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Talks with police, victims, experts help reporters investigate elusive serial rapist

About two months ago we set off to trace the path of a serial rapist who has been at work for more than a decade, attacking women up and down the East Coast.

With our story published, we wanted to walk you through our reporting and share some impressions.

On the trail of a serial rapist
Following interviews and visits to each of the rapist's 17 known and suspected crime scenes, The Post presents a comprehensive look at his attacks and methods in an interactive graphic. On the trail of a serial rapist

We visited the scenes of each of 12 attacks conclusively linked to this unknown man by DNA evidence in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut and Rhode Island. We also visited the sites of five other assaults police suspect were committed by the same man. We examined the scenes, explored the neighborhoods and walked the paths the man likely took as he stalked and attacked his victims.

Five of the rapist's victims, including a 16-year-old girl attacked Halloween night in Dale City, agreed to tell us their stories. We’ll never fully understand the horrors they have experienced, but their willingness to talk about the incidents gave us -- and, we hope, you -- a sense of the pain and fear this man has caused.

Women display strength, anger -- and fear

All of the women, though shaken, are incredibly strong. Their memories are vivid. We were struck by the way they have used faith, support of friends and family, and even humor to cope. Each has managed to move on, but they echoed each other in saying the attacks changed their lives and will continue to haunt them in some way forever.

Their bravery and composure under great duress also was impressive. The 16-year-old girl, huddled in wet leaves at the bottom of a wooded ravine as her friends were being raped, was able to conceal her cell phone and contact her parents and authorities. Her calls and texts brought police closer to the man than they have ever been. A Leesburg woman thought to bang her feet on the floor so a neighbor would notice. A woman in Fairfax tried to jump out in front of a car to thwart the attack. All of them reported the crimes, leading to DNA matches.

We had these conversations in person and by telephone, coaxing out details of what was undoubtedly the worst night in their lives. For the most part, we did not talk specifically about the sexual acts involved in each crime.

One Connecticut woman who was raped in her bedroom as her baby slept nearby told us that she sat by the phone for 20 minutes deciding if she was up to speaking with us about that night. In the end, she called.

“I want to know, why me?” she said, adding that the attack consumed her for nearly two years and has made her suspicious of everyone. “You read about rapes, you know they occur, you never think it’s going to happen to you. It just really changes you.”

She left her apartment the night she was raped and never returned. The attack is impossible to escape because her son’s birthday falls just days after the anniversary.

The woman he raped in Leesburg walked us through the apartment complex where she was attacked and stood at the door where the rapist ambushed her. It was the first time she had been back.

“He (messed) with my body," she told us. "I’m not going to let him (mess) with my head.” But still, it’s difficult: Each May, the month she was attacked, her mood swings downward.

These women were angry that they had been victimized but even angrier that the man has raped teenagers. They were willing to relive the attacks in the hope that something they said will trigger the tip that leads to his capture.

“I want him caught,” said one woman who was raped in the winter cold outside a Fairfax County apartment complex in 2001. “Not for me, but especially for the younger victims he’s done.”

Years after the attacks, the victims struggle with vulnerability and fear. On trips to the grocery store or the mall, they wonder if he could be nearby. A glimpse of a man who looks a little like him, or the sound of a similar voice, can trigger panic.

The sense of security they once felt in their own neighborhoods -- even inside their own homes -- is gone. Unlike some crimes, rape haunts. And because the attacks were random, the idea that he is still out there and likely will hurt others is terrifying.

After years, the search frustrates police

Police in five jurisdictions spent lots of time and effort helping us understand the facts and theories about the case, opening up in unprecedented ways. Detectives showed us some of the crime scenes, toting their years-old reports and photographs to help us see what had happened. We truly appreciated that.

We grew to understand their frustration as they chase a man who has been so elusive. Rapes of strangers are rare, and police usually have few clues to follow when victims are picked at random.

One of the officers we met said this case inspired her to put in a new alarm system. Another described a few minutes of panic when her teenage daughter, who she expected home, was running late.

The detectives we met are using the latest technology to investigate the case. Data mining software, for example, looks through traffic tickets and other records that may place someone near the crimes. They are sifting through tens of thousands of prison records in several states, hoping to find someone who was behind bars during gaps in the attacks and who also has connections in the various locations.

They also are re-interviewing victims and witnesses and following hunches. New Haven Detective Kris Cuddy was visiting the Connecticut apartment complex where one of the rapes occurred recently when she spotted a car with Virginia tags. Happenstance? Probably. But she looked into it just in case.

Crime scenes share common elements

The first scene we visited was the Prince William attack site. We saw it on a drizzly, gray winter day, and it was ominous. We walked down the steep ravine the girls had to navigate in the dark and stood at the bottom, realizing in an instant that it was a nearly perfect crime site: secluded but close. We could only imagine how terrified those girls must have been.

Many of the other scenes felt similar. As we progressed through sites in Prince George’s County, Fairfax County, Leesburg and New England, it became clearer and clearer that the man chose each one for a reason. Entrances to townhouse communities were a common theme, as were busy intersections with bus stops and gas stations; all places where you can hang out and watch lots of people flow by.

We felt that standing in many of the places reminded us of others, and experts said that makes sense, as attackers like to operate in a comfort zone. One wooded scene from August 2001, near the Marlow Heights Shopping Center in Prince George’s County, is almost identical to the one in Prince William County; it’s as if it was a precursor to what would come eight years later.

Both of us covered the Washington-area sniper case in 2002, running to the scenes of those shootings immediately after they occurred and watching as police chased an unknown assailant with a gun. In that case, the shooters were choosing victims at random in public places, areas that were sure to have a lot of potential targets and that afforded an easy escape.

Though the sniper case involved shocking murders over a very short time period, the serial rapist case has conjured up feelings that we find similar to when we were covering the sniper. We’re looking for an unknown man who appears skilled at evasion; someone who attacks at random and then vanishes; someone who leaves a trail of victims who have to live with this for the rest of their lives.

Who will end it?

The sniper case ended in an arrest and conviction in large part because a concerned person who knew the attacker came forward and told police his hunch. Authorities quickly connected the dots. The shootings ended.

This story about the rapist doesn’t yet have a conclusion. For all the searching, interviewing, evidence collecting and talking about it, police don’t know the man they’re looking for, outside of vague descriptions and a DNA profile. We feel like we know him in some way, yet we realize, too, that we don’t know much.

Perhaps there’s one person reading this coverage who does know him. That person can put an end to all of it.

Talk to us

If you have questions about this story, let us know. You can e-mail us directly from the links below, or just leave a comment or question on this blog post.

-- Maria Glod and Josh White

By Washington Post Editors  |  March 15, 2010; 2:01 PM ET
Categories:  Around the Nation , East Coast Rapist , Josh White , Maria Glod , Pr. George's , Pr. William  
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