After 13 years, police still hunting for the East Coast Rapist

By Josh White and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A01

He lurks at gas stations and pay phones and bus stops, blending in so well that people don't notice him at first. He has a smooth, deep voice. He is black, he smokes and he is right-handed. He is in his early to mid-30s, is fit, stands about 6 feet tall, likes wearing camouflage clothes and black hats, and once had a badly chipped tooth.

The man studies women carefully. He watches them leave for work and walk home from the mall, and he notices whether they lock their windows and doors. He knows when they are most vulnerable and when they are home alone with their children. He stalks them in neighborhoods he knows well.

Then he rapes them and vanishes.

He is the East Coast Rapist. And police know so much about this man. They even have his DNA. But when it comes right down to it, he is a frustrating mystery. No one has been able to find him.

His attacks have spanned 13 years, beginning in Prince George's County in the late 1990s, moving into Virginia and then up to New England.

Now he has been back to Northern Virginia. The most recent rapes were on Halloween in Dale City, when he forced three trick-or-treating teenage girls into a wooded ravine at gunpoint. That was the closest police have come to finding him. And the attacks showed them that he's brasher than ever.

"He is a very bold, fearless predator," said Sgt. Kim Chinn, a Prince William County police spokeswoman. "The concern is that he's out there, he's not going to stop until he's caught and the violence could get worse."

"He's like a lion looking for prey," said one of his victims, a woman who was raped in her Leesburg apartment in 2001.

Police detectives and five of the rapist's victims cooperated with the reporting of this article with the same goal in mind: They want to identify and catch him before he attacks again. The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sex crimes and is not identifying any of the victims in this article. Some of them, parents themselves, said they were willing to discuss their attacks because the man raped teenagers.

"Somebody's going to know who's been in Prince George's, who's been in Fairfax, who went to Connecticut," said Lt. Bruce Guth, who leads Fairfax County's cold-case squad. "The bastard's right there. We just need that one phone call. Somebody knows this guy."

Police in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been hunting the rapist for more than a decade, but the Halloween attacks added urgency to their search. A trail of DNA links him to the rapes of at least 12 women, and police suspect him in a total of 17 attacks. Detectives think there might be more.

Experts say the rapist is probably in a continual search for his next victim. Police think he lives in, works in or is very familiar with the areas he prowls. He scopes out locations to intercept women, secluded sites in the midst of busy neighborhoods and ways to escape. He grabs women who are in their comfort zones, near or in their own homes.

"He's taking advantage of people who are unguarded," said Fairfax Detective John Kelly. "He's doing it under the cover of darkness. He acts like a trapper would."

His methods remain unpredictable. He has attacked using a gun, a knife, a screwdriver and a broken bottle. He has approached his victims using banal conversation or an abrupt demand. He compliments them and threatens to kill them. But beyond the violence of the rapes, he has not carried out any of those threats.

The rapist's DNA has not turned up in any database of convicted criminals, and police think he knows it because he seldom uses a condom. He is skilled at hiding his face by operating in the dark, wearing a mask or covering his victims' faces.

Besides his deep voice, which several of the women say they would recognize, descriptions of him remain fairly vague: black man with medium complexion, medium build.

Police have been looking at known sex offenders, people who have lived near the rape sites and people who have served prison time during gaps between the assaults. That has allowed them to rule out more than 100 possible suspects, but they haven't been able to home in on anyone specific. They are using a high-tech data analysis program to scour leads and identify people with connections to the areas of the attacks.

But rapes by a stranger are among the most difficult to solve. This predator picks women and girls with whom he has no apparent association. Most are black, but some are white. The descriptions the women have provided are generic at best. Other than DNA, he leaves little evidence.

Although they are open to any possibility, detectives are exploring whether the man could be a long-haul trucker, a utility installer or a member of the military.

Whatever he is, he's back. His rapes on Halloween carry several of his trademarks.

The three teenagers were laughing, chatting and sending text messages in the chilly night rain, their bags of candy swaying as they walked through a dimly lit Dale City shopping center. They were just a few blocks from home.

Slinking out of the darkness, a stranger wearing a black ski mask was suddenly behind them. One of the girls felt a gun in her back. The man led them into a steep wooded ravine as they held one another's hands. A deep voice through clenched teeth told them to lie down side by side and to face away from him.

"I thought he was going to kill us," one of the girls recalled.

As her two friends were raped in the leaves beside her, the 16-year-old dimmed her cellphone's backlight. Operating blindly, she pleaded with her parents and friends for help, texting her rough location. She called her mother and then 911, breathlessly asking police to "please help me, please help me, please help me" before the call was dropped.

Within minutes, her mother, just a few blocks away, was racing to the woods from one side. Prince William police raced from the other side. As the lights and sirens closed in, the man stopped.

"He said, 'Stay down. Don't move,' " the girl said. "Then we heard him run away, the leaves crunching under his feet."

And like that, he was gone, emerging from the woods into a busy neighborhood. Police were close. But not close enough.

* * *

It started almost exactly 13 years ago. The man wearing a ski mask rode his bicycle along Marlboro Pike in Forestville just after midnight, scanning the streets for a victim. He spotted a 25-year-old woman walking alone, approached her and started talking. He pulled out a gun and attacked.

The rape, on Feb. 19, 1997, marked the first time the man's DNA would be entered into a database that holds genetic evidence from unsolved crimes. It occurred one month after and one month before similar assaults in the same neighborhood.

Those early rapes in Prince George's provide some of the best clues to the man's identity. The women never got a clear view of his face, but two of them noticed that one of his teeth was chipped or missing. Sometimes he wore a green camouflage coat.

The man, then in his late teens or early 20s, seemed to know the area well. Two women recalled seeing him near an Amoco station along Pennsylvania Avenue just before they were attacked.

"Reasonable people can assume he's from there," said Lt. Col. Kevin Davis, deputy chief of police in Prince George's.

That spring, police sounded their first alarm that a serial rapist was at work. Prince George's police publicly warned women to be on guard. Detectives think he might have seen media coverage, with headlines reporting a "bicycle-riding rapist." In August, he raped again in Prince George's, but he changed his method. He ditched the gun and bike and was on foot and armed with a knife.

The rapist then expanded his hunting ground. By summer 1999, he was roaming Fairfax's Route 1 corridor, a busy section of strip malls, restaurants and apartment buildings. He lurked at gas stations and bus stops at night.

Carrying a knife, he spied one woman passing him with grocery bags, grabbed her from behind and led her to a desolate spot behind a real estate office. He plucked off one of her shoes and pulled one of her legs out of her pants, making it even more difficult for her to escape because it would have been nearly impossible to run. He would later repeat the tactic.

He began focusing on roads leading into townhouse communities and apartment complexes. There, police said, he could watch women come and go and attack when his best opportunity arose.

At one such location in the Alexandria section of Fairfax in November 2000, a 35-year-old woman fought him off. The rapist approached her as she entered a new townhouse community after getting off a bus. He implied that he was lost. He put her in a headlock and led her to a wooded area. The woman, who was in the military, wrestled a six-inch serrated knife from him. She told police that she tried to stab him and that he insisted he was "just playing" and ran off.

The knife, linked to him by DNA collected from skin cells, is the only known item the rapist has left behind.

In May 2001, he struck again, this time at an apartment complex in Leesburg.

When he grabbed the woman from behind and wrapped his arms around her, she laughed. She thought her husband had come into the second-floor garden apartment to help her move.

"What I noticed is that nobody was laughing with me," she said. She looked down. The strong, black arms were not her husband's.

"He said, 'Shut up or I'll kill you. I have a knife,' " she recalled.

The 41-year-old woman, who looks younger than her age, had spent the evening ferrying belongings from the apartment to her car. It was warm, and she wore a T-shirt and running shorts. The apartment was nearly empty. About 5 p.m., she sent her 14-year-old son to his taekwondo lesson.

While she was at the car, the rapist slipped through the open front door. He waited.

When she returned, he pushed her into the bedroom and onto the floor. Threatening her with an orange-handled Phillips head screwdriver, he bound her hands over her head with shoelaces he brought with him. He was chewing something, maybe gum or a toothpick that poked out the corner of his mouth. He covered her face with her shirt.

She thought: "So this is what it's like to be raped."

With him on top of her, the woman remembered a downstairs neighbor who complained about noise every time she ran on her treadmill. She banged the floor with her foot, hoping the neighbor would interrupt. This time, there was no complaint.

"Where's your mother?" she blurted. "Anyone with a good mother wouldn't do this."

That made the rapist angry, and he told her to shut up or he'd kill her. When she told him she was having trouble breathing, he moved the shirt away from her mouth. But he threatened her again.

"Don't say anything to the police," he said. "I live right across the hall."

As in several other cases, the rapist complimented the woman, saying that she was "fine" and suggesting that in his own mind there was some mutual pleasure.

When he finished, he bundled up her clothes, her shoes and her cellphone. He gathered the shoelaces and the screwdriver and fled. Naked and terrified, the woman ran to the window and yelled for neighbors to call 911.

Her clothes and bedding had all been packed, so she covered herself in the only thing she could find -- Christmas wrapping paper -- until police arrived.

Leesburg Detective Lisa Kara said police interviewed people in the apartment across from the woman's at the time -- a unit that often housed transients -- but made little headway.

Three months later, the rapist attacked two Prince George's teenagers at gunpoint as they walked home from the Marlow Heights shopping center near the Beltway. He forced the two into the woods in what would be the first time he raped two people in a single incident. The wooded ravine is similar to the scene of the recent Prince William attack.

Days after Christmas 2001, a 29-year-old mother of four from Fairfax was running late for her 7 p.m. work shift. She pulled on a turtleneck, a T-shirt, a sweat shirt and a coat and waited at a bus stop in the Alexandria section of the county.

She saw a man smoking a cigarette and thought he was being polite by standing back at the edge of the woods. He came closer and asked whether she knew when the next bus would arrive.

But the man didn't want an answer. "I have a weapon -- follow me," he said. She caught a glimpse of a knife handle in his coat pocket.

As he led her down the street, the bus went by, too late to help. He demanded money. When she insisted that she had none, he didn't believe her.

"You work all the time," he said. He was right. She had two jobs, one at Ames and the other in a fast-food restaurant. She thought he could not have known that unless he had been watching her.

The tip of the knife dug into the left side of her neck. When they reached a nearby apartment complex, he forced her to the mulch, lifted her clothes over her face, and pulled off one of her shoes and one leg of her jeans.

She shivered in the winter cold, and he told her to stop shaking. Throughout the attack, she prayed aloud: "Thank you, Jesus." The rapist got angry and ordered her to be quiet, but she refused. He then got up and, for a moment, she thought the assault was over. He wasn't done.

"It was too good to stop," he told her. After the rape, he said he would come back to get her if she had AIDS or got pregnant. Finally, he was gone.

She lay silently, counting backward from 100. At 30, she got up. With one pant leg trailing behind her and a shoe in her hand, she rushed home. She desperately wanted to take a shower and be done with it, but her husband persuaded her to report the crime. Police recovered DNA that linked her case to the others.

A few months later, the woman was at work when a customer's voice stopped her cold. Ames security guards had spotted a man suspected of shoplifting baby clothes and later told her that when the man looked in her direction, he took off running.

"It was the voice," she said. "I had the sense that he was coming back for me."

* * *

After the last Fairfax rape, in 2001, at least four years passed without any signs of the rapist. There are no solid explanations. Police say any theory is just speculation, but they are focusing on the most likely reasons: a stint in jail, military service, a life change such as marriage or the birth of a child, relocation outside the country. Or he might have been thwarted and was scared off for a while.

"But these gaps might not be gaps at all," said Prince William Detective Todd Troutner, flipping through a white binder labeled "The Rapist." "We just might not know of all the attacks."

In the evening darkness just after Thanksgiving in 2006, the attacker reappeared, leaving DNA more than 400 miles north of his previously known assaults. This time it was on the back deck of a house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Cranston, R.I.

An 11-year-old girl, doing homework on a living room couch, looked up to see a stranger's face poking into her dining room. An unlocked sliding-glass door had been opened, and the man had stepped slightly through it. The girl screamed, the family's large black Great Dane began barking, and the man ran away. No one was hurt.

"It was dark out, and I had just gotten home from work. He probably saw me come home and probably thought I was by myself," the girl's mother, now 42, said in an interview at their home. "We thought it was a local homeless guy or something."

After the split-second encounter, police arrived and examined the scene.

Just outside the door, they found three drops of semen. The DNA matched that from the rapes in Maryland and Virginia.

"I guess we were lucky," the girl's mother said. "Why he was here doesn't make any sense. I've tried so hard to figure it out."

Janet I. Warren, associate director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and an expert on serial rapists, said the peeping Tom incident says a lot about the man.

"I can assure you he's been looking into many windows," Warren said. "He probably has a methodical way of sizing up women, sizing up areas, sizing up apartment complexes. . . . He's moving around the area and looking for victims and getting a sense of the people. He's familiar with who locks their doors and windows."

Police in New Haven, Conn., believe the rapist moved to New England for work or to be with family. The only attack in New Haven linked by DNA occurred just a month and a half after the Cranston incident, but police think he could have committed three similar assaults in New Haven around that same time.

In each of the New Haven attacks, the assailant entered homes through an unlocked door or window and confronted women in darkened bedrooms. In three of the cases, he attacked women who were home alone with children -- like in Cranston -- and instead of a weapon he used the children as leverage.

"He's definitely watching them," said Sgt. Martin Dadio of the New Haven Police Department's special investigations unit. "He's looking to get someone who will do whatever he wants because they want to protect their kid."

Evidence of that is clear in a rape that took place on Jan. 10, 2007, in an isolated New Haven apartment complex.

The woman, then 27, arrived home after picking up her 11-month-old son at day care. She opened a window to cool off her ground-level apartment, put the baby to bed and watched television before going to sleep about 10.

She awoke sometime after midnight, not wearing her glasses and groggy from sleep. She saw a man silhouetted against her bedroom doorway and heard him say: "Don't yell."

The man ordered her to cover her head with her pillowcase.

"I froze and did what I was told to do," she said. Her son, one week shy of his first birthday, was sleeping in a crib in the room. She prayed he wouldn't wake up. "He specifically said, 'I'm not going to hurt you -- I know you have your son here.' It was almost like he started feeling bad, like he couldn't control himself."

At one point, the rapist asked her if she "liked it," and she didn't answer for fear of angering him. When he was done, he warned her not to report the crime.

"He told me not to call the police, and if I did, he'd know and he'd come back and kill me," she said. "And he said, 'Make sure to lock your windows.' "

The apartment complex is not a place one would just stumble upon. It is tucked into the back of a residential neighborhood and is far from pedestrian traffic.

"You wouldn't go there unless you had business there or family there," said Lt. Julie Johnson, head of the New Haven police's special investigations unit. "He plans these. He's watching. He knows the areas."

In three other cases in New Haven, the attacker did not leave DNA behind, either because he used a condom, a makeshift condom or the woman fended him off. But they carry some of the rapist's signatures. Just as in one of the Fairfax rapes, the attacker in New Haven told a woman to "stop shaking." He spoke with a Caribbean accent in some of the attacks, but one woman reported that he turned it on and off, indicating that it might be fake. He complimented them on their bodies and the act, something experts said probably shows some level of fantasy or a confused sense that what he is doing is consensual.

* * *

Nearly three years passed between the last known attack in Connecticut, in January 2007, and the Halloween rapes in Dale City. Police are examining unsolved rapes in several states to determine whether this attacker could have committed them, because they think there must be some they don't know about.

But last Halloween, it was him again: He was dressed in all black, wore a black mask, used a gun, grabbed the three teenage girls as they walked home and spoke in a deep voice through gritted teeth.

The rapes were in a wooded area he must have scouted.

Located just yards from a shopping center and a large residential community off Dale Boulevard, the walk down into the small clearing is precarious. It's a shortcut where people have tossed Natural Light beer cans, empty bottles, a stray car tire and other trash.

"It's a pretty good location for what he wanted to do," said Troutner, the Prince William detective, standing next to the ravine floor where the teenagers were ordered to lie in the cold, wet darkness.

The girls held hands and scrambled into the ravine as the masked attacker followed with a gun, all of them afraid to cry out or run for fear that he might shoot them. He raped one girl, then moved on to the next. That's when the third crouched over her phone and decided to text. At 9:05 p.m., she created a message, addressed it to seven people, and typed furiously: "911 cvs pls noww man with gun."

"I can text really fast," she said. "I turned my backlight down and texted my mom, my dad and friends, asking them for help, telling them that I was in the woods, that a man was raping my friends, and to please call 911."

There was no anger in the rapist's voice, no tension, no compassion. Almost no tone at all.

"He just came, got what he wanted and left," she said. "That's it."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company