trail of the blue-light rapist
After four assaults, finally, a few clues.
But still too few.
NEXT TARGET? The blue-light rapist preys on young women whom authorities believe he sees in public places.
By Judith M. Gallman
For more than 20 months now, a serial rapist who poses as a law enforcement officer has eluded Arkansas authorities.
Striking on the lonely roads of eastern Arkansas, he has raped four times. Each victim was a young woman stopped on a rural highway by a man driving an unmarked car with a flashing blue light mounted on its dashboard.
The abductions and attacks stretch over five counties and hundreds of miles from Lonoke to St. Francis County, with months between assaults.
The latest attack brought a flurry of police activity in Woodruff County. But, despite helpful specifics from the latest victim, authorities seemed no closer to an arrest.
With increasing media attention comes more than heightened awareness--and fear--among women. Police agencies have been forced to abandon using unmarked cars. And they've had to take the unusual step of suggesting that frightened women not immediately stop for patrolling officers, but proceed cautiously to a place they feel safe before stopping.
Authorities, too, are looking more closely at what makes a police impostor tick. What kind of man poses as society's ultimate authority figure to assault vulnerable young women?
The answer can be troubling. Who better to pose as a law officer than a law officer? For this reason, investigators can't overlook police who've been fired or been the subject of complaints.
One out-of-state criminal analyst, who specializes in compiling profiles of serial criminals, says he'd have to look first at Arkansas constables, armed civilians with police powers, if he were handling the case.
Whoever the rapist is, he's managed to elude police for almost two years. And authorities fear that he will become bolder, and more dangerous.
The manhunt finally commanded top attention after attack four--an assault of a 17-year-old Cabot girl July 11 in Lonoke County.
She was sexually assaulted in what police described as a "livable structure"--a house, hunting club or office apartment, perhaps--that authorities believe is in Woodruff County. The young woman has offered the most valuable details about the rapist to date.
"She has certainly been one of the most helpful of the victims if not the most helpful of the victims," Bill Sadler, a State Police spokesman, said.
She has repeatedly returned to the suspected crime scene with investigators, listening to road sounds, visiting sites similar to where she believes she was raped and spending long periods in cars estimating how long she was driven, head covered, through eastern Arkansas until her release three-and-a-half hours and more than 60 miles later south of Morton (Woodruff County).
Despite the terror, the young woman remembers hearing a Jonesboro radio station during the ride, which limits his territory, but still to a daunting area numbering perhaps in the thousands of square miles. And she remembers other specifics about the location of her attack--a gravel road, two steps and an outer landing, an exterior door or storm door, a hard-to-open interior door, a room with hardwood floors, running water and electricity. Police believe the site, if found, will yield evidence that will lead to an arrest.
In the two weeks since the latest attack and a public appeal for help, State Police have received 150 tips on a hotline, bringing the number of total tips since the rapes began in 1995 close to 500. The hotline telephone number is 1-800-553-3820, and an $18,000 reward is being offered.
"This is one case that is going to haunt me until we solve this thing," Lee County Sheriff Lee Oxner said. "I guess it's the same for all the other sheriffs."
"This guy is listening to news, reading the papers. He's analyzing us. I don't like to give him anything to analyze me about," said State Police criminal investigator Barry Roy. "In this case, you don't go out and ask people if they're the blue-light rapist."
"We're dealing with a serial rapist," Roy said. "We don't need any more victims."
The chief investigator is Lt. David Rosegrant, a 27-year law enforcement veteran and company commander of Troop G for the State Police. Rosegrant last week acknowledged the difficulties.
"It's certainly one of the most frustrating. We can't get a good enough lead to apprehend this person. He has struck four times and we still have not got him," Rosegrant said.
In the days after the July 11 assault, Rosegrant spent "every waking hour of the day" on the case until he began a week-long vacation July 26. Initially, troopers and sheriff's deputies combed Woodruff, Cross and Lonoke counties, coordinating from makeshift headquarters in a Baptist church in Morton. Last week, State Police used a helicopter two days to search rural areas. This week, uder the direction of Sgt. John Howell, authorities were heading back into Woodruff, Monroe and Prairie counties armed with "meter maps," maps showing which structures are wired for electricty. If the trail isn't cold now, it seems so from the outside.
The Cabot teen-ager said the man drove about 30 minutes before releasing her, so investigators believe her assault must have occurred in Woodruff County. Authorities believe the man attempted to confuse his victim by driving in circles, reversing and turning often before letting her go at state Highway 269 near Morton.
In the four cases attributed to the blue-light rapist (and police believe one man is responsible because of general similarities in the assaults), only the last occurred in a structure, rather than the attacker's car. Rosegrant believes this change of routine might produce a breakthrough.
Brent Turvey, a criminal expert from Connecticut who trained under O.J. Simpson-trial forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee, has a more troubling outlook. Now that the attacker has found a building to use, the locale's safety could precipitate more violence on victims.
Rosegrant agrees, saying more attacks, increased brutality and even death are probable.
"What we fear is as he gets braver in doing this he may also get reckless and cause some bodily harm other than the assault itself," Rosegrant said.
So far, the blue-light rapist has preyed on young women he may have seen in a public place.
Lt. Rosegrant thinks it's unlikely that the rapist knows and stalks his victims. Instead, he believes the assailant sees a petite, young female at a public place--like a store or a restaurant--and follows her, pulling her over if the opportunity presents itself.
Here's a thumbnail sketch of each blue-light attack:
-- On Nov. 30, 1995, a 20-year-old woman from St. Francis County pulled over about 10 p.m. near the intersection of state Highways 1 and 131 between Forrest City and Marianna in Lee County. The woman, who had just left a Forrest City Pizza Hut, was apparently assaulted on a gravel road off Highway 1.
-- On Jan. 9, 1996, a 15-year-old St. Francis County cheerleader who had been to a basketball game in Lee County and had taken a friend home to Marianna was pulled over on Highway 1 four miles north of Marianna about 9:40 p.m. The assault, which took place in the car, is believed to have taken place in an open field along Hwy. 121.
-- On Jan. 19, 1997, a 19-year-old resident of Cross County who had just left a convenience store was pulled over at 11:30 p.m. as she approached the White River bridge along Highway 64 from the west. The assault occurred on a gravel road about a mile off Highway 260 south of Augusta (Woodruff County).
-- On July 11, the 17-year-old Lonoke County resident had gotten off work from her job at a Cabot bank, had gone to eat at Pizza Hut, attended a church function, met and talked with her boyfriend at an Exxon station and been to Wal-Mart. She was pulled over about 9:30 p.m. at the intersection of Highways 31 and 38 in Lonoke County.
In all four cases, the attacker tailed victims to an abandoned rural highway, switched on a flashing blue light to force a traffic stop, thrust a gun at the distracted woman and abducted her. The description of the assailant's weapon has ranged from a revolver to a semi-automatic handgun, Rosegrant said.
The man does not wear a police uniform. His face is covered with a ski mask and he covers his victims' faces with a piece of clothing.
"The mask tells me it's a local person," Turvey said. "He's wearing a mask so somebody doesn't recognized him. If he didn't have a fear of being recognized later, he wouldn't wear a mask."
"He does use a little vulgarity, but not in a threatening manner," Rosegrant said. "If he's agitated for some reason, he uses threatening remarks," he said, adding the rapist has threatened to kill his victims or to "blow your head off."
Rosegrant doesn't have much of a theory on the time lapse between attacks, unless "it lets them let their guard down. To be quite frank, the latest victim thought he had been caught." It's also possible, Rosegrant said, the rapist may live out of state and attack on trips to Arkansas, or he may be spending part of his time behind bars.
State Police say the rapist is a white male, 25 to 35 years old, 5'8" to 6' tall, 170 to 200 pounds, with dark hair and a stocky build. He's a smoker with a raspy voice, a "country accent," back and shoulder hair, and several days growth of beard on his face.
The attacker has driven different cars. In the fourth attack, he was driving a white or light-blue '90s model two-door Ford Taurus, Thunderbird or similar mid-size car with vinyl upholstery, bucket seats, and a gear shift console. It also apparently has wide tail lights. In previous attacks, he's used an older model, light-colored Oldsmobile, and a sport utility vehicle such as a Blazer or Bronco.
Rosegrant said the rapist's sexual assaults are "strictly intercourse."
Rosegrant believes the suspect is a loner who doesn't discuss his actions with anyone and has some fascination, connection or familiarity with police work.
"He might be an auxiliary deputy or an auxiliary officer," suggested James Carmack, assistant director of the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute and a former sheriff.
Dr. Bob Gale, a forensic psychiatrist and director of the Arkansas Mental Health Research and Training Institute in Little Rock, said "more likely than not, at one time or another, he actually had power or lost it or felt he lost it."
Gale classified the blue-light rapist's behavior as "retributive." That is, the rapist is likely getting back at society, trying to make up for something that he thinks has been taken from him or is owed him, Gale said.
Gale called the suspect dangerous and out of control. He theorizes the rapist has an underlying need to impersonate police for a reason not yet known.
There are no specific leads that would indicate the rapist currently could be in law enforcement, Rosegrant said, but investigators have not ruled out the possibility. Investigators have checked out leads involving police personnel who have been fired or had complaints lodged against them for unnecessary stops or stops involving young women, Rosegrant said.
It's also possible, Gale suggested, that the assailant may have an armed forces background or a fettish for law enforcement honed through reading books or watching television.
Dr. Albert Kittrell, also a local forensic psychiatrist, predicted the rapist's violent acts would increase. It's highly probable, he said, the rapist has a history of sexual abuse and has abused others.
"Like most sex offenders, he has probably committed lots more acts than he's been caught for or been given credit for or accused of," Kittrell said.
Many share that view.
"He's either doing it somewhere else and we're not seeing it or he's got a hell of a lot of control," said Turvey. But he added, the attacker undoubtedly has what seems outwardly to be a stable life. "That's the thing that's the problem with the controlled serial rapist who lives in the communityit could be anybody."
Turvey is not surprised that investigators aren't ruling out other police for a suspect. "I've investigated a lot of these. Clearly they are looking in the own people," he said.
Turvey said he'd be inclined to look first at Arkansas constables, and check the list of all of them for alibis on the nights of the attacks. Constables are legal law officers, created by the state Constitution, but they typically don't enjoy regular financial support from local governments. Many carry guns and drive personal cars in patrols of their districts.
Since the blue-light assaults, the State Police and many sheriff's offices have discontinued use of unmarked cars in routine traffic controls. The state's 700 constables are the exception, although about a third of them have organized in a trade association, wear uniforms and undergo police training.
Forensic psychiatrist Gale says the ability of the blue-light rapist to prey on women is, in its way, a product of police tactics.
"In some ways," said Gale, "this is almost the price society pays for having unmarked cars in the first place."
With unmarked cars, the police are fundamentally tricking the public, he says. "Two wrongs don't make a right."
The fact that weighs heaviest on Rosegrant's mind is that the rapist is likely to strike again. "There's a high probability that will occur," Rosegrant said.
"People who commit rape do it repeatedly. It's not something you do once and quit," said Dr. Deborah Dwyer, who teaches a course on criminal psychology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
"The likelihood of his being able to stop what he is doing diminishes each time," forensic psychiatrist Gale said.
Turvey fears that the out-of-the-way hideaway can enable the rapist to spend longer time with victims--more time to bring fantasies, including murder, to terrible life.
"That they [the victims] are living is fantastic," Turvey said. "I hope to God he doesn't start killing."
"It's certainly a possibility," said Kittrell. "Any time you're dealing with someone who has a gun, there is a chance he will use it."
Copyright ©1996, 1997
Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc.