YOAKUM, Texas – With a serial rapist on the loose, Cassandra McGinty has developed a new routine when she arrives home: search room to room, a handgun or stun gun drawn.
The predator has been assaulting older women in central Texas over the past year, terrifying residents and frustrating investigators who have only a vague description of the suspect.
Pepper spray has been flying off the shelves in the towns where the attacks have occurred, and McGinty said her landlord in Marquez handed out stun guns as Christmas gifts. Nearly 200 miles away in Yoakum, elderly volunteers at the local museum have been locking its doors during business hours.
"I used to think I was too old for anybody to mess with," said McGinty, 55. "I can't say that any more."
Beginning with the rape of a 65-year-old woman in Yoakum last January, authorities have linked eight sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults to the suspect, who has been dubbed the "Twilight Rapist" because most of the attacks occurred around dawn. They also believe he robbed or attempted to rob four other women.
The victims have all been women, ranging in age from 65 to 91. One rape victim played piano at her church on Sundays. An 81-year-old woman scared off an intruder with a gun, firing several rounds for good measure. A 66-year-old woman was attacked twice, despite having moved across town following the first assault.
The attacks occurred in seven rural towns, the largest of which has 6,000 residents.
Two women were attacked — one of them twice — in Yoakum, a quiet town surrounded by wide-open ranches about 100 miles east of San Antonio.
"It does make me sick," Yoakum Police Chief Arthur Rogers said. "We all take it personal. We all visualize this could have been my mother or my grandmother."
Mela Walker, who has a ranch in nearby Cuero, organized a community meeting last spring after the Yoakum attacks and handed out pepper spray as a door prize for the nearly 300 people who showed up.
"They're freaked out," Walker said. "These elderly women are buying Mace and not knowing how to use it. They talk about buying guns, and they don't know how to use guns."
Authorities say the attacks appear to have been planned — phone lines were cut and porch lights were unscrewed outside some of the victims' homes. All the victims lived alone, and one had more than $10,000 stolen.
Yoakum residents say the two victims there had predictable routines that made them easy targets.
"Nobody opens the door for nobody anymore," said Armiro Gomez, 57, who lives across the street from one of the Yoakum victims. "After midnight, people have no rights to be walking the streets anymore."
Just across the interstate in Luling, where the last attack occurred in November, a neighbor said it's no coincidence the victim was the only woman in his retirement village with a job.
A year into the case there is still no sketch of the suspect, only a vague description of a thin, young and dark-skinned man who is between 5 1/2- and 6-feet tall. Authorities wrongly arrested one man early in their investigation, and he has since sued over it.
The assailant left behind DNA and other forensic evidence after some attacks, but authorities have not been able to link the DNA to anything in the state system, said Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger. In addition to the difficult task of investigating attacks that happened as far as 200 miles from each other, authorities have found that some victims don't have the best memories.
"The fact that he is targeting elderly woman at night does make it a little more difficult (to investigate)," Vinger said. "It's a traumatic situation for any age. It's even potentially more traumatic for the elderly."
Walker said a year since the first attack, the fear in Yoakum hasn't waned. Last week, volunteers took down Christmas decorations inside the Yoakum Heritage Museum.
It was the middle of the morning, but the doors were locked. Visitors were let in, one by one, and the door locked behind them.
"These are frail, elderly women. Tiny little things," Walker said. "You just can't imagine why anyone would want to take advantage of them."