The serial rapist is not who you think

Posted Monday, Aug. 20, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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Second of three parts

This article includes descriptions of sexual behavior.

Dressed in a three-piece suit, Thomas is a well-spoken man of 32 who is clearly trying to make a good impression. He seems remorseful about the day a few years ago when he tried to rape his girlfriend's teenage daughter. That led to his conviction for attempted sexual assault, probation, a place on a sex offender registry and court-ordered therapy.

But most of a recent conversation in his therapist's office concerns the more distant past, the hundreds of sexual encounters with hundreds of girls and women. There was a time, he said, when he was hooking up at least once a week, often more than that.

"We'd just go out, me and my brother and my best friends, we'd go out and we'd just meet women at malls or driving down the road," Thomas said. "We had a competition to see who could pull the most tail."

How many conquests were too intoxicated to consent? How many did he hold down when they changed their minds?

"It's difficult to believe that some of them didn't involve some twisting of arms," said his therapist, Ezio Leite.

Thomas said force wasn't necessary.

"Just using the silver tongue," he said. "Just persuasion. Conversation. Talking to a woman's emotional side. Romance. Just tell them what they want to hear. It gets you places."

Meet the typical perpetrator of acquaintance rape.

He is not who you think, experts say, not the drunken college boy who somehow misunderstood when she said no. Instead, more often than not, the acquaintance rapist is a serial hunter like Thomas - charming on the outside, hateful and manipulative within. He puts as much thought and planning into his crimes as a bank robber. And for him, women (or sometimes men) are little more than "tail."

"When they talk in front of juries, they can convince them that they are just the little misunderstood college boy or workingman or whatever," said Fort Worth police Sgt. Cheryl Johnson, a veteran sex-crimes detective. "But they are predators. They are a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Some detectives and victim advocates have long been aware of that sinister portrait, one that has been confirmed by two major studies in the last decade. That portrait also punctures many stubborn myths about what is by far the most common form of sexual assault. Acquaintance rape is not just "drunk sex" or "date rape." The perpetrator is not less guilty or destructive than the proverbial stranger who jumps out of the bushes.

In fact, stranger rapists and acquaintance rapists often share much, experts say, including a profound lack of empathy and a hatred of women. That's why detectives, prosecutors and researchers nationwide are developing new strategies to bring acquaintance rapists to justice, something that rarely happens now.

"It's essential, absolutely essential that we figure this out," said Russell Strand, a sex-crimes expert who trains military investigators and civilian detectives nationwide. "We can't get stuck on the old rape myths, continue to believe that this is just date rape. A date is nothing more than a tool for a sex offender. It might seem like a date, but they are being set up."

An eye-opening study

Twelve years later, David Lisak remembers his surprise when the results of his research first popped up on his computer screen.

"The data came out and my first reaction was 'Dammit, I've made a mistake somewhere. These numbers can't be,'" said Lisak, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Massachusetts.

In the late 1990s, Lisak administered a survey to 1,900 men at a midsize American university. Of them, 120 answered "yes" to one of the following questions. Have you had sex with someone too intoxicated to resist? Have you ever engaged in sex by threatening or using physical force, such as holding down a partner's arms?

Though the questions were careful not to characterize it as such, the men who answered in the affirmative had admitted committing rape.

More than 60 percent of the admitted rapists in Lisak's study said they had done so more than once.

What shocked Lisak is what he learned from those men through follow-up questionnaires and interviews. The data showed that repeat rapists had not stopped with two. Each had committed an average of six sexual assaults. Seventy percent of their victims had been incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Thirty percent of the time, their rapes had been committed with force or the threat of force.

"It was just the sheer number of violent crimes committed by a very small number of serial rapists," Lisak said of his surprise. "And rapes and attempted rapes were just the beginning. There was domestic battery, child abuse. What I was having trouble with initially was that the men I was studying were college students. One doesn't think of college students as criminals."

Lisak's findings were published in 2002.

Startling results: Read David Lisak's study on repeat rapes

"How is it that they are escaping the criminal justice system?" he wrote then. "By attacking victims within their social networks - so-called acquaintances - and by refraining from the kind of violence likely to produce injuries, these rapists create 'cases' that victims are least likely to report."

His findings were replicated seven years later in a study done by the Navy. In that research, 2,900 male recruits were surveyed.

"That [Navy] study really confirmed for myself and a lot of other people what we had found," Lisak said. "It gives you a lot more assurance that your initial study was not some anomaly. We have two studies of men who commit rape and are not going to prison. A lot of people out there still refer to these guys as date rapists. It's a term I just loathe. It masks the reality and puts a kind of 'rape lite' label on it."

Lisak's term for them is "undetected rapists." They are criminals who are often too aware that, in the unlikely event that a victim reports her assault, it will be his word against hers.

"We hear that when we interview them," Johnson said of acquaintance rape suspects questioned by Fort Worth police. "'It's my word against hers. There's nothing you can do.' I think that they know that as long as they draw it down to the line of consent, not whether sex happened, it's much harder for a case to be proven against them."

In that scenario, ironically, perpetrators often can come off as more believable, even more sympathetic than the victims.

"Victims often blame themselves, second-guess themselves about what they did or didn't do," Strand said. "They feel bad about what happened, while the suspect doesn't feel bad about it, other than being challenged or caught. The victim hasn't made sense of what has happened. There are fragmented memories or trauma issues. The suspect knows what happened and often makes more sense.

"We are trying to train law enforcement not to be fooled into thinking that credibility boils down to likeability," Strand said. "It's a trap we can fall into."

New investigative methods

His name was Sean Druktenis, a handsome young man from a prominent family, accused by a woman in Albuquerque of acquaintance rape. That case in the late 1990s was not strong, said Claire Harwell, a prosecutor in the case.

"But the detective was struck by how the offender had controlled his victim so rapidly," Harwell said. "His methodology had seemed too practiced. It seemed so systematic. So the detective went to where this guy went, to his tanning salon, to his gym, to his clubs."

Nine additional victims were uncovered.

"The first case was not a case that we felt we could win," Harwell said. "But we explained to [the victim] how her disclosure had helped. When you have that many cases, you have a lot of authority. You can minimize the likelihood of having to take a case to trial, work toward getting a good plea and getting them on a sex offender registry."

Druktenis was sentenced to probation but was sent to prison after violating the terms.

The New Mexico case highlights the necessity of new investigative methods, experts say. One is to check out the haunts of the suspect as detectives did in Albuquerque. Another is to use unconventional interview techniques that play into a suspect's belief that he is a victim, falsely accused.

The goal is to get beneath the serial predator's carefully polished veneer.

"I do something when I teach classes," Strand said. "I usually dress in a nice suit and tie. After I explain [his theories] I'll take off my jacket and underneath I'll be wearing a shirt that will be dirty, torn, and has nasty words written all over it, like 'rapist.' Then I'll ask the class,' Would anyone of you known I had this shirt on unless I showed it to you? We never know who that person is, under the jacket. All the [rape victim] saw was the jacket, and when the jacket comes off it will be too late. Then they put the jacket back on."

Thomas the hunter was literally wearing that nice jacket during that recent day in Fort Worth. Even in a confidential interview when he knew that his identity would be protected, he worked hard to conceal what was beneath. His therapist, for one, was not convinced that more women had not been victimized by the man in the three-piece suit with the silver tongue.

But admitting it, Ezio Leite said after Thomas was gone that day, "would mar the presentation."

"He would never tell you that he's a monster," Leite said. "He's a nice guy. And when people talk to him, that's the perception they're going to have. That's the type that women will have a hard time knowing. They don't see him as a rapist until..."

Until it is too late.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544; Twitter: @tsmadigan

About the series

Part 1: In Tarrant County, more than half of all acquaintance rape cases since 2008 have died behind the closed doors of a grand jury. National experts are shocked, victims outraged. Many wonder why justice isn’t being done.

Part 2: Meet the typical perpetrator of acquaintance rape. He’s not who you think he is.

Part 3: For the rape victims who report, a teddy bear and a lot of support.

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