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Archive for Monday, July 18, 2011

Releasing more information to public helps solve case similar to northeast Kansas serial rapist investigation

July 18, 2011

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What’s known about the serial rapist in Lawrence and Manhattan:

• Sometimes a knife or gun is used during the attacks.

• At least the first five crimes in Manhattan occurred in second-floor apartments.

• Victims’ ages ranged from late teens to late 20s.

• Some victims were college students.

• The first three crimes occurred at the same apartment complex in Manhattan.

• All crimes occurred during some sort of college break.

• All of the crimes — except one — occurred between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

• One incident involved two victims.

• No information has been provided by police about any forensic evidence left at crime scenes.

•The last known connected assault occurred in Lawrence in November 2008.

Several police agencies on the East Coast had been frustrated for years, unable to catch a serial rapist wanted in four states.

Just like the suspected serial rapist in the Lawrence and Manhattan areas, an unknown assailant had sexually assaulted numerous women, but had eluded authorities for more than a decade.

But last March, authorities in Connecticut finally caught up with Aaron Thomas, suspected of being the ”East Coast Rapist." Police have connected Thomas to at least a dozen sexual assaults since 1997 in four states: Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland.

A law enforcement task force relied on an unlikely tool to catch Thomas: an intensive media campaign.

While police had DNA, a physical description and other specific details about the rapist, the case languished.

In 2010, the task force began looking for new ideas to aid their efforts, said Detective John Kelly of the Fairfax County Police in Virginia. The first step was releasing more information to the public.

Kelly and the task force began working more closely with media outlets, taking reporters to the scenes of the crimes and releasing information that often is not shared in ongoing investigations.

“We gave them full access to the case,” Kelly said.

Police hoped that one of the details released would encourage someone with information to come forward, Kelly said. Maybe a neighbor would recognize the police sketch of the suspect, or someone would remember a co-worker with the rapist’s characteristic chipped tooth.

A website, eastcoastrapist.com, also helped spread the word, detailing the case details, providing contact information for tips and offering a $25,000 reward.

In less than 48 hours of going online, the site received more than 54,000 visits.

“The response was tremendous,” Kelly said.

In cooperation with the FBI, a highway billboard provided motorists driving from Virginia to Rhode Island with a police sketch of the rapist and directed them to the website for more information.

The media campaign paid off. Aided by a tip from an acquaintance who’d seen the extensive coverage of the case, police arrested Thomas in New Haven, Conn. In police custody, Thomas spoke of the increasing pressure he felt from the media scrutiny and police marketing campaign.

Using a media campaign to catch fugitives has also been successful in generating tips that have lead to the capture of 40 fugitives wanted by the FBI, said Lindsay Godwin, agency spokeswoman.

“This has worked for us,” said Godwin.

The FBI has utilized digital billboards, Facebook and Twitter to help spread the word about a fugitive. Godwin said that such a campaign led to the recent capture of James “Whitey” Bulger, who’d been wanted on murder and organized crime charges for 16 years.

Those intense media campaign tactics differ sharply from those employed by authorities trying to catch the northeast Kansas serial rapist. Lawrence and Riley County Police have released few details about the basics of each sexual assault connected to the local serial rapist.

When contacted for this article, representatives from both the Lawrence and the Riley County Police said they could not release any other details about the case or comment on investigative tactics. In addition, the Attorney General’s Office, which is coordinating the investigation, has declined the Journal-World’s repeated interview requests.

Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Fairfax, Va., County Police, cautioned that decisions about what information to release to the public and the media should be made on a case-by-case basis, and authorities must be careful not to jeopardize future prosecution efforts.

The basics of the East Coast Rapist and the local serial rapist are similar — more than a dozen rapes over several years in multiple locations.

But police can’t necessarily use the same marketing tactics her department used to catch the East Coast Rapist, said Caldwell, who reserved comment on the tactics or strategy of police in Kansas.

“Every case is so individual,” Caldwell said.

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