Pursuing the Predator

Pursuing the Predator

Gabriel Baird
Plain Dealer reporter

She was home alone that nightmarish night when the rapist, his face hidden by a ski mask, kicked in her front door.

She screamed.

He choked her with gloved hands. He punched her, splitting her lip.

“If you don’t go along with this,” he threatened, “I’ll kill you.”

He forced her to spread four towels over a bare mattress, and then he took his time.

The rapist was methodical in not leaving clues. Then he ripped out phone cords and warned her not to alert police.

She stayed home until morning, when she found the courage to contact Cleveland police.

The case was assigned to Alan Strickler, a 52-year-old detective who has worked sex crimes since 1999. He and Lt. Michael Baumiller told The Plain Dealer how they hunted the predator using old-fashioned detective work and modern technology.

Strickler went to the crime scene downtown. It turned out he and the victim share something in common: education. Before joining the Cleveland police in 1992, Strickler taught at Cleveland Central Catholic High School.

The victim was a teacher.

The brutal nature of her rape and her description of the attacker reminded Strickler of two other recent rapes. The three attacks, he thought, could be the work of a single serial rapist.

Strickler sent a cup from the woman’s home, like all potential DNA evidence, to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation in Richfield.

BCI tests evidence and logs the results into a massive database – the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. BCI uses it to link crimes committed by the same offender and even identifies the culprit if that offender’s DNA is in the database.

BCI found the rapist’s DNA on the cup but couldn’t match the DNA to evidence from other crimes. The predator’s DNA was not in the database.

Soon, Strickler had no choice but to mark the April 2004 case NFIL – No Further Investigative Leads.

This nagged him for 11 months even as other cases demanded attention.

Meanwhile, BCI tested and logged more DNA samples, eventually linking the teacher’s rape to six attacks in Cleveland and one in Erie, Pa., between June 1996 and April 2004 – a total of eight victims.

Strickler’s hunch had proved half-right: The teacher’s rape was not linked to the two rapes he had thought it was – but the predator was, as Strickler had suspected, a serial rapist.

Knowing that the case had nagged the detective, Lt. Michael Baumiller assigned Strickler the eight cases.

The rapist had preyed on four whites, three blacks and a Hispanic woman. Their ages ranged from 13 to 55.

He attacked in Erie and Cleveland. He propositioned women on the streets like prostitutes and preyed on a woman studying for a test in a Cleveland State University classroom.

Cleveland police released the serial rape files on March 8. The Plain Dealer published several stories.

“I knew that tips would be coming in,” Strickler said.

Cops, ex-wives and ex-girlfriends contacted police, saying they thought they knew the rapist’s name.

Strickler numbered the tips and ran the names through the Ohio attorney general’s Criminal Case History database. Anyone incarcerated during the rapes had the perfect alibi – serving time for another crime. Strickler eliminated name after name provided by tipsters.

Then, Cleveland police received an anonymous letter March 15. It contained a Plain Dealer story about the rapes and a Municipal Court document from Euclid for a 37-year-old Akron man named Nathan Ford.

The envelope contained no explanation, no accusation, just the two documents. Strickler marked the envelope tip No. 6.

He learned that Ford had not been serving time during any of the crimes but that he had a criminal record. He served about nine months in Erie County Prison for making terrorist threats, indecent exposure, corruption of minors and open lewdness in 2001. Ford also had a probation violation in Lake County and an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

A task force of Cleveland police and FBI agents assembled.

“For every arrest, there’s always a certain amount of adrenaline pumping,” Strickler said. “You don’t know if the guy is going to cooperate or if he’s going to try to run from you or if you have a potential for a barricade.

“We presumed he probably was alerted by what he saw on TV about Cleveland police looking for a serial rapist.”

The FBI located Ford working at an Akron bread company. Akron police guarded the exits. Strickler, Sgt. Guy Boles and other task-force members entered the building. Ford did not run.

He was booked into Lake County Jail, where Strickler swabbed the inside of his mouth for a DNA sample.

On March 25 – two days after Ford’s arrest – Strickler’s cell phone rang. It was Baumiller with the BCI test results.

DNA from the swab matched the evidence collected from the eight attacks, including the DNA on the cup.

Ford was arraigned Tuesday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, pleading not guilty. His attorney, Tom Conway, declined to comment.

Strickler has called the victims with the good news: A suspect is in jail and he, Strickler, is working to make sure that’s where he stays.