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East Coast rapist eludes police

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Washington Post staff writers Josh White and Maria Glod and Detectives Stephen Piaskowski, John Kelly, Paul O'Neill
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 12:00 PM

A man known as the East Coast Rapist has been stalking women in parts of Maryland, Virginia and New England since the late '90s. For authorities, he remains a frustrating mystery.

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Fairfax County detectives John Kelly and Paul O'Neill and Prince William County detective Stephen Piaskowski were online with Washington Post staff writers Josh White and Maria Glod on Tuesday, March 16 at Noon ET to discuss the case.

A transcript follows.

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Maria Glod: Hi everyone,

Thanks for joining us this afternoon. Josh and I want to welcome the detectives, who have spent lots of time helping us understand their hunt for this elusive predator. We know you have questions for them so we'll get started.

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Herndon, Va.: Thank you for this detailed story. The one case where the women took away the man's knife - were his fingerprints on it, or was he wearing gloves?

Paul O'Neill: Obviously, all of the evidence in these cases was processed for forensic evidence. This case is linked by DNA to the others.

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Woodbridge, Va.: the most recent attack was in Dale City, and now today I read that a girl was attacked at home in Bristow, Va. by a man who seems to match the description of the serial rapist. Are the police looking at that to see if there's a connection?

Stephen Piaskowski: Yes it has been looked into, but we do not believe that the incidents are related.

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McLean, Va.: How long has this been going on and why haven't the authorities announced it? Where are rapes happening: car, parks, indoor homes? Why is there not a release of the profile of the rapist: height, race etc...?

Paul O'Neill: The police department issues releases any time there is a public safety threat to the community- such as these cases- in Fairfax County. The public information office issued a news release on each of these cases that occurred in Fairfax County. We strongly encourage the public to check our web site frequently for crime information/updates. Most recently, there was a November press briefing at the Prince William County Police Headquarters regarding the DNA linkage to these cases.

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Woodbridge, Va.: One of the victims stated the attacker has a "Caribbean" accent. Can you provide further details?

If he is from the Caribbean has anyone checked with INS to possibly try and get a photo of him? I know it's a lot of work however it maybe the break you are looking for.

Good luck.

Maria Glod: Hi Woodbridge. The description of the suspect's accent is something that police have considered as they investigate, but they also are weighing the possiblity that he used a fake accent to hide his identity. In cases that are not linked by DNA, women described a "Carribean" or "Island" accent. In a case where there is a DNA link, the victim said the man had a "Country" accent.

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Crofton, MD: Why are all the descriptions and photos so different??

washingtonpost.com: Evidence gallery

Stephen Piaskowski: The general descriptions are similar in each of the cases. Details however are different due to each persons perception of the incident. It is not unusual to have witnesses see things a little differently.

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Washington, DC: Is it possible he has mentioned these crimes to others, as a way to "relive" his fantasy?

Paul O'Neill: Historically, rape is one of the crimes that bad guys do not brag about to their friends. However, with serial offenders there is almost always a change in their behavior in their lives; to include: they may have skipped work, appear short when speaking to their loved ones/friends, making excuses for simple changes in their patterns..This is why we are asking the public to contact us when they notice these behaviors in the person described in the article. We're sure someone has noticed this (very similar to the DC area Sniper Cases).

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Alexandria, VA: Thank you, Josh and Maria, for an incredible piece of reporting. I can only imagine the time and resources it took to put this important story together - so thanks to the Washington Post for bringing it to us. If ever there was a reason for keeping newspapers alive, this is it. - A long time subscriber.

Josh White: Thank you for your kind comment. One of the great things about working for a newspaper like The Washington Post is that we are able to put time and resources toward stories like this. When we first heard that the rapes on Halloween in Prince William County were linked by DNA to this serial rapist, we wanted to see how much we could learn about him and allow readers the opportunity to help catch him. We received unprecedented help from police in numerous jurisdictions. The most difficult part, in many ways, was talking to the victims about their ordeals. Their strength, vivid memories, and desire to catch this man are really what drove this story.

Maria Glod: Thank you. When police first announced that the Halloween attacks were part of a string of rapes, Josh and I both were struck by the harm and pain this man has caused for years. At that time, police stressed that a tip from someone who may know this man could be the lead they need to close the case so we wanted to get as much detail out there as possible.

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Scary: Have you received any really good leads since the story appeared? I think it is important for people to not be afraid to call in about a brother, co-worker, cousin or friend who fits some of the description. If they are not the right person, that will be easily determined.

John Kelly: We are able to eliminate most individuals just by cross referencing records accessible to law enforcement without having to make contact with the individual.

Leads are being investigated as result of this story and other contacts made with the community during our joint investigation.

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Wilkes-Barre, PA: Scary story. Are DNA samples typically taken from everyone who gets arrested - like fingerprints? Curious that this person hasn't been arrested for any other crime?

Josh White: DNA is not taken from everyone who is arrested, and rules vary from state to state on whether DNA is collected at all. It is possible that this man has been arrested but has never submitted DNA, and it is also possible that he has submitted DNA somewhere but that it has not been tested yet. And as police told us, it is possible that the man knows he has never given up his DNA, which is why he appears to make little if any effort to prevent leaving it at the crime scenes. But once police catch him, they will know for sure they have the right guy because they will be able to compare his DNA to the samples they have.

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WDC: One of the victims said she heard his voice in the Ames where she was working and the security guard detained him (or something like that). Do you have surveillance tape from that incident?

John Kelly: The Ames investigation was exhausted. The individual involded was identified and eliminated.

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Washington, DC: The article says there are an additional five rapes that are believed to have been committed by this one perpetrator. Where and when did these attacks occur and why are they included (and simultaneously excluded) from the list?

John Kelly: The unlisted cases lack DNA and or significant investigative information to conclued that they are linked. We are keeping the case files for investigative comparisons at this time.

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Takoma, D.C.: I thought this was a great article - really well written - and I sure hope it leads to something. I was interested in your decision to include the detail about how the man made it hard for his victims to run away. I felt like it was giving advice to other potential rapists, you know, looking to improve their technique. I assume you thought carefully about whether to include that detail and would love to know what kind of discussion went into that.

Paul O'Neill: This type of "takeover" of a victim is not uncommon in stranger sexual assaults (rapes). As you see in this article, law enforcement was very open with the case facts in a coordinated effort with media/public to identify a suspect. We are convinced that someone has a good idea of who this is; we are waiting for that one phone call. If you think you know who it is, please give us a call. We don't have to use your name and innocent people can be easily eliminated. Josh White and Maria Glod are veteran reporters who have excellent relationships with law enforcement because of their fairness and accuracy in reporting both sides of issues.

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Richmond, VA: Thanks for the harrowing, detailed story - although it definitely delayed my sleep last night. I lived in Charlottesville while a serial rapist was committing crimes and remember when the police took buccal swabs from young black men. It was very controversial and did not lead police to the rapist, but has anything like this been considered in the East Coast Rapist case?

Maria Glod: I remember that case well and covered it. Police, trying to catch a serial rapist and coming up with few leads, asked many black men to give DNA samples. Many people in the community were upset and saw it as a violation of privacy and civil rights. Ultimately, a tipster help authorities catch the man.

I'd love to hear from detectives, but I think random DNA testing, in addition to civil rights and privacy concerns, would be unlikely to help. All police have is a very generic description and this man could live anywhere. Who would they test?

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Washington, DC: In two of the New England cases there was no DNA link but police found the perpetrator's feces. Human feces can be used for DNA testing, in fact there's certainly much more human DNA in fecal material than on the knife handle DNA that is used to link the rapist to one attack. Did the authorities keep the feces they found for later testing?

Josh White: Police in Connecticut, where feces was left at two of the crimes scenes, told us that for DNA to be collected from a sample the sample must be frozen immediately, and even then it might not yield anything useful. In Rhode Island, there was feces found on the back porch near where the man's DNA was found, but police and the homeowner dismissed it as likely being from the family's dog. In that case, though, they already had his DNA, and it's more of a potential link to the man's behavior. In short, there are no DNA links from that evidence that we know of in this case.

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Westchester, NY: Have the police found any information indicating that he is not working alone? It seems like one person would have been caught by now, or there would have been more clues.

John Kelly: The evidence points to one offender.

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Fairfax, Virginia: Nice to see this kind of cooperation with the media and law enforcement. Was it difficult to make that happen?

Josh White: One of the advantages Maria and I had in reporting on this story is that we have each been at the Post for more than a decade and have worked with many of the police departments involved in this case before. Because we have good professional relationships with the local jurisdictions, they were receptive to the idea when we approached them. It took a lot of work, and we truly appreciate how much time and guidance they provided. Detectives took us to the crime scenes and explained what they knew about them. They opened their case files to sort through details and to make sure we had as accurate and complete a picture as possible, and they helped coordinate several of the interviews with victims. I think the police departments recognized what we were trying to do and sincerely wanted to help us in the endeavor, and I hope the result shows what such cooperation can accomplish. Almost everyone we approached about this story wanted to help in any way they could.

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Herndon, VA: I heard there was an incident of a man of a similar description wearing latex gloves chased a woman on a trail in Reston, Va yesterday. Do you think this is related to the East Coast Rapist? Has the East Coast Rapist ever used latex gloves in his crimes?

Paul O'Neill:

We are aware of these incidents in Reston this past weekend. They were reported as suspicious persons and no physical contact took place. No crimes were committed. However, we will look into these situations as we would any reports made to us. This is a good example of the public contacting police when they see something suspicious/unusual/out-of-order. The police will respond and check on it.

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Dunn Loring, VA: Does the rapist appear to be opportunistic when picking victims or do they share some trait that leads him to target them?

Stephen Piaskowski: The circumstances indicate that the rapist is opportunistic in selecting his victims, but does do some pre-planning of the locations. There is no clear cut trait that has been found among all of the victims.

Maria Glod: Josh and I have been fortunate enough to speak to five of this man's victims. They all are incredible women.

While they are of different races and ages, it struck us that the middle-aged women all appeared younger than their age.

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Washington, DC: Could the detectives tell us about what percentage of rape cases reported to the police result in an arrest? There have been accounts of some jurisdictions having a problem with processing the evidence collected in rape cases. Is that a problem in northern Virginia, to your knowledge?

Stephen Piaskowski: Prince William Co. PD clears a majority of reported rape cases. Having looked into how DNA is taken and processed in the different states involved in this investigation, Northern Virginia is up to date and progressive in DNA analysis.

John Kelly: Fairfax County Police Department has a "Cold Case Sex Crimes Unit" dedicated solely to unsolved sexual assaults. Our agency has excellant working relationship with surrounding law enforcement agencies and the Northern Virginia Department of Forensics.

The amount of forensic evidence developed in these attacks supports the progressive work by law enforcement.

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Arlington, VA: I do not mean to discount or diminish public assistance in apprehending the offender. But the comments section to the story reads like everyone thinks they are amateur criminal psychologists or forensics experts - too many Thomas Harris novels perhaps. Do you find that public assumptions going in can actually hinder an investigation?

Paul O'Neill: In all high profile cases, the public is going to be interested and want to (and has the right to) make their own conclusions and theories. For instance, in the Sniper Cases there were over 100,000 leads. With all of the crime shows on tv, law enforcement is used to this and we try to triage the leads to see which ones are viable and worth following up on. But, again, we ask that the public contact police with any suspicions they have and let the professional detectives that do this every day sort through the information. Public input is vital. Most cases are closed thanks to the help from the public.

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Alexandria, Va.: Wow, how scary is this, especially since this is the first I have heard of the east coast rapist! Great reporting and so glad that the general public is now aware and on the look out!

Maria Glod: We agree, it is scary. It's interesting that this case first got media coverage in 1997, when Prince George's County police warned women about a rapist had been riding a bicycle before the attacks. Fairfax and Leesburg police, and New Haven Ct. authorities, went public when attacks in those jurisdictions were linked.

As reporters, it struck us that rapes don't often get much media coverage for a number of reasons. The victims, totally understandably, usually are uncomfortable talking about the crimes. Authorities often don't have much information to release. And most rapes are committed by acquaintances.

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DC: How much you want to bet he's a cop or a security guard?

Josh White: At this point, I wouldn't want to bet on anything. It is certainly possible that this man is a police officer or a guard, but it's also possible he has had many other jobs. As we reported in the story, police are leaving open any possibility and have been looking into such professions as long-haul truckers (which might explain moving up and down Interstate 95), utility installers (who can sit in neighborhoods for long periods of time without drawing undue attention) or the military (because it could explain his moving around and possible gaps in the attacks). But it would be a mistake to rule anything out, or definitively in, at this point. Focusing too much on one particular thing could lead people to inappropriately dismiss their suspicions about someone they know.

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Washington, DC: Rape is one of the most underreported crimes. It's certainly possible that this sicko has raped many more women than has been reported. Can you stress this fact to women living in these areas? Maybe someone who did not report her rape can provide you with the detail that breaks the case...

Paul O'Neill: We strongly feel that there may be other women who have had contact with this man and not known that he was the suspect. I am positive others have had contact with this man, felt uncomfortable and had a strange feeling about his presence but have not contacted police to this point. This man is clearly picking out victims and then choosing which ones he will attack which means some of the women he's encountered, he has not assaulted. We want to hear from these women.

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New York, NY: Hi Josh and Maria,

Great job with the story! I was wondering whether some of the rapes that were not directly linked to the serial rapist's DNA could have been copycat crimes? Could the fact that this guy has been able to get away with so many different crimes instill more confidence into other would-be rapists? Maybe the detectives could speak to this idea too.

Maria Glod: Thanks for the kind words. It's an interesting question. While we know for sure that this man raped 12 women, it's not certain whether all the attacks without DNA evidence also were committed by him. Detectives in New Haven, for example, are open about saying that it's just not clear.

Anything is possible, but I think it's unlikely they are the work of a copycat because not many details of the attacks were made public.

John Kelly:

Without going into the details of the assaults the offender would have to know significant details to copy cat the reported attacks.

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Washington, DC: This case reminds me of a serial rapist and murderer in California. I believe this guy is called the East Area Rapist. This man held a couple of parts in California in sheer terror for a number of years and then he just vanished. Though DNA was collected from the crime scenes, but law enforcement never got a hit on the DNA.

Has law enforcement looked at rape cases in other areas of the U.S. to see if it is possible this rapist has expended his operation per say?

John Kelly: DNA databases are linked at the state and national level for investigative comparisons. If a match was made anywhere else in the country our agency would be notified by the forensic department and the investigative agency.

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New Haven, CT: In a case like this where the perpetrator is moving from place to place, it seems that communication between police departments is essential. Can you describe how this works? How do you know, for example, that the guy wasn't out comitting crimes in Wyoming during the gap between known attacks?

Stephen Piaskowski: When the cases were linked by DNA, contact was made with all of the involved jurisdictions to meet and share information. This evolved into regular contact via phone and e-mail. A Nationwide request was also sent to all law enforcement agencies for information on similar incidents.

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Bethesda, MD: What are the best tips women in the area can take to protect ourselves? I find myself quite nervous after reading this story - and I generally consider myself to be pretty savvy and street smart.

Kim Chinn: Good question. Based on the info in these cases it would be hard to criticize anything the victims did or didn't do in regard to safety. So I will give you general safety info. The biggest issue is to pay attention to your surroundings. Don't talk or text on your phone while walking alone or at night. If you have to walk alone, have your keys to your car or home ready and in your hands so you don't fumble around in your purse. Try to walk with other people. If you do encounter something suspicious listen to your instincts. If the situation doesn't feel right it probably isn't. Don't hesitate to take out your cell and call 911, or scream and make a scene. Do not let anyone take you from where you are, even if your are threatend with a weapon. Never get in a car or go to a secluded place with him.

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Washington, DC: After reading the article this morning, I was immediately back, in 1980, in Glover Park. I was mugged at 10:30 on a Friday evening, in a very similar manner as the victims of the predator were. Hugged from behind, hand on mouth, yelling at me not to scream. I believe it was a teenager whom the police found to have perpetrated the crime. My comment is that, even after 30 years, I was back in that place, reliving that feeling of panic..hopefully this case will resolve quickly.

Maria Glod: I'm sorry you went through that, I can't imagine how difficult that would be.

The victims we talked to all told us they agreed to go public because they didn't want anyone else to get hurt. We could tell that it was painful for them to relive the attacks, but they said they hoped that something they said would help police find him.

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Washington, DC: I applaud The Post for printing this story, and for adding more crime news on its website. However, I have been reading The Washington Post for over 30 years, and I think that daily crime coverage is pretty sporadic in your newspaper. I can only recall reading about the attack on the three teenagers last fall. I do not recall reading about the other rapes in The Post. It seems that a lot of crime coverage is at best a few sentences. I would guess that the panda at the zoo has received considerably more news space than many violent crimes in the Washington area.

washingtonpost.com: Have you checked out our new Crime Scene blog?

Josh White: Thank you for your dedicated reading of the Post and for your observations. I wrote a story about the attack on Halloween the day after it occurred, and Maria followed that up a few weeks later with a front-page story about the case being linked to the serial rapist. Maria and I decided to launch on this project in January, and we've been working on it ever since. As to our crime coverage, we are doing our best to put the most revelant, important and interesting crime news we can find both into the paper and onto our website. Humbly, I think with our team's new crime blog, we've had more crime coverage available to our readers than ever before. But we are always striving to do better, and we want to make sure we're doing our best to serve readers.

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Alexandria, VA: Is there any other profiling information on him, or serial rapists in general, regarding possible personal traits and characteristics that might help identify him in addition to the locations and descriptions that have been provided?

John Kelly: The information your seeking is so vauge and unreliable. That is why we are presenting all the facts as we have gathered them.

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Fairfax, VA: I think the problem is that you can't find a police cruiser when you need one, and the criminals know this. They too see the half dozen motorcycles parked outside the Corner Bakery in DC during rush hour. Thus, finding a lone wolf is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Josh White: In fairness, I don't think having a police officer at the scene would have necessarily thwarted these attacks. In the Leesburg case, the attack happened in an apartment complex literally right next door to the police headquarters. He has stalked women in areas where there is a constant and consistent police presence. In Prince William County on Halloween, police cruisers were on the scene less than 90 seconds after the 911 call was received. Finding a lone wolf can be very difficult, but someone knows this lone wolf's name, and a simple phone call could end it.

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Washington, DC: During the years that no rapes are connected to the perpetrator, should we conclude that he was not active in any of the 48 contiguous states and Canada? Or could his DNA be found in Montreal or Arizona?

John Kelly: There are many reasons why an offender chooses to offend or not. It is possible he offended and the attacks were not reported.

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washingtonpost.com: Detectives:

Do you agree with Maria that random DNA testing would be unlikely to help find the perpetrator? If you were to perform DNA tests, how do you decide who to test?

John Kelly: The great distances this offender traveled would make random sampling impossible.

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Washington, DC: Excellent Story. My friend and I were discussing the article last night and were curious as to why you thought the rapist may be a military person. After reading about how a female member of the military was able to overpower him, we didn't understand how someone else with military training could be so easily overtaken.

John Kelly: The victim was approached in a non-threatening way and suddenly attacked. The victim as most pedestrians whether military or not can be surprised by another pedestrian who seems ordinary until he lashes out from close in.

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Josh White: Thanks to all of the readers who sent in such interesting questions this afternoon, we truly enjoyed seeing them. A special thanks to the detectives who joined us today for their hard work and dedication to the case. We'll continue to keep up to date with them and their progress as we follow this story.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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