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Friday, February 12, 1999

DNA links Wharton student's killer to rapes

It is a major break in the Shannon Schieber case.
One of the rape victims can describe the assailant.

By Clea Benson and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr.,

The man who murdered Wharton School student Shannon Schieber in her Center City apartment last May had previously raped at least two other women in the same part of the city, according to DNA tests that have provided the first major break in the case.

Police say one of the rape victims can provide a description of the assailant, giving investigators a strong lead in the nine-month-old case.

Investigators believe that the attacker may have committed other crimes, and they are continuing to examine records on other unsolved cases in the general area of Fitler Square, where Schieber lived.

Since the discovery, extra details of investigators have been out almost every night driving through the area where the three crimes occurred, hoping they might spot the killer on the street.

Schieber, 23, was found strangled May 8 in her second-floor studio apartment on 23d Street near Pine. Police believe that her attacker entered through a sliding-glass door on her balcony and confronted her just after she had undressed to take a bath.

A post-mortem examination found no evidence that Schieber was sexually assaulted. But police found semen on her bedspread and believe that the killer ejaculated there after strangling her. They also found blood with matching DNA near the sliding-glass door. Police say the killer may have cut himself during the attack or while entering or leaving.

As part of an intensive investigation that has included interviews with more than 100 suspects, police compared the evidence from Schieber's apartment with DNA samples taken from the scenes of 63 other crimes, including rapes and sexual assaults, that occurred in the same area in recent years and remain unsolved.

Police said the police crime lab completed its analysis of those samples last month and concluded that the man whose bodily fluids were found in Schieber's apartment had also raped at least two other women in 1997 in the same general area.

Police did not release details of the locations of those attacks or a description of the man. No arrests were made in either case.

Police commanders in charge of the investigation declined to comment on the recent DNA matches.

The link to two other crimes is the first substantial evidence for detectives working on the case. Now that they have more information about the attacker's mode of operation, detectives are combing through crime records again to look for additional crimes that were carried out in similar ways - for example, assaults against women or crimes committed by someone who climbed through a window. They hope to forward more DNA samples to the crime lab.

The investigation has proceeded amid controversy over whether uniformed patrol officers could have saved the Ph.D. student after neighbors called 911 and reported hearing her screams.

Schieber - a lively, outgoing woman who was known for her academic achievements and community involvement - was in her apartment on the night she was killed, preparing for exams.

About 2 a.m., a neighbor called police after he heard her distinctive, deep voice calling for help and then heard choking sounds coming from behind her door. Two officers arrived and banged on her door, but left after they got no response, telling the neighbors that there was no one inside.

Schieber was found the next afternoon by her brother, who broke into her apartment with the neighbor after she failed to meet him for a lunch they had planned. He and the neighbor noticed that the sliding-glass door on Schieber's balcony - closed the night before when police arrived - was wide open.

Schieber's parents, Sylvester and Vicki Schieber of Chevy Chase, Md., filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city in October, contending that Shannon was still alive and her killer was with her when police arrived and that the patrol officers botched a chance to save her. The killer, they contend, escaped through the sliding-glass door after police left.

The Schiebers contend that police guidelines on how to respond in such situations are inadequate, and their lawsuit seeks to have the guidelines changed. They are also seeking unspecified damages.

An internal police investigation found that the officers had acted properly, because it was unclear that the cries for help were coming from Schieber's apartment.

Schieber's parents, who learned of the DNA matches yesterday from police, said they had tried previously to get information about DNA tests from the department, but had been rebuffed.

``That this is now out in public is a bit of a shock,'' said Sylvester Schieber, an economist who advises the Clinton administration on Social Security.

Initially, police believed that Shannon Schieber was killed by someone she knew. Schieber had complained to University of Pennsylvania authorities about a fellow student she said was stalking her, and suspicion focused on him at first.

But when DNA test results ruled that man out, detectives' working theory became that Schieber had been killed by a stranger intent on robbery. Several items, including a wood-grain pen set, a cubic zirconium pendant, a camera, and a binder filled with compact disks, were missing from her apartment.

Police, having no other leads at the time, circulated flyers last year with pictures of some of the items, hoping that someone might have seen them in the killer's possession.

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