As he drove from his South Carolina home to Georgia and into Florida last week, Richard Evonitz knew he was only a few steps ahead of police trying to arrest him in the rape of a 15-year-old girl. Sensing that there was no escape, he began calling relatives with cryptic confessions.
Evonitz, 38, said he had killed someone and that he had committed "more crimes than he can remember," Richland County, S.C., Sheriff Leon Lott said today. Evonitz mentioned only scant details about that killing, but it was enough to determine that he was not referring to the slayings of three Spotsylvania County, Va., girls, Lott said.
"He was somebody who felt everything closing in on him. The secret was out, the monster exposed," Lott said.
As Spotsylvania detectives await results of DNA and other scientific tests to determine whether Evonitz killed Sofia Silva, 16, in September 1996, and Kati Lisk, 12, and her sister, Kristin, 15, in May 1997, investigators are just now beginning to piece together the past of this seemingly normal man -- a husband who was twice awarded the Navy Good Conduct Medal during an eight-year service career -- to see if he really was a lifelong predator who kept his crimes secret.
"We're going to do his whole life's tale," Lott said. "We'll take it from the time he was born and go forward. It's going to be quite extensive."
Lott declined to say what details have led him to believe that Evonitz was not referring to the Lisk slayings when he talked to his sister. The conversation took place before he killed himself after a police chase in Florida. But inside Evonitz's apartment, detectives found a Fredericksburg, Va., newspaper from the day after the Lisk abductions and notes about the girls, along with directions to a location near their home. They have not said whether they found similar evidence about the Silva killing, but they have previously said that scientific evidence links the two cases.
The pursuit of Evonitz began when the 15-year-old he kidnapped at gunpoint managed to escape from handcuffs and slip out of his apartment in Columbia on Tuesday morning.
Two Richland County deputies and one FBI agent formed a team today that will work full time to reconstruct Evonitz's life. In Spotsylvania, Maj. Howard Smith said the Lisk-Silva Task Force -- composed of FBI agents, state police and Spotsylvania and King George County deputies -- has been doubled in size and also will try to learn "everything this guy has done in the last 10 or 15 years."
They will interview friends, co-workers and relatives and track Evonitz's frequent travels from state to state in a search for links to similar unsolved crimes in those areas.
Most details that have emerged about Evonitz's life show a man who attracted little attention and was liked and respected by colleagues. Law enforcement officials said he was born and raised near Columbia and attended Irmo High School before joining the Navy. Neighbors in Columbia said he was friendly and quiet.
"From what we've been able to discern, there were no signals, no signs," Lott said. "He was someone who just blends in."
One exception that investigators have focused on is Evonitz's 1988 conviction for exposing himself to a teenager and her toddler sister in Florida. Police records in Clay County say he "confessed both orally and written to his guilt."
"Suspect stated he has a problem with masturbating in front of girls," the report said. "When he feels the urge he drives around looking for a girl 18-19 years old short in height and has brunette hair."
Officials said he has no other known criminal convictions.
Authorities said Evonitz has lived or traveled in California, Virginia, Florida and Texas. In the past few years, he returned to South Carolina and recently moved into a small garden apartment with his 19-year-old wife. No one answered the door today, and Evonitz's sister and mother have declined to comment.
But authorities and former co-workers said even those closest to Evonitz had no indication that he might have been hiding something. From all accounts, officials said, Evonitz exhibited no violent behavior in childhood, and he got along well in the Navy and at work. He was honorably discharged and received medals, including the Navy Achievement Medal, which is given for leadership.
"He was just a normal person on the outside," Lott said. "No signs of the monster."
Evonitz may have gone on in his life if not for the 15-year-old he spotted as she was watering flowers in a friend's Lexington County yard June 24. Authorities said Evonitz pulled up in his mother's green Pontiac Firebird and offered to sell her some magazines. As she looked at them, he forced her at gunpoint into a green plastic storage container in the car's trunk.
Evonitz took the girl to his apartment, where they were alone because his wife and mother were vacationing at Walt Disney World, and carried the container inside. Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts said Evonitz tied the girl up and raped her. He forced her to watch the evening news to see if there was a report of her kidnapping.
After an 18-hour ordeal, the girl heard Evonitz snoring and was able to escape, authorities said. Two men she stopped in the parking lot took her to a sheriff's station. "She was so, so alert," Metts said. "She was able to give us information down to the exactness of what was in the apartment."
Metts said the girl led detectives to the apartment and picked Evonitz out of a photo array. Inside a lockbox in the apartment, they found the hints to the Lisk killings.
Law enforcement officials spent three hours today searching the house where Evonitz lived in Spotsylvania in 1996 and 1997, Smith said. Other houses in the area where he lived will also be searched, he said.
Smith said detectives found evidence in their South Carolina searches that Evonitz was stalking other girls in Spotsylvania. Members of the task force have tracked down some of the tag numbers he mentioned in notes and will be interviewing their owners to see if anyone remembers seeing him.
"Obviously, we're all anxious and want to solve this, but we're also very cautious," Smith said. " . . . We're going to take our time. We don't want to rush things. We don't know if this is our guy."
But he added, "This is the best lead we've had out of the 12,000 leads to come out."
Staff writers Patricia Davis and Josh White and researcher Bobbye Pratt in Washington contributed to this report.