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The Unstoppable Crime

If the city is safer than ever, why does rape show so few signs of going away?

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A little before midnight on Tuesday, September 9, a woman left her apartment on East 81st Street to buy cigarettes from a store on Second Avenue. As she re-entered her building, a stocky, light-skinned black man followed her in. Brandishing a knife, he grabbed her from behind. Her neighbors heard her scream, but when the police arrived the man had fled. Though the woman was not raped, the incident terrified the neighborhood: Her attacker matched the description of a serial rapist wanted for twelve previous assaults. And the fact that he hasn’t been spotted since doesn’t mean he’s retired; he’s lain low for long stretches in the past.

His ability to continue his string of crimes -- despite his well-known M.O., his widely circulated sketch, and his presence in a wealthy community closely watched by the police -- is hardly exceptional. In a city where criminal activity has registered the steepest decline in history, the stats on rape are nearly as grim as ever. (The NYPD cites a modest 13 percent decline since 1993, but other official data have shown little improvement.) And in half a dozen neighborhoods, serial rapists like the one on the East Side remain at large, baffling their pursuers.

The problem, say law-enforcement sources, is that rapists do not act like typical criminals. Their crime is usually committed in private, not public, spaces, by people who may not otherwise so much as jump a turnstile. So the tactics that have worked so well against other crimes -- cracking down on minor offenses in hopes of nabbing bigger criminals, using computers to trace patterns -- have little effect on this one.

Serial rape cases, involving premeditated attacks on victims who don’t know their attackers, have proven the most difficult of all to crack. Its perpetrators have the least in common with the typical criminal profile. Roy Hazelwood, who studied such predators while at the FBI, found them to be intelligent, sophisticated, and seemingly stable.

Consider Derrick Bonner, the alleged “ATM Rapist” of Queens now on trial for attacking ten women during a yearlong spree. Married with two children, Bonner had no criminal record; in fact, he was a security guard who was applying for a job with the Police Department. Despite the fact that police had footage of him from bank video cameras and had special patrols looking for him, his capture was the result of blind luck: A tipster gave his last name to the cops, who then tracked him down and brought him in.

On the Upper East Side, standard policing methods -- blanketing the area with sketches and warnings, putting task forces on the street every single night -- have been all but exhausted. The precinct has begun hoping the rapist himself will help them with their case. “Most guys,” explains Detective John Savino, “usually mess up or make some type of mistake.”

Meanwhile, activists try to keep the public vigilant. “Many of the stores were willing to put the fliers up,” says Nikki Henkin, a 56-year-old community-board stalwart who helped raise a $10,000 reward, “but then in a few days they’re taken down. We beg and plead to leave them up until he’s apprehended. When the Bronx ‘cardboard-box rapist’ was caught in December, people said, ‘Ah Nikki, he’s been caught,’ but I said, ‘No, it’s not our rapist.’”

In the absence of clear law-enforcement solutions, politicians eagerly offer their own -- most frequently, tougher sentencing. Last week, state senator Roy Goodman announced his legislation mandating that anyone convicted of more than one count of rape in the first degree serve each sentence consecutively. At present, rapists with no record can, at the judge’s discretion, serve sentences concurrently. “It’s time to get tough,” says Goodman. “My legislation will deter serial rapists with the possibility of a lifetime behind bars.”

Goodman’s legislation is sure to be politically popular, but its deterrence value is open to question. “A sex offense is a psychological crime,” says Detective Savino. “Its motivation isn’t greed or trying to make money or ‘You got something and I want it.’ What makes a rapist rape is something that’s inside of them that we can’t figure out.”


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