Police in Florida Arrest Suspect in 1980s 'Pillowcase Rapist' Cases

For years, he terrorized South Florida, sneaking into women’s homes, attacking them with a sharp object and then raping them while he covered their faces or his own with a cloth.

Dubbed the “Pillowcase Rapist,” he was suspected of sexually assaulting 45 women in the 1980s, and was the subject of an extensive manhunt. The police assigned 50 investigators to the case, distributed flyers with sketches of his likeness, and even commissioned a sculptor to create a bust of his head.

The police chased more than 1,000 leads, but the trail went cold, and a task force dedicated to catching the rapist was disbanded in 1987.

On Thursday, more than three decades later, the police said they had at last tracked down a suspect.

Law enforcement officials said the suspect, Robert Eugene Koehler, a 60-year-old registered sex offender, was arrested Saturday at his home in Palm Bay, Florida, about a one-hour drive from Orlando. He was charged with two counts of sexual battery with a deadly weapon stemming from a rape that the authorities say he committed on Dec. 28, 1983, when a 25-year-old woman was stabbed with a sharp object and raped in her home in Miami-Dade County.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the Miami-Dade state attorney, said at a news conference Thursday that a DNA sample taken from Koehler had linked him to 24 other sexual assaults from that era.

The key break in the case came last year, Rundle said, when Koehler’s son was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge, requiring him to submit a DNA sample to a criminal database. That sample, she said, provided a close familial match with samples collected from the rapist in the 1980s.

“This familial contact was the breaking point for us,” she said. “It was just what we needed to be able to piece this all together.”

Laura Adams, a county prosecutor, said that when the police searched Koehler’s home, they found several safes stashed with women’s jewelry and a metal nail file wrapped in a protective covering. She said investigators believe Koehler may have kept the items as souvenirs from his crimes.

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Adams said investigators also found a “dungeon in progress” that Koehler had been digging under the home.

“We feared very much that if we had not gotten him into custody that he may have had other plans even worse than what he executed on all of these women from these cases,” Adams said at the news conference.

Calls and emails to the Miami-Dade public defender’s office, which represented Koehler at a court hearing on Thursday at which he was denied bond, were not immediately returned.

Investigators assigned to the case say the rapist methodically stalked his victims from May 1981 to February 1986 — often young women who lived alone, although one woman was 82.

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“He terrorized — literally terrorized — women from South Florida,” Rundle said.

In 1991, Koehler was convicted of sexual battery in Palm Beach County, Florida, and was required to register as a sex offender.

But the conviction predated the mandatory collection of DNA samples from felony criminals, so Koehler’s DNA was not entered into a criminal database “and he was able to elude detection all these decades,” Rundle said.

After Koehler’s son was arrested last year, triggering the familial match, the police placed Koehler under surveillance.

Investigators followed Koehler into a grocery store, where they collected his DNA from a shopping cart and a door handle. Those samples provided a preliminary match to the 1983 sexual assault of the 25-year-old woman, and helped lead the police to arrest Koehler at his home on Saturday.

The authorities, armed with a search warrant, then collected a more complete DNA sample from Koehler’s mouth that linked to him to 24 other sexual assault cases from the 1980s, Rundle said.

The forensic detective work showed that the police “never forgot, they never abandoned, and they never gave up on this case,” Rundle said.

“I hope and pray that with this arrest and the prosecution of Robert Koehler, the victims of these terrible crimes will finally get a sense of justice and find some peace,” she added.

Edna Buchanan, a former reporter at The Miami Herald, who covered the investigation with particular tenacity, said in an interview Thursday that she was elated that there was an arrest and wondered if it would prompt more victims to come forward.

“I just wish it was years and years earlier,” said Buchanan, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for her police beat coverage at The Herald. “Back then so many women would not report a rape because of the way they were treated.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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