Long Beach Man Arrested in 'Belmont Shore Rapist' Case

Times Staff Writers

A Long Beach man whose job history includes Christmas tree deliveryman and supermarket bag boy has been arrested as the suspected sexual predator responsible for attacking 31 women in Southern California and Seattle, police announced Monday.

Police had pleaded with the public for extra vigilance after the latest attack last week, but Long Beach Police Chief Anthony W. Batts on Monday credited old-fashioned police work for the arrest of Mark Wayne Rathbun, 32.

"To the city of Long Beach, I say, 'Sleep well tonight, sleep well,' " Batts said at a news conference where the arrest and investigation were detailed. "We believe we have the Belmont Shore serial rapist."

It was not Rathbun's first arrest by Long Beach police. Batts said Rathbun was arrested as a 17-year-old on suspicion of being a peeping Tom, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Rich Goul said Rathbun was convicted in 1998 of felony residential burglary.

Over the years the serial assaults indirectly changed the daily routines of women living in Belmont Shore and Belmont Heights, neighborhoods of east Long Beach in which a pattern emerged before others elsewhere were linked to the same man -- and where he earned the nickname of the Belmont Shore rapist. Pepper spray was often sold out at Billings Hardware in the heart of Belmont Shore.

Rathbun lived with his mother on Elm Avenue, about three miles from Belmont Shore, in an eight-unit apartment house with peeling paint. "He was a quiet guy, minding his own business," said Juan Flores, a neighbor who has lived at the complex for a year.

Flores and other neighbors described Rathbun as an idler with no signs of steady work or of a girlfriend. He could often be seen playing handball on the side of the building or riding his skateboard or his bicycle. He also was often seen going off with buddies who appeared to be surfers.

Neighbors came to associate him with his bike -- which Rathbun was riding when he attracted the attention of police near the crime scene of the predator's last attack early Thursday.

Officers had sealed off the neighborhood and approached three separate men, including Rathbun, who was arrested on suspicion of possessing a crack cocaine pipe, Batts said.

Rathbun and his bike stood out: Police had long suspected that a bicycle was the predator's means of escape because victims rarely, if ever, saw or heard a vehicle.

While in custody, police said, Rathbun "cooperated" and submitted a DNA sample but was ultimately released late Friday night after posting $250 bail.

But police had DNA with which to match considerable DNA evidence gathered from crime scenes over the years in Long Beach, Los Alamitos, Huntington Beach and Seattle.

A rush job by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Crime Lab matched Rathbun's DNA with that collected from Thursday's attempted assault of a 30-year-old woman near the Long Beach traffic circle. Both DNA samples have a rare marker, said Dean Gialamas, the assistant crime lab director.

As lab results were awaited, Long Beach police detectives followed Rathbun, who made at least two trips from Long Beach to Oxnard and back, helping a friend move. It would normally take eight to 10 business days to get the DNA results; police had them back in four.

Rathbun was arrested on suspicion of residential burglary with intent to commit rape, rape and other related charges at 7:45 p.m. Sunday near Fisherman's Wharf in Oxnard. Rathbun was being held late Monday without bail and is expected to be arraigned Wednesday in Long Beach.

Police might have been able to connect Rathbun to his earlier crimes sooner, but collecting DNA samples from suspected felons was not mandated until a year after Rathbun's last arrest, Goul said.

Rathbun did not have an attorney of record, and his mother was not available for comment. His mother was described by neighbors as a sweet woman who looked forward to going to church on Sundays.

Rathbun, whose string of low-paying jobs including working as a valet parking attendant, did not raise suspicions among neighbors. He was described as well-spoken, and one neighbor, who declined to give her name, said he offered helpful advice when she decided to buy a mountain bike.

"He was very nice," she said. "He brought me a catalog. 'You should buy this.' "

The only hint of violence that she or other neighbors could remember occurred when he argued with his mother. "One time he really yelled at his mom, which made me lose respect for him," she said.

The known attacks attributed to the same man began in Seattle in May 1996. Similar attacks followed: The man would enter through unlocked windows and doors, often nude when he finally approached the victim.

In time, attacks in other cities matched the behavior of the intruder or the physical evidence in the Long Beach assaults, police said.

Many women fought off the attacker, scratching or biting him, and police noticed Rathbun had an injured finger when he was arrested.

A consistent physical description was one thing that detectives lacked. Victims described the man as having a swimmer's trim build or being pudgy, of being bald or of having dreadlocks. The predator always covered his face or that of his victim, and usually covered his hands, leaving few matchable fingerprints, police said.

But Seattle police had a composite sketch of a suspect based on the description of a victim in that city, and Batts said Monday that Rathbun bears a strong resemblance to it.

In his booking photo, Rathbun's hair is wiry and dark brown, with nappy dreadlocks at the base of his skull. He has a mustache and beard and is 5-feet-10 and 220 pounds, Sgt. Paul LeBaron said.

Police have said that DNA evidence linked 13 of 31 attacks, and although that evidence did not necessarily help locate a suspect, it may be key to convicting one.

It was DNA that led to the release four years ago of Jeffrey Allen Grant, a city of Long Beach employee wrongly accused of the assaults. Grant spent three months in jail until DNA testing -- on the eve of trial -- exonerated him. Two witnesses had insisted that they had seen him at a crime scene.

Grant, who still works for the city running its parks and recreation softball program, was engaged at the time, and his fiance and family steadfastly insisted that he was innocent.

A federal jury in 2000 awarded Grant $1.7 million in damages.

There was great relief as news of a suspect's arrest spread Monday, but police cautioned that people should maintain their safeguards. "Women should still be careful, still lock windows and doors," said Long Beach police spokeswoman Nancy Pratt.

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