TAMPA – A foul-smelling, shoeless serial rapist who has attacked six women and possibly a seventh in the University of South Florida area has resurfaced this summer and may have struck again only a week before classes started.
Police are awaiting the results of DNA testing of the latest victim, raped Aug. 19, to see if the same man who committed the other six between August 2003 and June of this year is to blame.
Though none of the victims have been students or faculty at the Tampa-area university and none of the rapes have occurred on campus, the university decided to issue an e-mail alert Friday about the serial stalker on the loose. Classes resumed on Monday.
“It’s a little too close for comfort,” Ken Guillette, a university spokesman, said. “I do believe it’s our responsibility to carefully word an e-mail that doesn’t incite panic.”
Neighboring Tampa and Hillsborough County police have been hot on the trail since the attacker — described as a black male in his 20s who has a putrid body odor, short dark hair and a possible scar or birthmark on his upper left arm — struck June 14, after three years of no known activity in the vicinity, Tampa police said.
University of South Florida students aren't panicking, but their hackles are raised.
"People are aware, but they aren't, like, freaking out," said Candace Kaw, 20, a USF junior and staff writer with the campus newspaper The Oracle, which just began covering the rapes this week in a coordinated effort with the university to get the word out.
The suspect, who is between 5'6" and 5'10" tall and 150-200 pounds and usually wears no shoes, has mostly targeted women between 24 and 37 at home late at night or early in the morning, according to police. He always enters the same way.
"The subject gains access to the residence by a window, attacks the female or females inside and then for one reason or another — either because he's done or because somebody fends him off — he flees," said Cpl. Jared Douds, a public information officer at the Tampa Police Department.
Three of the attacks — those on Aug. 16, 2003; Sept. 28, 2003 and July 15, 2004 — have been within Tampa city limits, Douds said. The 2004 rape was of a juvenile.
The other three, linked to the same suspect through DNA, took place in Hillsborough County on Aug. 22, 2003, in July of 2004 and on June 14 of this year. The most recent attack on Aug. 19, which authorities believe was done by the serial rapist, also occurred in Hillsborough.
While the Tampa attacks have been several blocks — and in some cases a couple of miles — away from the USF campus, those in Hillsborough took place right up against the university border. All have been in fairly low-income areas, according to campus police, and most of the victims are black.
Last week, the Hillsborough County sheriff's office issued a release about the fact that six of the seven rapes have been definitively linked to the same, as-yet unknown suspect through DNA.
"With these cases, we've got some pretty good evidence," Douds said. "Chances are, somebody out there has seen something, has heard something or knows something. It's just that one little piece that we need to put the rest of the puzzle together."
Testing on the sample from the Aug. 19 attack could take about 90 days from that time to complete. Hillsborough police did submit DNA to the lab in the Tampa branch of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), according to the public information officer there, Trena Reddick.
"We are processing the evidence," Reddick said. "We don't want to give information about what [kind of] DNA because we don't want to tip the guy off. ... We can't give a lot of specifics because we're investigating the case."
Reddick said there are two ways DNA technology can help detectives solve crimes: by matching a sample to a name in the database and by linking DNA from several crime scenes to one suspect, whether or not the name is known.
In terms of this suspect, so far his identity hasn't popped up in the system.
"It doesn't appear that his data had been entered into the national database," Reddick said. "We haven't gotten a hit on it."
Victims in the Hillsborough attacks have reported that the suspect threatened them with an object and left the scene on bicycle or on foot, though Douds said the Tampa cases haven't shown those patterns. There hasn't been anything distinctive about the stalker's clothing, other than the sometimes-lack of shoes.
"He doesn't wear anything in particular — no Spider-Man masks," Douds said.
So far, police haven't issued a composite sketch of the suspect. But the Tampa force has beefed up patrols and planted more detectives and plain-clothes officers in the area.
Though they aren't directly handling the cases because they didn't happen within USF borders, campus police are tuned into the situation and say they're concerned.
Lt. Meg Ross, public information officer for the University of South Florida Police Department, said the force has been warning people to lock their doors and windows, avoid inviting someone unfamiliar inside and take other precautionary safety measures.
"It's new to the students on campus," said Ross. "I don't think it was widely reported previous to the beginning of the school year. ... Although it's very close to the university, it isn't an area populated by our students."
USF is the ninth largest university in the country, with a population of about 45,000 students. Alerting the campus Friday about the rapist via e-mail was a carefully planned move.
"I don't think the rapes have anything to do with the semester starting or USF at all — it's not connected," said Guillette, the university spokesman. "But it's close by ... It would be unfair for us to panic every female on campus, but at the same time they need to understand that this is happening. We're sounding a little note of warning."
There was some trepidation about sending out such an alert to such a large campus in light of all the mayhem that ensued and the mistakes that were made during the horrific Virginia Tech massacre in the spring. An e-mail alert was sent out then, too, but the message didn't get through to many students, and it didn't prevent the bloodbath.
"Virginia Tech was a wakeup call to universities across the nation," Guillette said. "When there is a potential danger to students, action is required. ... But every case is different. Do you want to create a stampede? Do you drive students out into a situation possibly? Every case has its own characteristics that you have to weigh."
USF has a different, text-messaging alert system for life-threatening situations, he said. That way, students and faculty know when there's a true emergency in progress.
As for the students, they're going about their business of being back at school for a new semester. So far, there hasn't been much talk on campus about the string of rapes. But those involved in getting the word out hope people are taking heed of the warnings to be careful.
"The thing about the rapist was that he just came through windows that were unlocked," said Kaw, the USF junior and Oracle reporter. "I personally have been making sure that my windows are locked.
"I don't think anyone's too worried. Everyone is pretty much just busy with the first week of school."