For more than a decade, San Diego police have been trying to catch a man they say has made nearly 5,000 obscene and threatening telephone calls to women throughout the county.
The series of terrifying calls, which date to 1981 and almost always include rape threats in which the caller discloses uncannily accurate personal information about the victim, have utterly frustrated detectives through the years.
“It’s a competitive thing now because it’s been going on for so long,” said Sgt. Pete Munholland, who has been working on the case for a year and a half. “We’ve got to figure out a way to catch this guy.”
Detectives say the man, believed to be white and in his 20s or 30s, has employed a similar line of conversation in each of his thousands of calls.
“It’s always, ‘Hi, do you know who this is? I’m right down the block. If you hang up, I’ll come by and rape you,’ ” Munholland said. “Once he keeps them on the line, he asks what they are wearing. What color bra they have on.”
Because he apparently calls a person no more than once or twice, detectives have been unable to set a telephone trap to find out where he is calling from.
“There’s no pattern here whatsoever, no sequence of calls, no combinations, nothing,” said Lt. Roy Blackledge, who has been tracking the case since February. “We’ve worked this thing every way we can think of, and we’re just chasing ghosts.”
In 1985, police issued a warning to women about the caller, disclosing details about how he chose names from the telephone book, gained his victims’ confidence by using their first names in a fairly friendly manner, then turned deadly serious, warning them not to hang up.
The caller warned that, unless they answered his questions, he and his friends--supposedly a few blocks away--would rape them. The questions, detectives said at the time, had sexual overtones. The calls--linked to the same caller--dated from 1981, they said.
Blackledge confirmed that police are still pursuing the same man many years later.
Since February, Blackledge’s Western Division detectives have logged 300 to 400 cases of obscene calls made to women in their jurisdiction alone. The caller, he said, sometimes identifies the street on which his victim lives, possibly by looking at a map or using a cross-reference guide.
At first, investigators were stunned to find that the caller knew so much about the women he was calling, Blackledge said. But, as they talked to victims, they found the women had volunteered much of the information themselves.
However, one San Diego woman who spoke with The Times last week said she was telephoned twice, once in the morning and once in the evening, minutes after she arrived home three weeks ago.
She immediately hung up the first time. The second time, he called her by her first name, even though it is listed by an initial in the phone book.
“He started out friendly, like, ‘Do you know who this is?’ so I thought it was someone I knew,” she said. “When I tried to convince him I really didn’t know who it was, his voice just changed. He said: ‘You do exactly what I say. Do you hear me?’ He demanded an answer. He told me that, if I didn’t answer his questions, he’d rape me in front of my son. He knew I had a son.”
Because he seemed to know she was alone and other personal details, she stayed on the line about seven minutes while he made violent, sexual threats. Then, without explanation, he hung up.
“I was terrified and hysterical,” she said. “I can’t explain the fear he put into me. He is very controlling. He’s real good at what he does.”
After meeting with police, the woman was told that the caller might work for the telephone company, the gas company or an agency in which he has access to computer information that allows him to be so specific with his callers. She was shown a computer printout of calls he had made that she estimated was 2 inches thick.
Detectives told the woman, who requested anonymity, that she should not travel unescorted outside her house.
Police have a tape of his voice, Munholland said. The victim interviewed by The Times said she positively linked the voice on the tape--inadvertently picked up on a telephone answering machine five years ago--to the man who called her. The voice on the tape threatened rape of a woman’s 12-year-old daughter.
At least three of the Police Department’s seven divisions have a detective working the case, Blackledge said. In addition, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is investigating calls made to women in the unincorporated part of the county. Chula Vista and Escondido police also have several cases, he said.
Munholland said he will try to gather all of the San Diego police detectives working on the case to compare notes this week.
The 10-year investigation has taken a painful toll on investigators as well as its victims. Obscene phone calls, misdemeanor offenses in California, are taken seriously by law enforcement officials, but, with the crush of violent crime engulfing San Diego, they often must be placed aside for more pressing business.
“This is the kind of thing that eats you alive,” Blackledge said. “There is no physical damage but lots of psychological damage. These are girls next door, housewives and business people. He is terrorizing folks, and we have detectives eating and breathing this stuff.”
In a case eerily reminiscent of San Diego’s obscene caller, a man in Ohio was arrested in June for making thousands of obscene or harassing calls. Summitt County sheriff’s detectives told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper that the suspect was arrested after calling a number on which Ohio Bell Telephone Co. had placed a trap.
Clifton Stevens, 43, was charged with 17 counts of telephone harassment, four counts of pandering obscenity involving a minor and four counts of endangering children. Because authorities said he allegedly exerted unusual control over his victims, he was also charged with 17 counts of abduction and three counts of felonious sexual penetration.
As in the San Diego case, the caller in the Ohio cases threatened that a group of men would break into the house he called and rape the woman who was on the phone unless she answered all of his questions. He would ask what kind of undergarments she was wearing and tried to get her to undress near a window.
The caller in the Ohio cases almost never called the woman a second time and never carried out his threats or personally contacted the women, just as in the San Diego cases.
San Diego police have brainstormed in recent months over what to do, Blackledge said, and have held discussions with the phone company about how to catch the caller with sophisticated recording equipment. Since the caller rarely phones the same number twice, catching him is almost impossible, he said.
“We have to have a plan,” he said. “We can’t put a trap on every telephone in San Diego County, but we can’t have 4,000 more victims, either. He makes one to two calls a night, or he’ll make 10 a night. We wish he’d set a pattern. He’s smarter than the average bear.”