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‘Pillowcase Rapist’ Latest Catalyst for Anti-Crime Drives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the world last saw “the pillowcase rapist,” he was being mobbed by media in a Las Vegas airport. Inquiring minds wanted to know whether the man suspected in about 200 rapes had learned his lesson after 16 years behind bars.

Not wanting to go out on a limb or anything, there with a microphone jammed in his face, the gap-toothed ex-con also known as Reginald Muldrew opined that that was “up in the air.” That said, he walked off, his debt to society served, just another middle-aged bald guy in tinted shades.

Since then, if anyone has seen him, they haven’t spread the news. But out of sight, in these crime-fixated times, has meant anything but out of mind for Reginald Muldrew.

In the month since that airport sign-off, his name has been invoked incessantly in press conferences, rallies, legislative committees and phone calls to congressmen. One group has offered a $1,500 reward for information on his whereabouts. Another is pushing legislation that would make it easier for police to notify his neighbors if he shows up again in this state.

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A report that he might have gone to Massachusetts, where sex offenders don’t have to register with authorities, has pumped new life into a federal effort to standardize registration requirements from state to state. And at least one lawsuit in appellate court is being pushed with Muldrew in mind--a case aimed at slapping the families of paroled sex offenders with civil damages if they fail to warn potential victims away.

All this is on top of California’s “three strikes” law (which severely punishes repeat felons, including sex offenders); a state-run 900 number providing information, in specific cases, on child molesters; and a new sexual predator act that took effect this month, inspired in part by Muldrew’s case.

In short, policymakers say, Muldrew has joined the ranks of Lawrence Singleton, Melvin A. Carter, Christopher Evans Hubbart and other briefly notorious sex criminals as the latest catalyst for the tough-on-crime wave that continues to overhaul lawbooks in California and nationwide.

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“He seems to be the new poster person,” acknowledged Kelly Rudiger, executive director of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, the Sacramento-based victims rights group named for the mother of slain actress Sharon Tate. “Hopefully, with the new changes in the law, he’ll be the last.”

But some, including Muldrew’s lawyer, complain that the anti-Muldrew bandwagon has gone too far, impinging on his client’s civil liberties and demonizing him just as he attempts to make a new start in society. In particular, they take issue with the recent bid by conservative San Marino activist Susan Carpenter McMillan and a group of Muldrew’s victims to locate Muldrew by putting a bounty on his address.

The tactic, said the spokeswoman for one defense lawyers group, invites vigilantism: Once they get his address, what’s to prevent Muldrew’s enemies from running him to ground?

Moreover, his lawyer argued, Muldrew is a free man. The only requirement the law has of him now is that he stay out of trouble and register as a sex offender with the local authorities of any community in which he settles, if it is this state.

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Otherwise, said his lawyer, Rowan K. Klein, “he has a constitutional right to live wherever he wants to live and however he wants to live.

“The question becomes, does his right to privacy outweigh the right of the public to know where he is?”

The controversy over cases such as Muldrew’s has raged for most of the 1990s, as society has struggled with the difficulty of rehabilitating repeat sex offenders. Recidivism data for criminals in general have been inconsistent, and a dispute has persisted over whether anyone can predict or deter future criminal behavior, especially sex crimes.

But public outrage over highly publicized cases of child molestation and rape--along with an erosion of the social stigmas that once discouraged victims from reporting such attacks--has increasingly fueled the sense that sex offenders, if freed, will attack again.

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One Department of Corrections study, for example, showed that 51% of the sex offenders paroled in California in 1990 were back in custody by 1992. More than half of them, 58%, came back for sex offenses.

That concern propelled the state of Washington in 1990 to enact what was, at the time, the nation’s strictest sexual predator law, allowing the state to imprison repeat violent sex offenders almost indefinitely by committing them to locked psychiatric institutions after their prison terms expired, and authorizing law enforcement authorities to warn entire communities should a particularly violent sex offender move into town.

Parts of that law were struck down last year by a federal court, and it is expected that the fight will ultimately be settled before the U.S. Supreme Court, but other states have nonetheless followed Washington’s lead. What tough drunk driving statutes were to the 1980s, experts say, sex crime laws have been to this decade.

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In California, a new sexual predator law took effect this month, allowing violent sexual deviants to be committed to mental institutions for up to two years beyond their release from prison custody. (That, too, is being challenged on constitutional grounds, with Hubbart--a convicted rapist whose proposed 1994 release in Claremont set off an uproar there--as the test case.)

Meanwhile, the latest front, victims’ rights advocates say, now involves whether the public should get to know the whereabouts of sex offenders once they have served their time. Like the rest of the battle, the debate boils down to this: Is it more important to protect the civil liberties of all individuals--even criminals--or should community safety take precedence? And is it fair to punish criminals, not for what they have done, but for what they might do?

“I realize some people think it’s extreme, but we think Muldrew should be branded for what he is--a mass rapist of whom everyone should be fearful,” said Covina City Councilman Tom Falls, who led a highly publicized fight two years ago to prevent Muldrew from being paroled into his San Gabriel Valley community.

Civil libertarians, not surprisingly, disagree.

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“We feel that when somebody has served their time, that should be it,” said Mary Broderick of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. “A lot of these ideas being proposed strike us as 19th century notions that were abandoned in the 20th century for good reason.”

At the center of the debate--at least for now--is the specter of Muldrew, who was a skinny transient with a long rap sheet when he first made headlines almost 18 years ago.

D’Anza Bringier remembers him well. She got her picture in the paper because of him. She was a senior at Fairfax High School when, on the night of April 4, 1978, she got up to go to the bathroom and, on her way back to bed, heard a window sliding open and then her mother’s scream.

“In the hall outside my mother’s bedroom, there was a mirror,” she recalled, “and in it I saw a man. He was saying something to my mother, and I could hear her telling him, ‘I got two kids in the back.’ ”

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Bringier froze, her heart pounding. She pinched herself to make sure it wasn’t a bad dream. Then she crept back to her bedroom, where her brother Fraun, 19, was asleep in his twin bed.

Noiselessly, she clapped a hand over Fraun’s mouth, grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked hard. He woke with a muffled grunt. “Somebody’s trying to kill our mama,” she hissed into his ear.

Her brother’s eyes widened. She gingerly released him, picked up the bedside phone and dialed 911. “I can’t talk real loud,” she whispered into the receiver. “There’s a man in our house . . . “

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Within minutes a SWAT team had surrounded the house in Southwest Los Angeles, and things were happening fast. The rapist had been reaching for a pillowcase to pull over Bringier’s mother’s head when Fraun burst into the room, panicking him into flight.

Wildly, the intruder dashed into the kitchen, where Bringier, armed now with a golf club, had flattened herself against a wall. As he flew through the door, she pounced, swinging her five-iron like a baseball bat.

“I just started beating on him,” she recalled. “He was crying, ‘Please don’t hit me,’ and my mama was yelling, ‘Get ‘im, Dee!’ ”

He dived for the kitchen window, but saw the police and rushed back inside. Then he yanked the grate from a floor furnace and tried to wriggle out through the heating ducts. Finally, she recalled, he made for the attic, kicked out a ventilation window, swung himself up onto the roof and tried to leap, catlike, onto the roof of the house next door.

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He failed by scant inches, and with a yelp and a thump, Reginald Muldrew tumbled 15 feet into the waiting arms of the police. The next morning, there was D’Anza Bringier in the newspaper, her hair wrapped in a kerchief, demonstrating her golf swing for the cameras.

It was only afterward that she learned that the man she and her brother had chased off was a serial rapist so notorious that a special LAPD Pillowcase Rapist Task Force had been assigned to bring him in. Even now, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted him, Phil Rabichow, refuses to divulge Muldrew’s full modus operandi, though court records and witnesses echo certain hallmarks--his knife, for example, and his habit of pulling a pillowcase over his victims’ heads and tying them up with their telephone cords.

And, the court papers allege, his attacks were prolific. His victims lived all over. They were black, white, young and old. By the time he was captured, he was attacking women at a rate of seven or more a month--and those were only the cases in Los Angeles County in which the women had worked up the nerve to go to the police, Rabichow said. The task force had a list 162 women long when Muldrew was caught, but when the time came to prosecute, Rabichow chose only the strongest counts, fearing that one wobbly witness might sink the whole case.

Ultimately, Muldrew was tried on more than 50 assorted counts, and convicted of six rapes, eight burglaries, seven robberies, one assault with intent to commit rape and two counts of forcible oral copulation, Rabichow said. At his sentencing, the judge said imprisoning him would be like “caging a wild animal.”

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Muldrew denied everything. “He told the police he came through our window to smoke some sherms [cigarettes dipped in PCP]--that was his alibi,” recalled Bringier, rolling her eyes.

His victims know better.

“My 18-month-old baby was in the next room,” recalled a South Bay woman who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He told me if I called the police or told anyone, he’d come back and kill my family and do to my daughter what he had done to me.”

That woman was just 19 when she was attacked, she said. Her husband, a stocking clerk, worked the graveyard shift. It was 2:30 a.m., she said, when she was jolted awake by a prowler shouting at her to get up.

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From that point on, she said, she recalls only a collage of horrific details. A hand on her back, shoving her into the living room. His order to take off her nightgown and blindfold herself with it. The feel of peach silk on her face and a blade at her neck. His plea to “hold me,” and then, when she didn’t, the way he shouted it again--"HOLD ME!"--waking the baby, who, thank God, was still alive.

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Startled, he ordered her to shut the baby up; she grabbed the child, darted into a bathroom and locked the door. He told her to count to 100, and as he left, she heard him pause.

“Hey,” he called quietly. “Sorry.”

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Months later, when Muldrew was captured, she picked him out of a lineup and fingerprints from her baby’s window were matched to his. But she never testified. It took years, she said, to recover. By that time, her husband had left her and she had acquired the habit of sleeping in a sweatsuit with a .38.

She testified in Sacramento when the sexual predator bill was being heard, and, although it was so wrenching that she retched in the ladies room afterward, the experience steeled her for her goal: preventing Muldrew from hurting anyone else.

Ironically, because California’s sex crime laws are now so tough, prosecutor Rabichow says it is unlikely that any rapist of Muldrew’s magnitude would ever again be sentenced to less than virtual life imprisonment. It was only because his release date preceded the onset of the new sexual predator law that Muldrew is on the street, he said.

But the fact that the rapist is free has served as a rallying point for those who want better community notification when sex offenders are released. The aforementioned victim has joined that crusade, as has Bringier, along with several other victims and, in a twist, two activists from opposite ends of the political spectrum--feminist attorney Gloria Allred and the conservative pundit McMillan, a former spokeswoman for an antiabortion group.

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The South Bay woman has joined McMillan, whose Pasadena-based Women’s Coalition has rabble-roused in the weeks since Muldrew’s release. Their latest project: a mediagenic “birthday party” for Muldrew, who turns 48 this month. The idea is to keep him in the public eye by having his victims take to the podium brandishing “gifts” that would symbolize the ways in which his attacks destroyed their lives--a broken bottle, for instance, to symbolize a drinking problem brought on by the rape.

Bringier, meanwhile, has appeared on soapboxes and talk shows with Allred, who is pushing a particular community notification bill, and who has a case on appeal that would punish people close to sex offenders who know of their records and fail to warn potential victims.

Not everyone in the victims rights movement supports these moves. Besides their ambivalence about community notification, they say, they doubt Allred’s and McMillan’s claims that their media savvy helps the cause.

“I wonder if they’re there to help people, I hope to God, or just get their names in the paper,” said Rudiger of the Victims Bureau. But Muldrew’s victims say the end justifies the means.

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“Personally, I think they ought to put his face on milk cartons,” Bringier said. “Every woman ought to be nervous, because he will rape again. Only this time, he won’t leave no evidence.”

Times correspondent Mayrav Saar contributed to this story.


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