Six years ago, police had a composite drawing and strong indications--including a chilling modus operandi--that a man later dubbed the “Cottonwood Pervert” was preying on women across Orange County.
Most residents, however, did not find out until Tuesday what police detectives had long suspected: A serial rapist may have been stalking in their midst since 1987.
Kenneth G. Wade, a 45-year-old Temecula pool hall manager and sometime jeweler, was arrested on rape charges last week, and police now say he is a suspect in at least 86 sex crimes and burglaries across the county.
Police on Wednesday defended their decision not to issue broad public warnings about either the intruder or the number of unsolved cases--alerts which some experts say may have heightened public awareness and helped flush out a suspect sooner.
There is “definitely a possibility” that the public should have been warned earlier, said Lt. Robert Helton of the Santa Ana Police Department.
Helton and other investigators said the case seemed to evaporate in 1990 when the intruder--bespectacled and often nude--mysteriously dropped out of sight. They lost him, police now say, because Wade was in state prison.
When the crimes began anew in 1993, police said, they knew their man was back in business. At a meeting last year, investigators from at least half a dozen cities linked the intruder to unsolved crimes in neighborhoods all over the county.
“I can understand how the public can say, ‘Why weren’t we told?’ ” said Orange Police Chief John Robertson, in whose city Wade is suspected of committing 32 crimes, including one rape. But he said it was difficult to isolate a suspect for a long time.
Robertson’s department did warn one neighborhood. Cottonwood Avenue residents were told last year that a flasher in a black watch cap and usually nothing else had crept into the unlocked homes of at least 10 women. Residents dubbed the intruder the Cottonwood Pervert and formed Neighborhood Watch groups.
But there was no countywide alert for the intruder, suspected of prowling in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange, Placentia, Tustin, Garden Grove and Fullerton.
“It’s scary because I had no idea anything like this was going on,” said Ilssa Rodriguez, an Anaheim resident who was stunned to learn that the intruder had attacked a neighbor last month.
Michael Prudan, a special agent with the state Department of Justice, said alerting the public in cases of serial crimes often leads to an arrest. Providing a description of an assailant alerts those closest to the suspect, said Prudan, who specializes in cases of serial crimes.
But Robertson and other police officials said it was hard to determine if the same intruder was committing crimes countywide. They said they also feared that alerting the public might cause the suspect to move to another area or change his style.
Police investigators said the biggest problem came in piecing together the cases to put a face, and eventually a name, on the suspect. It was a process, Helton said, that began in Santa Ana about 1987 when Detective Linda Faust discovered that several of her rape and indecent exposure cases started as burglaries months earlier.
In 1989, detectives from Placentia, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Tustin and Anaheim and the Sheriff’s Department began noticing similarities between their cases at a sex crimes meeting, where they listed details of the attacks in their own cities, recalled Placentia Detective Corinne Loomis.
“We knew then that this guy was hitting areas outside of our city,” Loomis said.
Sometimes, the intruder would enter by knocking on doors and attacking the resident who answered the knock, Loomis said. The man wore a variety of baseball caps, hats, ski masks or different colored bandannas tied around his forehead. Sometimes he tied a T-shirt across his face, sometimes he wore clothes, sometimes nothing. And he always wore prescription glasses.
But the group of investigators was able to link at least 12 rapes between 1987 and 1989 to the same person, using physical evidence that included shoeprints, notes and blood tests, authorities said. His targets included hairstylists, cashiers, secretaries and young mothers, many of whom lived in apartment complexes or condominiums, detectives said.
Orange Police Lt. Timm Browne said several attempts were made in Orange to catch the intruder during the late 1980s, but “every time a station was set up at one end [of the neighborhood], he’d hit at the other end.”
Santa Ana and Orange police came up with a progressive series of composite drawings based on different descriptions of the man. In both cities, police say, patrol officers alerted home associations and neighborhood residents where the man struck repeatedly.
When the crimes dropped off in 1990, he said, the police were uncertain whether to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Of course, he gets out of jail in 1993 and these type of things start occurring again,” Helton said.