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He lurks at gas stations and pay phones and bus stops, blending in so well that people don’t notice him at first. He has a smooth, deep voice. He is black, he smokes, and he is right-handed. He is in his early to mid-30s, is fit, stands about 6 feet tall, tends to wear camouflage clothes and black hats, and once had a badly chipped tooth.

The man studies women carefully. He watches them leave for work and walk home from the mall, and he notices whether they lock their windows and doors. He knows when they are most vulnerable, even when they are home alone with their children. He stalks them in neighborhoods he knows well.

Then he rapes them and vanishes.

He is the East Coast Rapist. And police know so much about this man. They even have his DNA. But when it comes right down to it, this same man is a frustrating mystery. No one has been able to find him.

His attacks have spanned 13 years, beginning in Prince George’s County in the late 1990s, moving into Virginia and then up to New England.

Now he’s back in Northern Virginia. The most recent rapes were on Halloween in Dale City, when he forced three trick-or-treating teenagers into a wooded ravine at gunpoint. That attack was the closest police ever have come to finding him. And it showed them that he’s brasher than ever.

“He is a very bold, fearless predator,” said Prince William police 1st Sgt. Kim Chinn. “The concern is that he’s out there, he’s not going to stop until he’s caught and the violence could get worse.”

“He’s like a lion looking for prey,” said one of his victims, a woman who was raped in her Leesburg apartment in 2001.

Police detectives and five of the rapist’s victims cooperated with the reporting of this story with the same goal in mind: They want to identify and catch this man before he attacks again. The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sex crimes and is not identifying any of the victims in this story. Some victims, parents themselves, said they were willing to discuss their attacks now because the man recently raped teenagers.

“Somebody’s going to know who’s been in Prince George’s, who’s been in Fairfax, who went to Connecticut,” said Lt. Bruce Guth, who leads Fairfax’s cold case squad. “The bastard’s right there. We just need that one phone call. Somebody knows this guy.”

Police in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been hunting the rapist for more than a decade, but the Halloween attacks have added urgency to their search. A trail of DNA proves that he has raped at least 12 women and police suspect him in a total of 17 attacks. Detectives believe there might be more.

Experts say the rapist is probably in a constant search for his next victim. Police believe he lives in, works in, or is very familiar with the areas he prowls. He scopes out locations to intercept women, secluded sites in the midst of busy neighborhoods, and ways to escape. He grabs women in their comfort zones, near or in their own homes.

“He’s taking advantage of people who are unguarded,” said Fairfax County Detective John Kelly. “He’s doing it under the cover of darkness. He acts like a trapper would.”

His methods remain unpredictable. He has attacked using a knife, a gun, a screwdriver and a broken bottle. He has approached his victims using banal conversation or an abrupt demand. He compliments them and threatens to kill them. But beyond the violence of the rapes, he has not yet carried out any of those threats.

The rapist’s DNA so far has not turned up in any criminal database and police think he knows it because he seldom uses a condom. He is skilled at hiding his face by operating in the dark, wearing a mask or covering his victims’ faces.

Besides his deep voice, which several victims say they would recognize again, descriptions of him remain fairly vague: black man with a medium complexion, medium build.

Police have been looking at known sex offenders, people who have lived near the rape sites and people who have served jail time during gaps in the attacks. That has allowed them to rule out more than 100 possible suspects, but they haven’t been able to home in on anyone specific. They are using a high-tech data analysis program to scour leads and identify people with connections to the areas of the attacks.

But stranger rapes are among the most difficult to solve. This predator picks victims with whom he has no connections. Most are black, but some are white. The descriptions women are able to provide are generic at best. Other than DNA, he leaves little evidence at the scenes.

Though they leave open any possibility, detectives are exploring whether the man could be a long-haul trucker, a utility installer or a member of the military.

Whatever he is, he’s back. His Halloween attack carries several of the rapist’s trademarks.

The three girls were laughing and chatting and sending texts in the chilly night rain, their bags of candy swaying as they walked through a dimly lighted Dale City shopping center. They were just a few blocks from home.

Slinking out of the darkness, a stranger wearing a black ski mask was suddenly behind them. One of the girls felt a gun in her back. The man led them into a steep wooded ravine as they held each other’s hands. A deep voice through clenched teeth told the girls to lay down side by side and to face away from him.

“I thought he was going to kill us,” one of the girls recalled.

As her two friends were raped in the leaves beside her, the 16-year-old deftly dimmed her cellphone’s backlight. Operating blindly, she pleaded with her parents and friends for help, texting her rough location. She called her mother and then 911, breathlessly asking police to “please help me, please help me, please help me” before the call dropped.

Within minutes, her mother, just a few blocks away, was racing to the woods from one side. Prince William police raced from the other side. As the lights and sirens closed in, the man stopped, sparing the third teen.

“He said, ‘Stay down, don’t move,’ ” the girl said. “Then we heard him run away, the leaves crunching under his feet.”

And like that, he was gone, emerging from the woods into a busy neighborhood. Police were close. But not close enough.

The attacks begin

It started almost exactly 13 years ago. The young man wearing a ski mask rode his bicycle along Marlboro Pike in Forestville just after midnight, scanning the streets for a victim. He spotted a 25-year-old woman walking alone, approached her and started talking. He pulled out a gun and attacked.

The Feb. 19, 1997, rape marked the first time the man’s DNA would be entered into a database that holds genetic evidence from unsolved crimes. It occurred one month after and one month before similar attacks in the same neighborhood.

Those early rapes in Prince George’s County provide some of the best clues to the man’s identity. The women never got a clear view of his face, but two of them noticed one of his teeth was chipped or maybe missing. Sometimes he wore a green camouflage coat.

In his late teens or early 20s, the man on the bicycle seemed to know the area well. Two women recalled seeing him near an Amoco station along Pennsylvania Avenue just before they were attacked.

“Reasonable people can assume he’s from there,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Davis, deputy chief of police in Prince George’s.

That spring, police sounded their first alarm that a serial rapist was at work. Prince George’s police publicly warned women to be on guard. Detectives think he might have seen media coverage, with headlines reporting a “bicycle-riding rapist.” In August, he raped again in Prince George’s, but he changed his method. He ditched the gun and bike and was on foot and armed with a knife.

The rapist then expanded his hunting ground. By summer 1999, he was roaming Fairfax County’s Route 1 corridor, a busy section of strip malls, restaurants and apartment buildings. He lurked at gas stations and bus stops at night.

Armed with a knife, he spied one woman passing him with grocery bags, grabbed her from behind and led her to a desolate spot behind a real estate office. He plucked off one of her shoes and pulled one of her legs out of her pants. The technique made it even more difficult for her to escape because it would have been extremely difficult to run. He would later repeat the tactic.

He began focusing on roads leading into townhouse communities and apartment complexes. There, police said, he could watch women come and go and attack when his best opportunity arose.

At one such location in Springfield in November 2000, a 35-year-old woman fought him off. The rapist approached her as she entered a new townhouse community after getting off a bus. He implied that he was lost. He put her in a headlock and led her to a wooded area. The woman, who was in the military, wrestled a six-inch serrated knife from him. She told police she tried to stab him and he insisted he was “just playing” and ran off.

The knife, linked to him by DNA collected from skin cells, is the only known item the rapist has ever left behind.

In May 2001, he struck again, this time at an apartment complex in Leesburg.

When he first came upon his victim, grabbing her from behind and wrapping his arms around her, she laughed. The 41-year-old woman thought her husband had come into the second-floor garden apartment to help her move.

“What I noticed is that nobody was laughing with me,” she said. She looked down. The strong, black arms were not her husband’s.

“He said, ‘Shut up or I’ll kill you. I have a knife,’ ” she recalled.

A slender and petite blonde who looks younger than her age, the Leesburg woman had spent the evening ferrying belongings from the apartment to her car. It was warm, and she wore a T-shirt and running shorts. The apartment was nearly empty. About 5 p.m., she sent her 14-year-old son to his taekwondo lesson.

While she was at the car, the rapist slipped through her open door. He waited.

The man pushed her into the bedroom and onto the floor. Threatening her with an orange-handled Phillips head screwdriver, he bound her hands over her head with shoelaces he brought with him. He was chewing something, maybe gum or a toothpick that poked out the corner of his mouth. He covered her face with her shirt.

She thought: “So this is what it’s like to be raped.”

With him on top of her, the woman remembered a downstairs neighbor who complained about noise every time she ran on her treadmill. She banged the floor with her foot, hoping the neighbor would interrupt. This time, the neighbor didn’t complain.

“Where’s your mother?” she blurted. “Anyone with a good mother wouldn’t do this.”

That made the rapist angry and he told her to shut up or he’d kill her. When she complained she was having trouble breathing, he moved the shirt away from her mouth. But he threatened her again.

“Don’t say anything to the police,” he said. “I live right across the hall.”

As in several other cases, the rapist complimented the woman, saying that she was “fine” and suggesting that in his own head there was some mutual pleasure.

When he finished, he bundled up her clothes, her shoes and her cellphone. He gathered the shoelaces and the screwdriver and fled. Naked and terrified, she ran to the window and yelled for neighbors to call 911.

Her clothes and bedding had all been packed, so the woman covered herself in the only thing she could find — Christmas wrapping paper — until police arrived.

Leesburg Detective Lisa Kara said police interviewed people in the apartment across from the woman’s at the time — an apartment that often housed transients — but made little headway.

Three months later, the man attacked two Prince George’s County teenagers at gunpoint as they walked home from the Marlow Heights shopping center near the Capital Beltway. He forced the girls into the woods in what would be the first time he raped two victims in a single incident. The wooded ravine is similar to the scene of the recent Prince William attack.

Days after Christmas 2001, a 29-year-old mother of four from Fairfax County was running late for her 7 p.m. work shift. She pulled on a turtleneck, T-shirt, a sweatshirt and a coat and waited at the bus stop in the Alexandria section of the county.

She saw a man smoking a cigarette nearby and thought he was being polite by standing back at the edge of the woods. He came closer and asked whether she knew when the next bus would arrive.

But the man didn’t want an answer. “I have a weapon, follow me,” he said. She caught a glimpse of a knife handle in his coat pocket.

As he led her down the street, the bus went by, too late to help. He demanded money. When she insisted she had none, he didn’t buy it.

“You work all the time,” he said. He was right. She had two jobs, one at Ames and the other in a fast food restaurant. She felt he could not have known that unless he had been watching her.

The tip of the knife dug into the left side of her neck. When they reached a nearby apartment complex, he forced her to the mulch, lifted her clothes over her face, and pulled off one of her shoes and one leg of her jeans.

She shivered in the winter cold, and he told her to stop shaking. Throughout the attack, she prayed aloud: “Thank you, Jesus.” The rapist got angry and ordered her to stop, but she refused. He then got up and, for a moment, she thought the attack was over. He came back.

“It was too good to stop,” he told her. After the rape, he said he would come back to get her if she had AIDS or got pregnant. Finally, he was gone.

She lay silently, counting backward from 100. At 30, she got up. With one pant leg trailing behind her and a shoe in her hand she rushed home. She desperately wanted to take a shower and be done with it, but her husband persuaded her to report the crime. Police recovered DNA that linked her case to the others.

A few months later the woman was at work when a customer’s voice stopped her cold. Ames security guards had spotted a man suspected of shoplifting baby clothes, and later told her that when the man looked in her direction, he took off running.

“It was the voice,” she said. “I had the sense that he was coming back for me.”

The attacks move north

After the last Fairfax rape in 2001, at least four years passed without any signs of the rapist. There are no solid explanations. Police say any theory is just speculation, but they are focusing on the possibilities that are most likely: a stint in jail, military service, a life change such as marriage or the birth of a child, relocation outside the country. Or he might have been thwarted and was scared off for a while.

“But these gaps might not be gaps at all,” said Prince William Detective Todd Troutner, flipping through a white binder labeled “The Rapist.” “We just might not know of all the attacks.”

In the evening darkness just after Thanksgiving in 2006, the rapist reappeared, leaving DNA more than 400 miles north of his previously known attacks. This time it was on a back deck at the end of a cul-de-sac in Cranston, R.I.

An 11-year-old girl, doing her homework on a living room couch, looked up to see a stranger’s face poking into her dining room. An unlocked sliding-glass door had been opened, and the man had stepped slightly through it. The girl screamed, the family’s large black great Dane began barking, and the man bolted. No one was hurt.

“It was dark out, and I had just gotten home from work. He probably saw me come home and probably thought I was by myself,” said the girl’s mother, now 42, in an interview at their home. “We thought it was a local homeless guy or something.”

After the split-second encounter, police arrived and examined the scene.

Just outside the door, there were three drops of semen. The DNA matched the rapes in Maryland and Virginia.

“I guess we were lucky,” the girl’s mother said. “Why he was here doesn’t make any sense. I’ve tried so hard to figure it out.”

Janet I. Warren, associate director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and an expert on serial rapists, said the peeping Tom incident says a lot about the man.

“I can assure you he’s been looking into many windows,” Warren said. “He probably has a methodical way of sizing up women, sizing up areas, sizing up apartment complexes. . . . He’s moving around the area and looking for victims and getting a sense of the people. He’s familiar with who locks their doors and windows.”

Police in New Haven, Conn., believe the rapist moved to New England either for work or to be with family. The only attack in New Haven linked by DNA came just a month and a half after the Cranston peeping, but police think he could have committed three similar attacks in New Haven around that same time.

In each of the New Haven attacks, the assailant entered homes through an unlocked door or window and confronted women in darkened bedrooms. In three of the cases he attacked women who were home alone with children — like in Cranston — and instead of a weapon he used the children as leverage.

“He’s definitely watching them,” said Sgt. Martin Dadio of the New Haven police department’s special investigations unit. “He’s looking to get someone who will do whatever he wants because they want to protect their kid.”

Evidence of that is clear in a rape that took place Jan. 10, 2007, in an isolated New Haven apartment complex.

The woman, then 27, arrived home after picking up her 11-month-old son at day care. She opened a window to cool off her ground-level apartment, put the baby to bed and watched television before going to sleep about 10.

She awoke some time after midnight to find a man silhouetted against her bedroom doorway. Not wearing her glasses and groggy from sleep, she heard him say: “Don’t yell.”

The man ordered her to cover her head with her pillowcase.

“I froze and did what I was told to do,” she said. Her son, one week shy of his first birthday, was sleeping in a crib in the room. She prayed he wouldn’t wake up. “He specifically said, ‘I’m not going to hurt you, I know you have your son here.’ It was almost like he started feeling bad, like he couldn’t control himself.”

At one point the rapist asked her whether she “liked it,” and she didn’t answer for fear of angering him. When he was done, he warned her not to report the crime.

“He told me not to call the police, and if I did, he’d know and he’d come back and kill me,” she said. “And he said, ‘Make sure to lock your windows.’ ”

The apartment complex is not a place one would just stumble upon. It is tucked into the back of a residential neighborhood and is far from pedestrian traffic.

“You wouldn’t go there unless you had business there or family there,” said Lt. Julie Johnson, head of the New Haven police special investigations unit. “He plans these. He’s watching. He knows the areas.”

In three other cases in New Haven the attacker did not leave DNA behind either because he used a condom or a makeshift condom or because the woman fended him off. But they carry some of the rapist’s signatures. Just as in one of the Fairfax rapes, the attacker in New Haven told a woman to “stop shaking.” He spoke with a Caribbean accent in some of the attacks, but one victim reported that he turned it on and off, indicating that it might be fake. He complimented them on their bodies and the act, something experts said probably shows some level of fantasy or a confused sense that the act is consensual.

Back to Virginia

Nearly three years passed between the last known attack in Connecticut in January 2007 and the Halloween rapes in Dale City. Police are examining unsolved rapes in several states to determine whether this rapist could be responsible for them because they believe there must be some they don’t know about.

But on Halloween, it was him again: He was dressed in all black, wore a black mask, used a gun, grabbed the girls as they walked home and spoke in a deep voice through gritted teeth.

The rapes were in a wooded area he must have scouted.

Just yards from a shopping center and a large residential community off Dale Boulevard, the walk down into the small clearing is precarious. It’s a shortcut where people have tossed Natural Light beer cans, empty bottles, a stray car tire and other trash.

“It’s a pretty good location for what he wanted to do,” said Troutner, the Prince William detective, standing next to the ravine floor where the girls were ordered to lie down in the cold, wet darkness.

The girls held hands and scrambled into the ravine as the masked attacker followed them with a gun, all of them afraid to cry out or run for fear that he might shoot them. He attacked one girl, then moved on to the next. That’s when the third teenager crouched over her phone and decided to send her text. At 9:05 p.m., she created a message, addressed it to seven people and typed furiously: “911 cvs pls noww man with gun”

“I can text really fast,” she said. “I turned my backlight down and texted my mom, my dad and friends, asking them for help, telling them that I was in the woods, that a man was raping my friends, and to please call 911.”

There was no anger in the rapist’s voice, no tension, no compassion. Almost no tone at all.

“He just came, got what he wanted and left,” she said. “That’s it.”