WASHINGTON (AP) — The attacks were sudden, vicious and sexual, targeting women in suburban Montgomery County and the District of Columbia over a seven-year period.
The suspect was an athletic man prone to throwing blankets or towels over his victims before starting to rape them and making comments suggesting he had stalked them. The victims included a teenage babysitter, a promising young scientist and women returning home from work or grocery shopping. Some were attacked in their homes with children inside.
Investigators have linked nine attacks, including a killing, to the same man. On Thursday, they launched an ambitious public outreach campaign to drum up attention to a series of cases from May 1991 to August 1998 that they say have gone cold with time. A new FBI website includes case details and a composite sketch of a man they want to question. Digital billboards, a $25,000 reward and podcasts and social media alerts are aimed at soliciting tips.
The campaign is modeled after similar efforts that helped lead to the arrests earlier this year of Aaron Thomas, who investigators believe is responsible for multiple rapes along the East Coast, and of former Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.
“Just one person coming forward with what may seem like an insignificant piece of information can make all the difference in he world,” U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said at a news conference attended by representatives of the FBI and the Montgomery County and D.C. police departments.
Seven of the attacks are linked through DNA, but investigators say all nine can be connected because they involve similar methods.
The attacks all occurred in the evening, leading detectives to wonder if the assailant was married or had another obligation that prevented him from committing the acts in the morning or at some other time of day. The suspect occasionally carried weapons, including a screwdriver or knife, and would sometimes wait hours inside the homes for the women. Authorities think he lived in or spent a lot of time in the area of the attacks, which took place in communities including Gaithersburg, Germantown, Rockville and North Potomac.
The nine attacks include eight rapes or attempted sexual assaults in Montgomery County as well as the Aug. 1, 1998, killing of Christine Mirzayan, a 28-year-old biochemist who was accosted in Georgetown while walking home from a friend’s cookout, dragged into a wooded area, sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death with a roughly 73-pound rock.
Mirzayan, who was newly married and was living in student housing at Georgetown University, had a summer fellowship with the National Academy of Sciences after having arrived in D.C. from San Francisco.
The killing was the last known attack authorities have linked to the man.
The composite sketch is of a black man, between 5’8″ inches and 5’11” inches, with a medium build. It was created after her death and based on the accounts of witnesses who said they saw Mirzayan walking down a dark stretch of road with a man following her. It was updated to reflect the passing of time. He’s now believed to be in his late 40s or early 50s.
Authorities said they are not positive the man is still in the region, or even alive. He also could be responsible for other sexual assaults that have yet to be connected to him. Even so, authorities say they’ve solved even older cold cases in the region, and are making an aggressive effort to track down leads given the brutal nature of the attacks.
“These acts are so horrible that we have to treat them as if they’re currently occurring,” said Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Russell Hamill.
Ron Hosko, special agent in charge of the criminal division of the FBI’s Washington field office, said in an interview that the rapes were the “acts of a coward.” He said he didn’t find it particularly surprising, or that much of a deviation in pattern, for a suspect involved in violent sexual assaults to also be connected to a homicide — especially since some of the circumstances of Mirzayan’s killing remain unknown.
“Only he knows the details of that last attack,” Hosko said in an interview.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)