangerous predator is on the loose.

 

Possible links

 Since August 2002, there have been seven other attacks that police believe may be connected to this same rapist. While there is no genetic link, "There are enough similarities that we want to look at them," says Harding. "In a case of this magnitude, we look at everything."

Adds city police DNA expert Barfield, "The thing you'll notice is that this cranks up in August, and by September he's violent. Why August?"

 

August 3, 2002

 When the UVA undergrad came home at 4am, she had no reason to suspect that someone had entered her apartment on Madison Avenue even though the door was unlocked. After all, she lived on the second floor and probably didn't consider someone coming in through an unlocked door on the balcony.

She was getting ready for bed in a dark room when an intruder struck her hard with his fist the same blitz attack used in the Willoughby case.

This woman fought and kicked her assailant, who ran away, taking with him some small items from the apartment. She was treated and released from UVA Medical Center.

"The caveat is that we don't know whether this was a burglar," warns Lt. Gibson.

But there were enough similarities in the circumstances– the entry through an unlocked window or door, the late hour and the blitz attack– to make police believe this case is connected.

 

September 26, 2002

 A lot of graduate students live in Ivy Gardens on Ivy Road. In her third-floor apartment, the 22-year-old had just lain down around 2am when she heard a noise. As she rose up out of bed, she was greeted with a blow to the face.

Police aren't sure how that attacker made his way into her bedroom, whether he climbed up to the balcony or came in through the front door. There was no sign of a forced entry.

Albemarle's Sgt. Shawn Schwertfeger calls the attack a sexual assault. "She was fondled, but not raped," he says. And he declines to comment on what prevented the predatory male from raping the young woman, who suffered minor injuries as a result of the attack.

Police collected fluids they thought were blood but weren't– from the scene, but found no scientific link to the serial rapist. So why do they think it's the same guy?

"Some of his mannerisms and things he said were very similar to some of the other attacks," says Schwertfeger. Once again, the attacker appeared in a darkened room in the middle of the night and made a blitz attack.

But that M.O. was about to change.

 

September 26, 2002

 Thirteen hours later, a 27-year-old grad student returned to her Georgetown Green apartment at 3:15pm. A man stepped in the door behind her and claimed he knew someone who lived there. After asking to use the phone, he started punching her repeatedly in the head.

Fortunately, other people were in the dwelling, and when the woman screamed, her attacker fled. Her lacerations were minor, and she did not require hospitalization.

This encounter in broad daylight gave the victim enough of a look at the aggressor to provide a description for the FBI to make a composite sketch. Judging its accuracy on a scale of one to ten, the woman rated the sketch a 5.5.

No genetic material was collected, but police believed all along it was the same guy because of the similar physical description of the man, the blitz attack, the remarks he made to his target and because it happened on the same day as the previous attack.

"That kind of behavior doesn't happen every day," says Sgt. Hudson.

 

October 15, 2002

 Four roommates share a ground floor apartment in the 800 block of Cabell Avenue. One of them was asleep at 4am when a man walked into her bedroom through the unlocked front door. At first she thought she knew him, but she quickly realized it was not who she thought it was when he started punching her.

Because of the location of her bed in the room, his blows landed on her legs and she responded by kicking. Her screams alerted her roommates, and the man ran away, leaving her with deep bruises on her leg and lacerations, according to Harding.

She described a black male between 5' 10" and 6' tall, weighing around 200 pounds, wearing a baseball cap and a dark sweatshirt with a logo.

The third-year student provided details for a drawing that was done on police computers. It looks very different from the September 26 attacker's portrait, but the victim said it looked like her attacker.

On his way out, the intruder took some small items. Investigators concede he could have been a burglar, but they don't seem to think so. A black male entering an unlocked residence in the middle of the night who launches a blitz attack on a woman? They've seen this behavior before.

 

October 19, 2002

 The Cavaliers were getting ready to take on the Tarheels at Scott Stadium. At 10:40am, a grad student rode her bike over to Hospital West. As she walked to the elevator, someone grabbed her from behind. She saw a black hand and screamed. The attacker ran.

No other witnesses were in the area. The woman described a black male, about 5'10" tall and weighing 180 pounds. She said he was between 30 and 40 years old.

Was it the same man involved in the other attacks? "We have no way of determining that at this time," says Captain Michael Coleman at University Police. "We can't connect it, but we can't not connect it either."

 

November 12, 2002

 One day after the brutal Willoughby attack, a black male came into the Poolside CafĂ© at the UVA Aquatics and Fitness Center around 9:30am. He'd been talking to a fortysomething African American woman who works there when he grabbed her buttocks from behind. When she resisted, he took off.

She described the groper as medium-complexioned, between 20 and 30 years old, 5'10", and 150 pounds. He had a short curly Afro, and was wearing an aqua or light blue long-sleeved shirt.

Police don't want to exclude this assault, but admit it's the one least like the earlier incidents. "I think it's less likely the same person was involved because of the fact that it wasn't an isolated situation," says Coleman at UVA police, who points out there were plenty of people around that day at the Aquatics Center.

Also, he thinks the way the employee was grabbed is different. "There was no effort to grab to control her," he says. "This was a touching type of incident."

And Charlottesville police point out that all the other victims were white.

"It's a situation where we cannot exclude it anymore than we can say it's connected," says Coleman.

 

December 30, 2002

 A 34-year-old woman took her toddler to isolated Greenleaf Park. A man walked up to her, engaged her in innocuous conversation, and then walked off.

"We think he was checking out the area to make sure no one else was around," says the city's Sgt. Hudson.

The man returned, grabbed the woman, and threw her to the ground. She struggled and screamed. Her child joined in the screaming, and the assailant ran off. Neither the woman nor her child was injured.

So why do police think this assault is connected to the serial rapist? Besides a similar description black male in his mid-20s, 5'8" tall, and weighing approximately 170 pounds the man made a comment to the woman similar to what's been said in other attacks. Police decline to say what the remark was.

For police, the incident afforded one major break: "This victim had the best opportunity to view him in broad daylight," says Lt. Gibson.

FBI artist Gene O'Donnell made a composite sketch. On the 1-to-10 accuracy scale, the woman rated it an 8.5. "Once you break 8," says Hudson, "it's a portrait."

As they compare it to the composite made after the September 26 Georgetown Green attack, police are not worried about discrepancies.

"Look at the hairline, the width of the nose, the eyes, and the lips," says Gibson.

"The longer you look at them, the more they look like the same person," adds Hudson.

 

Closing in

 As the violence of the attacks has escalated, so have police efforts to find the perpetrator. "Every available hour, every available resource is going to sift through evidence from other assaults," says Chief Longo.

When DNA evidence linked the November 11 Willoughby attack to the two that had happened three and five years earlier, police called a press conference to alert the public. Some people wonder whether police waited too long to tell the public there was a serial rapist.

"In my opinion, the police should have notified the public as soon as they found out," says Kevin Cox. "That's a public safety issue."

Capt. Harding says he mentioned the serial rapist when he talked to CBS News and other media two years ago. And then came the two-year hiatus in the attacks.

Investigators believe the predator may already be on the Charlottesville police database, even if only for a traffic ticket.

What if he were in jail for the two years when no attacks occurred? "If he was incarcerated in Virginia for a felony, we'd have a DNA sample in the database," says Harding.

Police are taking the composite drawings to the jails, where inmates convicted of misdemeanors would not be on the DNA database, in hopes of shaking out a lead. "A lot of the criminal population don't like people who rape," points out Harding. "It hits too close to their sisters or their mothers."

Harding notes that effective January 1, everyone who is arrested for a violent felony must submit to DNA testing. "If he gets arrested, we're taking a sample," says Harding.

So far, they've looked at over 200 people and have conclusively eliminated 100.

Do they have a suspect, then? "No," says Longo. "I wish we did."

There have been a few tantalizingly close calls from women who reported after the fact suspicious behavior of a man making inappropriate remarks and who appeared to be following them. Unfortunately, police weren't notified until too late, and they stress that this is the type of situation where they want an immediate call to 911.

In other cases, potential witnesses say they didn't report anything because they didn't want to appear racist. Is there any danger of police casting too wide a net looking for black male suspects, and in some cases asking them for a buccal swab, swiping the inside of the mouth to obtain a DNA sample?

"Legally, police have the right to ask," says Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. "Where the ACLU is uncomfortable is that in most circumstances when police make a request for a search, it's not voluntary because people feel coerced."

Harding wants to let people know they shouldn't worry about accusing the wrong person. "We've got the DNA" that will clear any innocent suspects, he says.

Even if citizens noticed suspicious behavior in their neighborhood three weeks ago, Longo encourages them to make a call to Crimestoppers at 977-4000 because, "Every piece of information gives us a better chance of finding him."

Police are also working closely with other jurisdictions so that if there's an attack in one, the others are notified. Albemarle's Sgt. Schwertfeger reassures people who worry that they're bothering police or that the information may not be relevant. "That's what we're here for," he says.

Longo also notes that he's asked officers to be more vigilant in checking parks, alleyways, parking lots, and wooded areas behind homes, where someone could be sitting in a car. When they're not on emergency calls, he's encouraging them to patrol wooded areas near residential areas on foot.

Police know there's someone out there who knows who this rapist is. "It could be his true domestic partner who recognizes him from the composites," says Gibson. He calls the assumption that a rapist has no wife or girlfriend a "myth."

Already, Longo envisions how this case is going to be broken. "My gut tells me a citizen is going to see something or someone around a park or neighborhood that makes them feel uncomfortable."

And Harding predicts what the response to the capture of this predator, who probably seems pretty normal when he's not out raping and beating up women, will be: "Someone will say, 'We can't believe it's him.'"