278 men: Rapist search angers black males

He's been raping women since 1997, and has been positively linked to six attacks, the most recent in April. But the serial rapist has claimed other victims: The hundreds of black males who've been eyed with suspicion by police and asked to submit DNA samples.

Robin Gatewood's husband, Ricky, is one of them. Police told the father of four girls that he was on a list of suspects and asked him for a DNA sample. "He initially didn't want to do it because he hadn't done anything," says his wife.

After police approached him twice and said they were under pressure to clear his name from the list, Gatewood finally agreed to meet officers at the Gordon Avenue Library to provide the sample, called a buccal swab, which is taken with a Q-tip rubbed inside the mouth.

"We have four kids," says Robin Gatewood. "We didn't want to have police coming here to the house."

Gatewood says her husband is 43 and does not fit the description of the 6-foot-tall, mid-20s to late-30s athletically built black male suspect.

"It hurt his pride," she says. "It made him feel like he was back into the time when you'd be accused because of the color of your skin."

She adds, "No man wants to say he was on a rapist suspect list. My husband was embarrassed."

Dena Bowers, area NAACP chairperson, agrees. "It's devastating to this particular demographic," says Bowers. "They're paranoid by being that gender and that race."

In May, Bowers held public civil rights hearings and says there were testimonies from other women who've had this happen to their spouses.

So far, police have eliminated 278 African-American men as suspects. "I think some rights have been infringed," says Gatewood. And she wonders, "What else are they doing with that DNA?"

The samples themselves are sitting in the Charlottesville police evidence room, says Sgt. Ralph Barfield, the forensics supervisor. "We don't have any choice; we have to keep the samples we sent to the lab for elimination," he says. "It's up to the court to tell us what to do with them."

Barfield says he's gotten a number of calls from those who've provided DNA samples and been eliminated as suspects. They want to know what's happening with their genetic material.

Perhaps more alarming to these suspects is that their DNA has been entered into the state DNA database. "There's nothing in the code section that prohibits that," says Robin Porter at the Virginia Division of Forensic Science in Richmond.

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, notes that while Virginia law allows taking DNA samples from those arrested for violent felonies, if the person is not convicted, their DNA is not entered into the database and must be purged and destroyed.

But Willis points out, "This is different: People are voluntarily giving the DNA." He suggests that suspects may be able to use that as a bargaining chip and specify they'll give the sample only if it doesn't go into the state databank.

For Willis, the request for DNA samples from a segment of the population that could encompass every black male poses a danger that's "ultimately racial profiling." Because it's given voluntarily, he says, technically it's not a violation of constitutional rights.

"In reality, there's a great deal of coercion attached to the circumstances," he says. "Police say, 'We believe you may be a rapist. Here's how to clear yourself.'"

Three months after her husband was swabbed, Robin Gatewood is still outraged. But at least he's been eliminated from the suspect list, right? She says he never heard back from the police. "We figured he would have been arrested if he hadn't been cleared," she says.

Gatewood also says she overheard two police officers say they're supposed to stop anybody black in the UVA area.

"If an officer has that impression, I'd like to know," says Police Chief Tim Longo. "To stop someone solely on the basis of race violates department policy."

Longo contends that because the suspect is black, race is an objective criterion, but a stop can't be made on race alone. "It has to be coupled with other factors: time of day, like whether someone is peeping in a window or lurking in the bushes at 3am." Officers must be able to articulate their suspicions, not make a stop based on a gut feeling, explains Longo.

In a July 24 Hook story, three black men complained about being stopped and asked for DNA samples while they were walking down the street in the UVA area. The ACLU's Willis calls that "desperate policing" that's highly unlikely to yield results.

"If we're stopping with race as the sole factor, that's not desperate policing, it's unconstitutional," replies Longo, and he encourages those who feel they've been unfairly stopped to come to him. "If we got a bad stop," explains Longo, "it could be the serial rapist, and the case could be thrown out the window."

Aside from two conversations with people expressing concerns about the stops of black males as rapist suspects, Longo says he hasn't gotten any official complaints.

Black community leader Alvin Edwards, pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, hasn't heard people complaining about the targeting of black males "other than those who've felt there's always profiling."

Gatewood is dismayed that there haven't been more complaints. "I was surprised people weren't as angry," she says.

"I do feel sorry for the women who've been raped," she continues, "but I think we have a lot of men who've been raped and violated."