By Maria Glod and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 6:27 PM
Highway drivers from Virginia to Rhode Island on Monday will begin to see electronic billboards with larger-than-life police sketches of an unidentified man who has been attacking women for more than a decade - images that detectives hope will spark the tip they need to catch an elusive predator they call the East Coast Rapist.
The billboards are the latest effort by law enforcement to identify the man who has sexually assaulted at least 12 women since the late 1990s. His last known rape was in Prince William County on Halloween in 2009, a brazen attack on three teenage girls headed home from a night of trick-or-treating. DNA evidence links the rapes.
Detectives in four states and FBI agents have been searching for the rapist, but they have not been able to name him. They say he is black and about 6 feet tall, and once had a badly chipped tooth. He often wore a ski mask or hat during attacks. He has used a knife, gun, screwdriver and broken bottle to overpower victims.
During the past year, detectives have closely focused on and ruled out more than two dozen men who fit the rapist's description and who have connections to the locations where incidents have occurred since 1997: Prince George's, Fairfax and Prince William counties, Leesburg, New Haven, Conn., and Cranston, R.I.
They have been narrowing their search by reviewing lists of tens of thousands of potential suspects, revisiting neighborhoods, reinterviewing witnesses and, ultimately, surveilling people and collecting their DNA.
Because the rapist has left his DNA behind, police can quickly rule out suspects and will know for certain when they find the attacker.
The new push for tips comes 16 months after the last confirmed attack - a relatively long span for the East Coast Rapist - and police hope to stir up new information with their public appeal.
"We want to put him on notice that these are still active cases, that police are right on his trail," said Fairfax Detective John Kelly. "Maybe he'll stay out of his next crime."
The billboards direct people to visit a new Web site dedicated to the case, www.eastcoastrapist.com. The site provides detailed descriptions of the attacks, posts three composite sketches and gives users a link to report tips or suspicions. Fairfax County detectives said this is the first time they've used anything like it.
Detectives said they hope people will see the billboards, visit the site and provide the one tip that will lead to the rapist's arrest.
"People can really be the detectives, in a sense," said Lt. Bryan Holland of Fairfax's cold-case squad.
Digital billboards in seven states, up and down Interstate 95, will feature the images, according to FBI spokesman Christopher Allen, who said one also will appear in Times Square. He said arrests in 39 cases - including that of the so-called Granddad Bandit bank robber - are attributed to tips from people who contacted authorities after spotting a billboard.
The Washington area does not have many billboards, so police are looking into posting signs on commuter buses.
Fairfax Detective Paul O'Neill said police are focusing their efforts on people with links to both Prince George's and the Alexandria area of Fairfax County, where many of the early rapes occurred. The first attack linked by DNA happened in Forestville in 1997, and detectives said the attacker might have lived there.
In that attack, the rapist was wearing a ski mask and riding a bicycle when he approached a 25-year-old woman who was walking alone. The man, who was in his late teens or early 20s, started talking and then pulled out a gun.
It was one of five rapes in Prince George's linked to the man by DNA. He is suspected in two other similar attacks.
In recent weeks, police uncovered a new clue. In reviewing old case files, detectives discovered that a woman who was attacked along Silver Hill Road in Suitland in August 1997 told police that the rapist had been wearing a green zippered jumpsuit. Detectives now believe that the rapist was probably on his way home from work - in uniform - when that rape occurred.
That outfit, which differs from the dark clothing the rapist often wore during his attacks, has led detectives to search businesses that might have had workers in green jumpsuit uniforms at the time. Detectives also believe that the man lived close to the Suitland attack, as he fled on foot into the surrounding neighborhood.
After his initial attacks in Maryland, the rapist began targeting women along Fairfax's Route 1 corridor, a busy section of strip malls, restaurants and apartment buildings. His attacks in Virginia, including one in Leesburg, stretched from 1999 to 2001.
Detectives think he carefully scoped out locations and victims, perhaps getting to know their routines. Sometimes he lurked at gas stations and bus stops at night. Other times he waited near roads leading into apartment complexes and townhouse communities, watching women come and go.
In November 2006, after four years of no known attacks, a young girl in Cranston, R.I., spotted a stranger poking his head through a sliding glass door that led to a back deck. The man fled when the girl screamed and the family dog began barking, but he left DNA behind.
The following January, the man crept through an open window of a New Haven, Conn., apartment and raped a woman as her infant son slept in a crib in the same room. Detectives are investigating his possible involvement in three other New Haven attacks around that time, though there is no DNA in those cases.
Police say the last known attack, in Prince William, was the closest the rapist has come to getting caught. One of the teenagers deftly called and texted her family and 911 as her friends were being attacked in the woods. Police responded immediately but just missed the man, who fled as sirens and flashing lights approached.
"We are very optimistic that if we continue the efforts on this, we'll bring about a solution," said Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane. "It's incredible to me that we have as much as we have and this case has not been solved. . . . It's just a matter of time."
Kelly said the investigation has been a "roller coaster" with several key moments in which detectives thought they had him. With each suspect who is ruled out, detectives go back to a list that has included as many as 40,000 names.
"We've got some things going on with other suspects," Kelly said.