—Additional Reporting by Amanda Tust
It was about 7 p.m. on a frigid night, three days after Christmas 2001, when a 29-year-old woman in Fairfax County, Virginia, realized she was late for work. Knowing she had to hurry or she’d miss her bus, she threw on a coat and rushed into the darkness to the bus stop.
There, she waited, noticing a man standing off to the side, a cigarette dangling from his lips. She’d later tell police that she thought the man was trying to be polite by not smoking too close to her.
But he was anything but polite. Around 7:15, he approached her and asked when the next bus was coming. Before she could answer, he said, “I have a weapon. Follow me,” and led the terrified woman down the street and behind a large utility box in the front of an apartment complex. He forced her to lie on the ground, lifted her clothes over her face, pulled off her shoes and one leg of her jeans, and raped her, the blade of a knife pressed to her neck.
When results from DNA testing came in about three months later, Fairfax County police linked the crime to five previous rapes dating back to 1997 around the Washington, D.C., area. But connecting these cases didn’t help capture the predator. Over the next eight years, police suspect (and some DNA evidence confirms) that he repeated his vicious crime, leaving the D.C. region and traveling up the East Coast, raping three more women and attempting to attack a fourth in Connecticut. He might have succeeded in raping another in Rhode Island, but as he entered a home there, he was scared off by an 11-year-old girl’s screams.
His most recent known attack occurred in suburban Northern Virginia on Halloween evening 2009. He raped two teenage girls in a wooded ravine behind a dimly lit shopping center on their way home from trick-or-treating. The location of his assaults led the media to dub him the East Coast Rapist. To this day, he still has not been caught or even identified. Police suspect he’s responsible for at least 16 rape cases (11 linked by DNA).
Some rapists target women they’ve met (even briefly) and commit a single crime with little premeditation, but serial rapists are another breed. Typically intelligent, normal-seeming men, who often have a wife or girlfriend and a demeanor that lets them blend into their communities, they’re known for their methodical preparation, their practiced ability to home in on vulnerable strangers, and the compulsive, recurrent nature of their attacks.
When it comes to dangerous criminals like these, your best weapon is awareness: The more you know about how they work and who they look for, the better your chances of staying out of their sights.
Hidden Danger Zones
One of my most high-profile cases as a New York City prosecutor was the investigation of a man who had committed a series of brazen rapes of young working women inside some of midtown Manhattan’s fanciest office towers in 1985. The first victim was a 20-year-old college student working part-time for a clothing manufacturer just off Fifth Avenue, on the 18th floor of a high-rise building.
At 3 p.m. on the day of the attack, she was taking the elevator down to the lobby to grab a snack. The elevator stopped on the 16th floor, which at the time was empty and unused. When the doors opened, she was confronted by a well-dressed man. Seeing that she was alone, he dropped the briefcase he’d been holding, pulled a large knife from his waistband, and grabbed her, holding the blade to her throat.
The rape took place on the dusty deserted floor of this otherwise busy office building. Nothing had been done by corporate management to secure the vacant level from public access, and the clean-cut rapist, who looked as though he belonged among the other businessmen, had simply roamed the tower and found the empty suite of rooms.
His spree continued for the next several weeks. Dubbed the Midtown Rapist, his victims included a lawyer in her Park Avenue office building, a bookkeeper running an errand in a low-trafficked stairwell, and a secretary carrying documents to another floor several stories up.
Experienced cops lectured me about this kind of predator: how he meticulously plans his attacks, waiting for the brief window of time when his victim is isolated and often distracted or focused on what she’s doing. Serial rapists, they taught me, often operate in a comfort zone — some preferring indoors to out, daytime to night, but establishing an area and approach they tend to stick to that assures them of both access to victims as well as an easy escape.
While the East Coast Rapist usually stakes out women at suburban bus stops and shopping centers and in apartment-complex parking lots, the Midtown Rapist studied the interior of tall office towers, which offered the constant flow and anonymity of large crowds into which he could disappear and a ready population of young women to satisfy his sexual appetite.
For months, frightened women working in these buildings refused to use the stairs or elevators alone, and office managers increased security by cordoning off unused floors. Later that year, the case was solved. Detectives ID’d the rapist as Russell West, a recent parolee who had served time for a series of sexual assaults in some of the very same office buildings more than a decade earlier. Thirty-one-year-old West had returned to his comfort zone.
A Sleeping Target
Serial rapists’ comfort zones can also be the one place a victim feels most secure: her own home. And they’re no less methodical when it comes to mapping out a home-invasion rape. They’ll track the activity in the house or apartment, memorizing a woman’s comings and goings, so they know when she’s alone and what time she goes to bed. They often do this by watching from the street when her lights go on and off and even being so bold as to peep into windows. In fact, law-enforcement experts know that there is a strong link between burglars — many of whom started their criminal activities as Peeping Toms — and serial rapists who assault women in their own home.
These rapists don’t strike just any home. They tend to look for a house that is more isolated than the others around it — for example, separated by thick bushes or a patch of woods, thereby offering an easier break-in and subsequent getaway.
This was the suspected MO of 40-year-old Robert Jason Burdick, a serial rapist who focused his alleged 14-year rape spree in the counties around his home of Nashville. Burdick, who, chillingly, owned his own security company, tended to rape women who resided near woods — earning him the nickname the Wooded Rapist — until his arrest in 2008. He also struck on stormy nights, perhaps because rain could muffle the noise he made climbing through unlocked windows.
How did Burdick manage to allegedly attack more than a dozen women without being caught? Among his victims was a 29-year-old, who was confronted by a masked Burdick, armed with a gun. He tied her up and raped her in her bedroom.
Another victim was 17 when Burdick, again wearing a mask, woke her, a gun pointed at her temple. He forced the teen into her garage to carry out his crime. “Why me?” she asked as he held her life in his hands. “I’ve been watching you,” Burdick reportedly said. “You’re beautiful.”
At the series of trials in 2009 and early 2010 that led to Burdick’s multiple convictions, several women testified to being awakened or confronted by him in a similar way: a mask over his face, sometimes a gun in his hand. So far, he has been sentenced to more than 100 years in prison and is awaiting trial for at least six more cases.
Scarily, he probably would still be out there if an alert resident hadn’t called 911 to report a masked man dressed in black carrying a flashlight in his neighborhood. Police put Burdick under 24-hour surveillance and got hold of his DNA. When a positive match was made between that and the DNA collected from the Wooded Rapist’s victims, he was quickly arrested while driving down an interstate headed east of Nashville.
Habits That Help
Rape is a crime that occurs because of the offender’s predatory behavior, and you can never protect yourself one hundred percent from becoming a target. But every woman should make sure her day-to-day behavior isn’t putting her at a higher risk.
Since it’s often the consistency of a target’s habits that gives a determined predator his cues, try occasionally to vary the path you take to and from work (stick to a few routes you know well). This way, a predator can’t assume that you always get home at a specific time.
To protect against home-invasion rapists, something as simple as locking your doors and windows, including your garage door, even when you are in your home can make a big difference. It sounds obvious, but predators scout in advance for women who leave doors unlocked while running errands and watch to see if you enter your home without a key. Speaking of windows, make sure all of yours are securely covered by curtains or shades at night. Exposed windows broadcast whether you are alone and when you go to sleep.
These serial assailants search for that brief moment of vulnerability when you are by yourself and distracted or off in your own world. In the 1990s, a serial rapist stalked Manhattan’s usually safe Upper East Side, attacking more than 18 women in their 20s and 30s, usually between 1 and 4 a.m., as they entered their brownstone buildings.
My team in the prosecutor’s office at the time theorized that he counted on his victims being tired at that hour and he knew some were off guard because they had been drinking. He still has not been caught.
If you’re in a similar situation, instead of heading home alone, ask a friend if you can stay with her or take a taxi together. Presenting yourself as alert, aware, and able to call for help quickly will make you appear more empowered and less like a woman to target.