The elusive Pillowcase Rapist: When South Florida women were stalked by a predator

He terrorized women from South Miami to Deerfield Beach in the early 1980s.

He would enter their homes through unlocked sliding glass doors and open windows, threatening them with a knife, assaulting them and sometimes stealing cash.

Edna Buchanan, the Miami Herald’s legendary crime reporter, wrote a string of stories first linking the spree of attacks and spurring police to formed a task force in March 1986 to hunt for the rapist. But it was disbanded a little more than a year later without find a suspect, who remained a mystery for years. Now, a man believed to be the notorious rapist has been arrested.

Law-enforcement sources identified the suspect as 60-year-old Robert Eugene Koehler, a registered sex offender from Palm Bay. He was arrested on Saturday and is being held at a jail in Brevard County to await transfer to Miami-Dade.

Let’s take a look back through the Miami Herald Archives to relive the fear that gripped South Florida. These stories from Buchanan were part of crime coverage that won her the Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting in 1986.

Police ask for help in finding “Pillowcase Rapist”

By Edna Buchanan, Published February 24, 1985:

After nearly four years of investigation, Metro-Dade police went public Saturday with their most frustrating case: the PillowCase Rapist.

Since 1981, the Pillow Case Rapist — a young, athletic, white American — has stalked career women in upper-middle-class apartment complexes from South Miami to Deerfield Beach. He has raped at least 39 women; probably more. The latest one was Tuesday. Yet police can find no one who has seen his face. It is always covered, often with a towel, hood, or even his own T- shirt.

“He’s not invisible,” Detective Sgt. Christine Echroll said, “but he might as well be.”

Among his victims are schoolteachers, nurses, airline attendants, an artist, model, engineer, health spa instructor, insurance executive, publicist and student. They range in age from 17 to 43. All are slender and attractive. Only one lives in a single-family house. All others live in apartments, townhouses or condos.

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Archive photo of the Miami Herald front page on Feb. 24, 1985.

Archive photo of the Miami Herald front page on Feb. 24, 1985.

Archive photo of the Miami Herald front page on Feb. 24, 1985.

On several occasions, the rapist has returned to the home of a victim weeks later, police say. Almost always he enters his victim’s apartment through an unlocked sliding glass door or open window.

As many as 100 detectives at a time have been assigned to the case. The investigation has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and police thousands of hours. The crimes have sparked:

An index card list of nearly 300 suspects, almost all of whom have been eliminated as possibilities.

Elaborate surveillance in which police moved victims out of their apartments, replacing them with policewomen who physically resemble the rapist’s targets.

Hundreds of strategy sessions among law enforcement agencies in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Civic, condo and Crime Watch meetings with warnings to thousands of tenants in large apartment complexes.

Half a dozen civil lawsuits by outraged victims, suing their landlords for lack of security.

Use of state and FBI resources -- to no avail.

Police have established certain physical facts about the rapist: His shoe size is 10 1/2. His blood type is common -- O -- but has a rare and identifiable sub-grouping characteristic found in only 1 percent of the population. Sexually, he frequently is unable to maintain an erection.

He is probably somewhere between his mid-20s to early 30s, white, American, with no accent. He is 5 feet, 8 to 11 inches tall, about 170 pounds, with a slim muscular build and fair skin. He often is well tanned. His hair is dirty blond or medium brown. He is clean and neat and wears jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. His hands are not rough or callused.

“I feel as though I know him,” said Metro Sgt. David Simmons, 35, chief investigator in the case. “He is the cleverest rapist I have ever investigated and definitely the most prolific in Dade County history.”

Police have revisited the 39 victims they know about. They have “encouraged” them to move. “We’re telling them there’s a possibility he’ll be back,” Simmons said.

Five weeks after one rape, he returned to the victim’s apartment. She was not there. He masturbated on her . Laboratory tests established the identification, as have tests for the 38 other victims.

When the same victim took a hot shower one day three weeks later, the steam made visible an obscene message the rapist had scrawled with his fingertip on her bathroom mirror.

On Edgewater Drive in Coral Gables he raped a woman in a fashionable high rise apartment. He returned four weeks later and raped her neighbor, one door away. A newly hired security guard saw the second victim park her car and walk into the building. From a distance he saw the rapist follow her, walking about 50 feet behind. The man looked ordinary.

The first reported rape occured May 1, 1981, at the Alisian Lakes apartments, 4920 NW 79th Ave. So was the second, the third, the fourth and the fifth. The next summer the crimes began to occur in Coconut Grove, then Broward County, then back to Dade.

There have also been cases in North Miami, Miami Lakes, Fontainebleau Park, Davie, Tamarac, Plantation, Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach and Oakland Park. The most recent took place last Tuesday, Feb. 19, at a South Miami apartment complex near SW 75th Street and 59th Avenue.

The victim stepped across the hall to visit briefly with a woman neighbor. She did not lock her door. She returned about 10 minutes later to watch Wives on TV at 9 p.m.

The rapist was waiting, hiding inside a walk-in closet in her apartment. “All she saw was a dark shadow rush toward her from behind and something pink over her head,” Simmons said. He covered her face with a blush color towel.

Police describe his general pattern. A few years ago he would awaken his victim before dawn by placing a pillow over her face. Now he arrives earlier in the evening, assaulting women who are still awake.

“He’s taking more chances,” Simmons says. “He’s becoming bolder.”

He carries an ice pick or a knife and cuts telephone cords. Once he left the victim’s telephone in her refrigerator.

Often he presses his knife to the throats or bodies of the victim, sometimes inflicting minor wounds. Sometimes he slashes off undergarments.

He says little to his victims and warns them constantly, speaking softly in low tones, to “shut up.” Sometimes he moves the victim from room to room and spins her around to disorient her.

Not only is he careful to hide his own face, he always covers the victims’ faces with pillow cases, pillows, blankets, bed linens, or other items.

He constantly warns victims not to look at him.

Simmons has a theory about that. “I have a feeling that maybe something about his face is unusual, a scar, a physical deformity of some kind, something highly distinctive.”

Police say women who live on upper floors should not have a false sense of security. “On the third or fourth floor you would think you could leave doors open, but he has gotten into apartments as high as the fourth floor by scaling balconies.”

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A noise on her second-floor balcony startled one victim. Although her sliding glass door was open, a screen was closed. She saw a shadow on the balcony.

“You better get out of here!” she cried. “I’m calling the police!” She ran to a kitchen phone. As she fled, she looked back. The man on the balcony pulled a knife, slashed the screen and dashed inside. He caught her as she tried to dial 911. He assaulted her.

She never saw his face. It was covered by his T-shirt.

In the earlier crimes the rapist bound his victims’ wrists and ankles with pillow cases before he left. Now he often uses other items. He tied the wrists of his most recent victim with the satin sash from a formal gown she planned to wear this weekend.

Sometimes he will turn up the victims’ air conditioners at the crime scenes.

After the rape, he often asks his victim what type of car she drives. Sometimes he jingles her car keys and examines her drivers license. Some victims later receive telephone calls from someone who does not speak.

He takes cash and jewelry from his victims and tells them he needs money. It may be true. Police suspect he may be unemployed, devoting full time to stalking, selecting and watching victims. To have raped 39 women, police believe, he has stalked hundreds. That task has to be time consuming.

As for as police know, he forcibly broke into only one apartment. That was in South Miami last fall. He smashed a sliding glass door with a rock. Usually he selects complexes bordered by hedges, fences or walls to provide cover for his entry and escape. Victims’ apartments are always at the rear or side of the complex, never in the center, Simmons said.

“He’s either parking in the complex and sitting in his car for long periods of time, watching women as they arrive home. Or he’s possibly hiding in a location nearby.”

In some cases he waits until the lights go out, police believe, and then enters the apartment, 30 minutes or so after she goes to bed.

“We think he’s out there every night, conducting his surveillances,” Simmons said.

“He’s putting in a lot of hours. He’s making this a full- time job. He may be out there 10 or 12 hours a night until he finds the right opportunity. I wouldn’t think it would be easy to find an open window or sliding glass door.”

Police have investigated utility company workers such as those from Southern Bell and Florida Power & Light, postal workers, cable TV installers, lawn and pool maintenance men, newspaper delivery men -- every type of service -- as well as known sex offenders.

Police have scrutinized the tenant lists at the complexes involved and their neighbors. They even consulted the regional director of the Boy Scouts of America, trying to find a clue in the knots the rapist uses to bind his victims. They found none.

Metro-Dade police seldom go public in an unsolved rape investigation, preferring to withhold information. This case is different. Police know that they need help.

“Breaks are going to have to come from the citizens in the community,” said Maj. John Farrell, the detective commander.

Pillowcase Rapist task force disbands

By Edna Buchanan, Published, April 3, 1987:

The Pillowcase Rapist task force, substantially reduced since September, officially disbands today — the case unsolved, the fugitive still at large.

The most sophisticated manhunt in Dade County history has failed to find the man who has eluded police for more than five years. Detectives used computers, state-of-the-art lab work and mass appeals to the public.

“At one point we had up to 1,800 leads,” said police spokesman Cmdr. William Johnson. None led to the right man.

“It will be interesting to see what breaks it,” Johnson said. “With all our technology, it may eventually be some fluke that breaks the case.”

The manhunt is not over, but after today no detectives will be working exclusively on the case.

Miami Herald newspaper published April 3, 1987.

Miami Herald newspaper published April 3, 1987.

Miami Herald newspaper published April 3, 1987.

The task force, formed in March 1986, was 20 detectives strong at peak strength. In September, as the leads dwindled, it was reduced to four full-time detectives and lead investigator Sgt. David Simmons.

“If there should be a major break,” Johnson said, “we would put the manpower back on it.”

Sgt. Simmons will continue to split his time between that case and other pending investigations. “We won’t let it deter us from continuing on with it,” he said.

The rapist has not struck since Feb. 11, 1986, after five years of assaults on attractive young career women in upper middle class apartment complexes from South Miami to Deerfield Beach.

The number of rapes committed by the same man has been debated by investigators in the past, and is still not certain. The Pillowcase Rapist has a common blood type -- O -- with a rare sub-grouping found in only 1 percent of the population.

About half of the 43 cases attributed to the same man were confirmed by laboratory analysis of body fluids he left behind, police say. The others were attributed because of certain unique factors in the method of the rapist’s operation.

In several cases, detectives initially suspected him, but would rule him out after further investigation.

“In the past we have eliminated many cases that we first thought were his. There has been a difference of opinion from time to time over particular cases — a diversity of opinion in the task force, which is normal and natural,” Simmons said. “But we still believe that the majority of the cases attributed to him will prove out.

“I’m still convinced of 43. There has been a host of opinions,” Simmons said. “The number might be something less than we expect, or it could exceed the number, as it did recently with Robert Major, another serial rapist. In that case, we had no idea he had committed nearly as many as it turned out he did.”

Major confessed and led detectives back to dozens of rape scenes, where detectives found that one quarter of the rapes he admitted were not fully reported to police. Some women reported they were the victims of a robbery or burglary, but failed to mention the rape, or they reported no crime at all.

“It wouldn’t surprise us if some of the cases we’ve considered turn out not to be him, but there may turn out to be others committed by him that we haven’t included in the group. We’d rather be safe and examine the physical evidence in cases sufficiently similar.”

The major effort “solved a lot of unrelated cases,” said police spokesman Johnson, “some rapes, burglaries and robberies.”

But the man they want is still out there.

There has been a great deal of speculation about why he has not struck in more than a year.

“There are a variety of opinions of what might have become of him,” Simmons said, “ranging from whether he might be incarcerated somewhere for an unrelated crime or might have left this area entirely and gone elsewhere, or he might have sought counseling or psychiatric help for his problems.”

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