By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008
Maj. Daniel Dusseau's head throbbed. It was 9 p.m. and nine months into the pursuit of a rapist whose attacks had haunted nearly a dozen of his detectives, sergeants and lieutenants. Only they and nine female victims knew all of the sadistic signatures of the serial rapist the police had been chasing: green rubber gloves, a ski mask, a digital camera and a .22-caliber handgun.
They knew that he had raped women for hours at gunpoint across Prince George's County, snapping pictures and threatening them with death. They knew that he had found them all, professional escorts, through online ads, all but one on Craigslist. They believed that his name was Mark Humphries and that he was so bold he would never stop until he was caught. They also knew that an arrest wouldn't come easily. He had proved so cautious that he left almost no evidence with each attack.
Last week, a day after Humphries killed himself as police waited at the door of a Hyattsville apartment, Dusseau and his team reflected on their lengthy probe and the moment they felt sure they were chasing the right man.
It was dark on the night of May 28. Dusseau, Prince George's head of major crimes, flipped off the lights to his office and walked outside. From the empty parking lot, a solitary figure approached.
"Sir, can I help you?" Dusseau asked. "There's nobody here. Are you here to see a detective?"
"Ya, I'm not sure, I think I'm being followed or harassed" by the police, the man replied. As he moved out of the shadows, Dusseau quickly realized that he was standing face to face with the suspected rapist he had seen only in mug shots.
"My instinct was to arrest him right there, but I knew we didn't have enough evidence yet," Dusseau recalled. "So, I did the only thing I could. I started to talk to him, calmly as I could. I couldn't let him know that we were on to him."
County detectives now consider the encounter the most audacious of several attempts by Humphries to conduct countersurveillance on police during a tricky cat-and-mouse game. "He was trying to figure out what we knew," Dusseau said.
Dusseau attempted to calm the man by complimenting his flashy ride -- the truck with oversize rims and a clown face painted on the hood -- which he had parked in a handicapped spot in front of the police station. Dusseau ended the encounter a half-hour later, promising to look into his complaints.
"Can I take your name?" Dusseau asked. "Humphries, Mark Humphries," the man replied in a cocky manner that Dusseau said became seared in his mind.
They exchanged numbers and a handshake. As Humphries left, Dusseau returned to the police station, where a detective rushed to swab his palm and fingers for Humphries's DNA. The phone number Humphries left would prove the more important clue in solving the string of rapes that had baffled police.
The crimes are among the most grievous ever associated with the online classifieds site Craigslist. Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, would not discuss specifics of the case but said the company would consider additional warnings on its erotic services section and was open to posting messages recommended by law enforcement.
The investigation came to a head in the past two weeks, with Humphries first escaping an elaborate sting, only to be tracked down to an apartment in Hyattsville. There, on Wednesday, he shot himself in the head with the same gun police believe he held to the temples of nine women during the attacks.
"He was methodical, careful even, and it took a long time to piece it all together," Dusseau said.
* * *
Officers almost disregarded the first account of a rape involving green gloves, on Sept. 24, 2007. Despite television dramas about serial rapists, crime statistics show most attacks occur between victims and assailants who know each other and are rarely carried out in such a clearly premeditated fashion. The woman also changed her story about her own circumstances: She said she had gone to the Forestville apartment complex to see a friend. Minutes later, she said she was actually in town from Nevada.
"It was hard for officers to believe," recalled Detective Spencer Harris, who took the call and became the lead detective in the case police would dub "The Craigslist Serial Rapist." "When they told me a little bit more about what she was saying -- the guy wearing green gloves -- I said, 'Something is not right.' "
The victim eventually confided in Harris: She was an escort and getting on a plane back to Reno in the morning. She had posted an ad on Craigslist while in town and had arranged to meet a man that night. When she began walking up the stairwell, "this guy came out of nowhere -- handgun, ski mask," Harris recalled her saying. The rapist attacked her in a storage room for more than two hours, all the while snapping pictures of her and pointing a gun to her head.
In October, less than a month later, Harris got another call from skeptical patrol officers with a similar story.
A woman who had posted an online ad was attacked by a man with a ski mask and gun. But instead of forcing her into the building, he pushed her back into her car and later raped her in a wooded area in Suitland, wearing green gloves and taking pictures .
By early 2008, Prince George's police knew that they were dealing with a serial rapist, one who was carefully planning every detail of his attacks. "We heard 'green gloves' and everybody was in their car, on their way" to the crime scene, recalled Sgt. Robert Taylor, of the department's sexual assault unit.
The rapist always wore long sleeves and pants, even in summer, and stayed mostly clothed throughout the incidents, perhaps to cover tattoos or limit the spread of DNA that could identify him, police said.
Afterward, he would rummage through a victim's belongings, stealing cash, her cellphone and a photo ID. He would thrust the ID into his victim's face and threaten her.
"I know who you are, and if you go to the police, I'll find you and I'll kill you," he would tell victims, said Lt. Genia Reaves, head of the department's special crimes unit.
The man's third, fourth and fifth attacks were almost identical. Calling from different phone numbers, the rapist lured two women he found on Craigslist and one from Qwestpersonals.com to a Temple Hills apartment building. There, he assaulted them on a secluded ninth-floor landing. "Gloves, ski mask, camera, gun. Every time," Taylor said.
One victim did not report the attack, fearing she would be in trouble. But Detective Jonathan Hill found her and delivered the first potential break in the case: She saved the outfit she wore -- "never washed it and put it in a brown paper bag," Hill said.
With her account, police realized that the rapist had struck three times in three weeks. They decided to go public to warn other women. The Feb. 21 news release had the intended effect: After The Washington Post and other media outlets ran the story, the rapes appeared to stop.
The break gave detectives a chance to begin piecing together a profile of their suspect. He had detailed knowledge of apartment buildings, they thought, so perhaps he was a maintenance man or an apartment manager. They subpoenaed records of every man associated with the buildings where attacks occurred, beginning with a pool of more than 100 men. They reviewed cold cases and found a similar case in August 2007, which they attributed to the rapist. They got records on every phone believed to have been used by the rapist to call escorts and looked for patterns.
All the phones were disposable, it turned out, and they had been purchased with cash.
* * *
Then on May 10, detectives were called to a report of rape at a Beltsville hotel.
There were no green gloves, but a man had attacked a woman, who was in town from Atlanta, at gunpoint. He'd masked his face, stolen her cellphone and thrust her ID in her face on the way out -- all while her best friend, another escort, was in the room next door.
When detectives arrived, they asked a familiar question: Had she ever used Craigslist? She logged on to the in-room computer and showed them her ad. The rapist was back, but he'd finally left an important piece of evidence. He had called the victim using the same disposable phone he'd used in his last attack in February. "He must have liked that phone or something, I don't know. But I'm glad he did," Harris, the detective, said.
Through more subpoenas, Harris was able to find an apartment address in Suitland for the disposable phone, but no name.
On May 16, Prince George's patrol officers staked out the apartment and pulled over a truck that left. They gave the driver a ticket and wrote down his name and date of birth: Mark Antonio Humphries, 33, a maintenance man who worked in southern Prince George's. Police later learned that the same cellphone was used to set up an eighth rape that day at an Oxon Hill motel; the woman had advertised on Craigslist.
With a name, detectives began looking at Humphries's prior arrests, including 10 years in prison in Virginia for stealing a car. They also were able to track down another number they believed was his permanent cellphone. They plugged it into a database of numbers culled from the phones the rapist used.
The personal cell popped up on every record. In addition to calling escorts, it seemed, the rapist had routinely used the disposable phones to check his voice mail. "Bam! We had him," Harris recalled.
Humphries would confirm the discovery a couple of nights later when he offered the same cell number to Dusseau in the parking lot of police headquarters.
Even so, none of the victims could identify Humphries's masked face, and none of the DNA evidence conclusively linked him to the attacks. Debate was growing in the sexual assault unit about whether they had enough to arrest Humphries. Dusseau felt they needed more. On July 14, he got it, but not the way he hoped. A woman was raped in a Clinton motel, and a man resembling Humphries was seen on a surveillance camera, entering and leaving her room.
Police used the pictures and phone records to secure search warrants and arranged with Humphries's cellphone provider to begin receiving phone records shortly after he made the calls.
There would be one more twist. Detective Hill had taken to calling the same numbers Humphries had called to make sure he hadn't arranged another meeting. On July 16, Hill called a number he recognized: It was the cell number of the friend who had been staying next door to the May 10 rape victim. She was back in town and had just unwittingly agreed to meet the man who had raped her friend.
"I told her, and she freaked," Hill said. Within minutes, however, she had decided she wanted in on the chance to bust Humphries.
Police set up a sting operation the next day. When Humphries entered the room, he and his .22-caliber would find a SWAT team. But Humphries cased the hotel and apparently spotted an undercover officer, police said. He entered the front lobby and moments later was seen sprinting across a rear parking lot.
He escaped, but police moved in. They raided his apartment in the 4100 block of Suitland Road in Suitland and found the Craigslist ad for that night and two cellphones stolen in earlier attacks.
Humphries was on the run and seemed desperate. As detectives knocked on the doors of relatives and friends, Humphries called police headquarters last week and spoke to Hill, and then Harris, several times.
"I didn't rape those women," Harris recalled him saying. "They were just mad because I ran out while they were getting dressed and I didn't pay." On Tuesday, he called to say he had fled to West Virginia and began threatening suicide, Harris said. "I told him he was 33 and had his whole life [and that] I couldn't promise him what would happen after he was arrested but told him he had to come in."
The next morning, Lt. Sean Carney and a squad of officers knocked on an apartment door in Hyattsville where they believed Humphries was staying. There was no answer, but a woman who lived there confirmed that Humphries was inside.
As hostage negotiators drove to the scene, Carney heard a gunshot. Humphries was found lying in a pool of blood in the bedroom.
"It wasn't the ending we would have hoped for," said Dusseau, who added that he struggles to understand what drove Humphries to attack. "Why did he do it? That's a question that's stuck with me, but we're really not in a position to ask 'why?' We're in a position to find out the facts and put all those pieces together."