Christine Vendel | A crime that seems to defy reason

Christine Vendel
Christine Vendel

A burglar broke into an elderly couple’s home in Kansas City on Monday, presumably to steal valuables.

But the crime escalated into the rape of an 84-year-old woman who interrupted the heist.

It seemed to defy reason.

Why would a burglar with a financial motive decide to veer into a violent sexual assault against a woman so vulnerable?

“It’s completely opportunistic,” said Mary Koss, who specializes in studying sexual violence at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Rapes of strangers account for just 20 percent of all rapes, Koss said, and rapes against the elderly just a fraction of that, perhaps 2 or 3 percent.

“When it does happen, it’s often in these unusual situations,” Koss said.

Many rapists who have victimized older women in the Kansas City area also have stolen from them. A man broke into a 92-year-old woman’s Leawood house and robbed and raped her in 2010. A man severely beat, raped and robbed an 81-year-old woman in 1999 in Kansas City after she delivered Christmas cookies to a neighbor.

It can be unclear whether theft or rape is the primary motive, but the crimes seem to be connected. Experts say 90 percent of men who sexually assault and kill elderly women have criminal records, with burglary the most frequent offense. Other common offenses are petty crimes. But 80 percent don’t have a sex offense in their history.

So why the leap?

“They have things about them personally that predispose them to criminality,” Koss said. “If they had empathy, self-control, or used planning or foresight, they wouldn’t be doing burglaries, much less rape.”

Janna Eikel, a veteran Kansas City sex crimes detective, thinks some petty criminals may harbor anger against women because they are failures and dependent on women — mothers or girlfriends — for financial support. They may be afraid of strong women but decide to take advantage of weaker women.

Research on elder female sexual homicide show 93 percent of suspects are unskilled, 70 percent are unemployed, and many are socially and sexually inadequate.

“The rape makes him feel like he has power,” Eikel said. “It may be the only time he has power.”

Sadly, elderly rape victims tend to be among the most traumatized by such attacks. They are fragile and most likely to be injured physically, Koss said. And mentally, the lingering fear adds to their growing vulnerability.

The public can easily see that elderly rape victims did nothing to bring on such an attack.

But it’s not the victim’s fault in any rape, including attacks by acquaintances, Koss said, even if people can’t see it as clearly.

“People want to believe there is a reason,” she said. “The explanation is the rapist.”