This article originally appeared in The Kansas City Star on Jan. 14, 2009.
Long before a University of Kansas student was assaulted in her southwest Lawrence home last month, police knew they probably had a serial rapist in their town.
They’d already linked one man to four attacks on five victims since 2004. And now they believe they have a sixth victim.
At the same time, about 85 miles to the west, Manhattan police follow leads in a string of rapes by a man who stalked college-age women and has picked a new victim almost every year from 2001 to 2007.
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Two Kansas college towns. Eight years. Thirteen rapes.
"It’s very dangerous to say with certainty one way or another," said Capt. Tim Hegarty of the Riley County Police Department, which covers Manhattan. "Yes, we are investigating whether they are connected."
That’s all he will say. Lawrence police won’t even say that much.
"We’re investigating our crimes," Lawrence police Sgt. Bill Cory said. "Any crimes outside of Lawrence, contact those agencies."
Each time police conclude that another crime -- all off campus -- has a likely connection to the others, concerned students and parents call the colleges. Memos continually go out about crime prevention, including one this past August at Kansas State that specifically addressed the "so-called serial rapist."
After last month’s attack in Lawrence, KU’s women’s center put on a self-defense class during finals week.
"It’s scary," said Danica May, a KU senior from western Kansas who took the course with a friend. "It makes you realize he’s not leaving enough evidence and he’s good at hiding things."
Few facts released
Clues from the Manhattan cases point to a white male, about 5 feet 10 inches, who uses a mask to keep victims from seeing little more than his eyes.
Police in Lawrence won’t discuss whether their cases involve a man wearing any mask. Victims there described a white man between 5 feet 9 inches and 6 feet.
In Manhattan, victims describe their attacker as having a medium build, 200 to 220 pounds. In Lawrence, they say he’s slim, with one woman putting his weight at about 160 pounds.
In more than two decades in law enforcement, Lawrence police Capt. Dan Ward has investigated many sexual assaults with similar patterns. Often, he said, "it’s hard to pinpoint whether any of them are related or not."
Hegarty in Manhattan agreed. "You uncover so much that turns out to be coincidental. We try to develop a theory that matches a fact, not a fact that matches a theory."
The Manhattan rapist broke into homes in various parts of town while women slept. He covered his forearms with dark clothing, used gloves and wore boots.
Lawrence police won’t talk about how victims may have been selected, how homes were entered or what type of clothing the rapist wore. "We know they are all linked," Cory said. "But we’re not releasing how we know they are linked."
They do say, however, that the Lawrence rapist is always armed, an issue Manhattan investigators won’t discuss. Neither department will discuss DNA collection.
Ward explains the reluctance as "trying to protect the integrity of the investigation. We don’t want things to change; we don’t want false confessions."
Students such as KU’s Melanie Gray think more information should be released.
"I feel like I would feel more secure if they gave more details," said Gray, a junior from Olathe. "Then you can say, ‘OK, if I were put in this situation, what would I do?’ "
The last rape in Manhattan was in August 2007. The awareness is still fresh.
"We’ve been dealing with this for many years," said Mary Todd, director of the K-State Women’s Center.
"I know many of the women I’ve spoken with, when they get home, they search their house, look under their beds," Todd said. "One woman told me she leaves her closet door open."
Hegarty is only too aware of this fear.
"We feel for the past victims and potential future victims," he said. "That’s where our frustration lies. We can’t bring closure or justice to victims of the past."
Yet, he said he’s confident the cases will be solved. Detectives work any leads that come in, he said. That’s typically weekly, but sometimes daily.
Melanie Gray wasn’t so sure she should move into the southwest Lawrence townhouse where she now lives. A woman living there last spring was attacked.
"It has a chilling effect when you hear it’s so close to home," the KU junior said.
To ease her mind, property managers showed how they’d changed all the locks on the doors, increased lighting and cut back trees. They also added security at night.
The vast majority of rapes in a college community involve people the victims knew either as an acquaintance or a date. But it’s the stranger many fear most, "the people hiding in bushes," said Lynn Parrish, of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
"They feel more vulnerable," Parrish said.
Especially when news spreads about related attacks, said Sandy Barnett of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
"As women, we live our lives contemplating that possibility," Barnett said. "And when that is brought up in a community, that subconscious stuff we live with every day becomes conscious."
And that only increases as more people hear about attacks.
"Parents of kids who live in Manhattan and Lawrence are now calling them saying, ‘Have you heard about this? Lock your doors at all times,’ " Barnett said. "People need to recognize this is happening all the time, everywhere. We need to all the time be vigilant."
That’s why both colleges try not to focus prevention tips on the serial crimes in particular but on crime in general.
"This is an opportunity to change and incorporate those changes into your lifestyle," said Assistant Chief Chris Keary of KU’s public safety office. "Changes that will help you with the rest of your life, not just while this is going on."
It’s about rethinking how you behave, agreed KU student Naomi Shelton of the Kansas City area.
She often studies at the library until late at night or stays at a friend’s house until after dark.
After last month’s attack, she finds herself getting home before dark, walking to her car with a friend instead of alone.
"It’s scary," Shelton said. "This guy will likely attack again."