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The hotel rapist’s name is still a mystery, but ‘John Doe’ has been indicted, based on his DNA profile

U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu speaks at a news conference as D.C. police announce an indictment against a “John Doe,” charging a DNA profile with two rapes at hotels in the District in 2003. He is suspected in other rapes at hotels in Maryland and Virginia.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu speaks at a news conference as D.C. police announce an indictment against a “John Doe,” charging a DNA profile with two rapes at hotels in the District in 2003. He is suspected in other rapes at hotels in Maryland and Virginia. (Peter Hermann/The Washington Post)
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Over nearly a decade, police say, the same man raped workers at hotels in the District, Maryland and Virginia. He left behind some clues — a red box cutter dropped in a hotel room in Silver Spring, a ring a victim pulled from his finger in a D.C. hotel.

Police said he also left behind DNA — his own genetic building blocks.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is now using that DNA to charge the man in two assaults that occurred in 2003 in the District, even though authorities don’t know his name. The attacks throughout the region occurred between 1998 and 2006.

The District has a 15-year statute of limitations in sexual assault cases, and the indictment filed just ahead of that anniversary is designed to stop the clock on the charges’ expiration.

“This means the offender will not escape justice due to the passage of time,” Jessie K. Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said Tuesday at a news conference announcing the indictment. There are no time limits for bringing charges in sexual assault cases in Maryland and Virginia, where authorities said DNA has linked the man to an additional four sexual assaults.

Police described the attacks as violent. Victims were threatened with box cutters, neckties and cords, often in the late morning and early afternoon hours.

“This man preyed upon women in the D.C. region for close to a decade,” said D.C. police chief Peter Newsham.

Liu said it is the first time her office has used this tactic — known as a John Doe DNA indictment — although it has been used in other jurisdictions. Courts have generally held such indictments valid, although some also have required a reasonably detailed description of the suspect.

“That DNA profile is much more unique to being you than your name is,” said William Fitzpatrick, the district attorney for Onondaga County, N.Y., who sought a DNA indictment after a 12-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in 1997. The indictment was handed up in 2002, just before the statute of limitations expired.

This year Fitzpatrick said authorities got a DNA hit on a man convicted in a drug offense. The suspect now is indicted in the rape and awaiting trial.

Authorities link several hotel rape cases in 2006

In the District case, authorities have a composite sketch based on interviews with victims in 2003 and another rendering of what the suspect might look like 15 years later. He is described as black, 5 feet 7 inches to 5 feet 10 inches tall with a medium to stocky build, brown eyes and black hair. He was in his 20s or 30s at the time of the attacks.

But despite the ring, which is described as distinctive, the box cutter — which has the word “Debbie” scrawled in black ink on the side — and the DNA, authorities have not been able to make an identification. That means the man’s genetic identity never has been entered into a law enforcement database that contains 17.3 million DNA profiles, typically taken from offenders convicted or sometimes arrested in certain crimes.

Authorities used Parabon NanoLabs to develop the time-enhanced rendering of the suspect. They declined to elaborate on whether they are using the lab in other ways, such as feeding the suspect’s DNA into a genealogy database to build a family tree. That technique was used by police in Washington state to help identify a suspect in a 1987 double murder and in California to find the suspected Golden State Killer.

How the alleged Golden State killer was caught

Authorities around the Washington region are offering a reward of up to $45,000 for help identifying the suspect. The FBI also is planning a public-relations campaign that would include putting the sketches of the suspect and pictures of the ring and box cutter on social media and highway billboards.

The D.C. Superior Court indictment dated May 1 covers two attacks that authorities said they have definitively matched to one man’s DNA — a May 11, 2003, rape of a 27-year-old female housekeeper in a room at the Renaissance Hotel at Mount Vernon Square and the May 21 rape of a 68-year-old female housekeeper at the Jefferson Hotel on Scott Circle. The victim at the Renaissance pulled off the suspect’s ring, police said.

Four other attacks linked to the man by DNA occurred May 26, 2002, in Hyattsville, Md.; Dec. 1, 2002, at a Hilton Hotel in Silver Spring; June 6, 2003, at a Holiday Inn in Arlington; and June 9, 2003, at a Marriott Courtyard hotel in Greenbelt, Md. Police said the box cutter was dropped at the hotel in Silver Spring. The attack in Hyattsville occurred in the suspect’s car, police said, after the victim was picked up at a hotel in Northeast Washington.

Authorities said they suspect the same man in eight other cases, three of which were sexual assaults in hotels in Arlington, Takoma Park and Alexandria. The five other cases mostly involved possible sightings. A man authorities say may be the assailant was questioned by a hotel employee in Greenbelt and seen roaming floors and trying to open doors at a hotel in Gaithersburg, Md. Housekeepers at a hotel at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport also reported seeing a man resembling the 2003 sketch.

The attacks and sightings ended in 2006.

Police speculate that the man left the country, died, stopped his crimes or is imprisoned with an erroneous DNA profile.

Whatever happened, said Liu, the District’s top prosecutor, investigators have “never forgotten these victims.”

Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.

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