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Philadelphia Inquirer
Wednesday, October 6, 1999

DNA links 5th case to Rittenhouse rapist

The victim had believed that her case was part of the pattern. Police had listed it as a burglary and told her they had no proof.

The first known attack by the serial rapist was in July 1997 at this apartment near 21st and Pine. (Peter Tobia / Inquirer Staff Photographer)

By Clea Benson, Mark Fazlollah,
Michael Matza and Craig R. McCoy

Two years after investigators labeled the case a burglary, police yesterday confirmed that a 1997 assault on a Center City woman, who was choked and stripped naked inside her apartment, was committed by the same man responsible for a series of rapes and a murder near Rittenhouse Square.

Police said DNA testing of the woman's semen-stained underwear definitively linked the July 1997 attack on Pine Street near 21st to four subsequent crimes in the same area - three rapes, the most recent in August, and the murder last year of Shannon Schieber, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student.

The police crime lab failed to find DNA in two previous tests of evidence taken from the scene of the July 1997 assault. New tests were ordered after The Inquirer two weeks ago asked police about their handling of the case.

The latest test, completed Monday, established the DNA link.

"We were flabbergasted," said Inspector Michael J. Feeney, head of the crime lab.

The Inquirer approached police about the case after learning of the 1997 assault and its many similarities to the other crimes. In all five cases, the victims were assaulted after midnight, in the Rittenhouse Square area, by someone who slipped in through a window - sometimes squeezing between closely spaced bars.

The police rape squad initially classified the attack on the Center City woman, then 25, as "investigation of person," a noncriminal code. Police have frequently used that code to keep sexual assaults and other offenses out of the department's official crime tally. Later, the Central Detective Division coded it as a burglary.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney, at an evening news conference yesterday, said the burglary code was appropriate, even in light of the new DNA evidence.

Timoney said the victim, who blacked out during the attack and has no recollection of what happened, made "no complaint of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct or rape."

He did not explain why semen would be present at a burglary scene. "We're not going to go into that," he said.

Timoney said he could provide only limited information about the case. "You must appreciate the sensitivity of sexual-abuse cases or rape cases and indecent-assault cases," he said. "There are certain questions that will remain unanswered."

While Timoney was holding his news conference at Police Headquarters, two sex-crimes investigators were at the victim's house, taking a statement from her.

Feeney said he performed additional DNA tests on the semen-stained underwear at the request of his boss, Deputy Police Commissioner Charles J. Brennan. He said Brennan made the request after reporters questioned him about the 1997 case. Brennan declined to comment.

Feeney said two previous tests had failed to detect DNA, perhaps because of residue from laundry detergent.

With this latest evidence, police have tied five attacks to the serial rapist, who stalks his victims to their Center City apartments, climbs through their windows, and assaults them, often holding a pillow over their faces. Several victims described being awakened in the middle of the night to find the rapist on top of them.

Timoney alluded yesterday to a sixth case that he said had been sent to the FBI for profiling analysis to see whether it could be an attack by the same criminal. He provided no details.

The victim in the July 1997 case was assaulted after midnight as she slept in her apartment in the 2100 block of Pine Street. The woman awoke at 4 a.m., naked and sprawled at the foot of her bed, she said in recent interviews. She never saw the intruder.

Her nightclothes lay tangled in a pile on the floor. Her neck was swollen and raw. A snapshot taken after the attack shows that the whites of her eyes had turned bright red from burst blood vessels.

Police rushed the victim - then a Center City office worker - to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, one of the city's designated treatment centers for rape victims.

The incident report prepared by the patrol officer who answered the 911 call states that the woman "reported to police an assault and possible break-in," and that the investigation was being "conducted by Special Victims Unit" - the rape squad.

After interviewing the woman at the hospital, the sex-crimes unit assigned the case Code 2701 - "investigation of person," police records show. It was then handed off to Central Detectives, according to officers familiar with the case. Timoney said yesterday that the sex-crimes unit nevertheless remained involved, in an advisory role.

For the victim, news of the DNA match to Schieber's killer was chilling - and also a kind of vindication.

"It's just been my feeling, for the better part of the last two-plus years, that it was the same person," she said. "I needed acknowledgment, and now I have more than that."

The woman said that to this day, she has no memory of the attack. She told sex-crimes investigators that night that she did not believe she had been penetrated. She now says the case should have been treated as a sex crime.

"He comes in uninvited. You wake up naked. It's a sex crime," she said. "That to me was indicative of his intent."

The woman, whose name is being withheld by The Inquirer, has been pressing police ever since her attack to learn whether it might be linked to the others.

Again and again, she said, the department told her the evidence did not establish that she had been sexually assaulted. She said police told her the case was a burglary and rejected any links to the Schieber murder or the rapes.

On Sept. 28, two police officers went to her home to discuss her concerns with her. The week before, she had gone to a community meeting on the Rittenhouse Square rapes and approached an FBI agent to say she believed she was one of the victims.

She said the officers told her they "wanted to tell me in person that it was not the same person, because they didn't have the proof and I needed to accept that."

Also last month, Homicide Lt. Kenneth Coluzzi, in charge of the hunt for the serial rapist, told an Inquirer reporter that police had no basis to link the woman to the Rittenhouse Square attacks.

She "had no clue about what happened to her," Coluzzi said. Without a DNA match, "there's nothing we can put our finger on to say that it's the same guy," he said.

The police lab first tested the woman's underwear in September 1997. That was after three women, including the 25-year-old office worker, had been assaulted in their apartments on Pine Street. DNA testing linked two of the rapes to a common assailant. The tests on the office worker's underwear did not link her case to the other two.

Police conducted a second test on the woman's underwear in January 1999, as they reviewed evidence from unsolved crimes in the Rittenhouse Square area to see whether they could make headway in their investigation into the Schieber killing, which occurred in May 1998. Again, the result was negative.

Finally, the lab tried again last weekend. The three tests were done on different pieces of cloth - about a quarter-inch square - snipped from a visibly stained area of the underwear.

This time, the test was positive for the presence of DNA. On Monday, the department learned that the DNA matched the four other known attacks - the three rapes and the Schieber murder.

Timoney said yesterday that DNA was not the only link between the attack on the office worker and the other incidents. He said the "M.O, if you will, matched up."

Like some of the other victims, the office worker occasionally spent time in bars near Rittenhouse Square.

The night before she was attacked, she had shared drinks with a friend at two bars on Walnut Street just west of Rittenhouse Square.

She entered her apartment alone at 1 a.m., dressed for bed, and went to sleep. She awoke naked at 4 a.m., lying at the foot of her bed.

As she staggered to the bathroom, the woman found water trickling in the bathtub and towels strewn about.

"I didn't know where I was. . . . I was having a terrible time walking," recalled the woman, now 27.

She noticed that the front window of her ground-floor apartment was wide open. The door she had locked at 12:30 a.m. before going to bed was unlocked. Her telephone was disassembled. A strand of yellow-plastic strapping tape lay on the floor.

She called a friend, who rushed over from his Fairmount apartment and called 911.

A pelvic exam at the hospital showed no apparent evidence of forced penetration, but the woman was given an anti-pregnancy pill. Fearing that her throat might swell and constrict her windpipe, doctors administered oxygen and hospitalized her overnight.

The woman returned to her job near Rittenhouse Square. She never spent another night at the apartment.

She said that in January of this year, after months of hearing nothing from police, she received a call from Detective Thaddeus J. Wolkiewicz of Central Detectives, who told her that the Special Victims Unit had taken a renewed interest in the case.

According to the woman, Wolkiewicz told her that "he thought for sure I would end up remembering it was a boyfriend who did it to me."

Asked for comment, Wolkiewicz referred all questions on the case to the homicide unit.

According to the woman, Wolkiewicz also said that a rape squad investigator would call shortly.

She said no one did. She said a sex-crimes investigator recently sought to explain why no one had made contact. The investigator said she had the wrong phone number, the victim said.

Seeking reassurance that police were taking the attack seriously, the victim attended a community meeting Sept. 21 at a church on Rittenhouse Square at which FBI agent Jim Fitzgerald discussed the serial rapist.

After he spoke, Fitzgerald fielded questions from several women. The victim of the 1997 attack approached him anxiously. He squatted at the edge of the stage, took her hand and leaned close for a private conversation.

Later, the woman explained that she had asked Fitzgerald whether an attacker, once caught, would be likely to remember his victims.

She said Fitzgerald replied: "They do." He said sometimes they confess or have diaries documenting the assaults.

"Having no memory of it is a blessing," the woman said of the incident. "At the same time, it is horrible."

In an interview before the DNA match, the woman said she felt almost certain that her attacker had been the same man who assaulted the other women.

"I feel like it's the same person," she said. "I'm glad about the publicity they're putting out for people - but very upset that it wasn't done two years ago.

"Whether this is the same person or not - and I feel in my gut that it is - the media is talking continually about the four victims. There are more."

Inquirer Staff Writer Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. contributed to this article.

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