25 years later, a rapist is sentenced and a woman finally feels her fear fading

DNA brings finality for victim

July 13, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

The woman with dark, wavy hair, pale skin and wide eyes sat board-straight on the courtroom bench. Toying with the necklace at her throat, she leaned in slightly to hear the prosecutor.

She was nervous, she would say later. Still not quite believing that she was sitting in the same room as the man identified by DNA evidence as the stranger who grabbed her on the street 25 years ago, put a long knife to her throat, dragged her into a dark yard and raped her.

For years, she fled grocery stores, concerts, malls - just about any place with crowds of strangers. For two decades, she couldn't walk down the street during the day by herself. Nighttime walks, even with her boyfriend, are still out of the question. And she has chosen not to have children, fearful that she could never keep a baby safe since she hadn't been able to protect herself on April 25, 1981.

Her attacker is one of a dozen men charged in recent years in Baltimore County as part of a review of unsolved sex crimes. Since 2003, county police have used federal grant money to systematically examine cases that might have evidence worth testing for DNA.

For the women involved, the renewed investigations often require reliving memories that have haunted them while also offering a measure of finality to crimes that have sometimes permeated every aspect of their lives.

"These DNA rape cases are stranger rapes, and they're horrible," Baltimore County prosecutor Susan H. Hazlett said. "They're the kinds of crimes they make TV movies out of. This was one of those."

The key to cracking the April 1981 case was hidden in the fabric of the underwear police took from the woman at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center that night. The clothing was carefully wrapped in brown paper and packed away in the basement of Baltimore County police headquarters in Towson, waiting for the day when investigators might have some use for it.

Twenty-two years later, they did. The DNA on the woman's underwear led police to prisoner No. 194706, Kevin Siler, 44, who has spent most of his adult life - but for a few months in 1981 - in Maryland prisons.

Last month, the woman he was convicted of raping during that brief stretch of freedom filed into a crowded courtroom with her mother and sisters for Siler's sentencing hearing. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face him.

"Safety became my main concern, always looking over my shoulder, unable to relax," she said. "I lost my freedom."

Returning to her seat, the woman then waited to hear whether Siler would ever be set free again. She listened intently in the hushed courtroom as a judge crafted a sentence designed to keep the convicted rapist behind bars at least until he is a very old man, if not for the rest of his life.

It was 1:30 on a chilly morning in April 1981. An argument with her parents had sent the 17-year-old girl out the door of the family's Woodlawn home. Sobbing, she started walking to her older sister's apartment in Catonsville.

She didn't notice the young man heading toward her until he was nearly in front of her.

"At that point, I still trusted in things," she said recently. "I had no reason to believe this was going to happen to me."

The woman, 42, who now works for a law firm, recalled the attack during a two-hour interview in her home. She did not want to be identified by name. The Sun does not identify sexual assault victims without their permission.

She said the man walked right for her.

"He put the knife right up to my throat, like he knew what he was doing," she said. "Years later, it occurred to me that he had probably done it before."

The man kept the blade at her throat through the attack. When he stood, she scrambled to her feet and ran. With her pants and underwear still at her ankles, she stumbled into a fence, according to the account she gave police that night. She crawled under the wire fencing and ran, screaming and crying, into the middle of Woodlawn Drive.

Two women driving by picked her up and drove straight to the police station. It had been too dark during the attack for her to provide detectives a good description of the rapist.

Officers took her to GBMC, where hair samples and her clothing were collected. Everything was packaged and stored in the Police Department's property room, according to the police report.

Within 45 days of the attack, the trail was cold. "No investigative leads having been developed, this case is considered suspended pending any useful information," a detective wrote in June 1981.

A decade later, advances in forensic science began changing the way police departments across the country investigated crimes. The use of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) stems from the premise that everyone has a different genetic makeup and that scientists can find that unique pattern in any cell, whether from skin, semen, saliva, blood or hair.

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