The Case of the Serial Rapist
When one thinks of rape, images of Bill Cosby slipping a date rape drug into the drink of an unsuspecting female admirer come to mind. Indeed, date rape is far more prevalent than any other kind. While it is an inexcusable violation of a woman’s body, there is another type that is far more devastating to its victims. I’m referring to the sexual assault of a stranger who preys on women he doesn’t know.
One of the most prolific sexual predators in criminal history was the Ski Mask Rapist, who began his spree in the suburbs of North Dallas in the summer of 1985. During the following year, he struck again and again, culminating that first year’s attacks with a rush of frenzied behavior in April, 1986—coincidentally the month I officially founded Pure Life Ministries. But to the dismay of Marshall Touchton, a detective assigned to the Sex Crimes unit of the Dallas Police Department, it was only an ominous sign of worse things to come. (1)
For two years Touchton and his team were repeatedly called out in the middle of the night to heartbreaking scenes of traumatized women. Other than the occasional dissimilarity, each story was nearly identical. A young woman was awakened from a sound sleep by a masked man who had thrust a gun to her head. “Don’t make a noise or I will kill you,” the raspy voice would whisper. Those who resisted were punched in the face until they submitted. Sometimes the ordeal would last as long as two hours as the brazen predator would casually take his time, even interspersing his sordid deeds with nonchalant conversation.
An Emerging Pattern
Nearly all habitual criminals have an “M.O.,” their own personal signature as to the way they operate. Ski Mask was no different and Touchton began formulating a composite about him through interviews with his growing list of victims.
The first thing that stood out about this man was that he carefully selected his victims. Every one of them was tall, slender and beautiful. Most rapists—like amateur burglars—put very little effort into choosing their targets, preferring instead to seize opportunities as they might present themselves. Detectives knew that the only way this rapist could choose women that were so remarkably similar in appearance was to painstakingly search them out and plan his attack.
The Ski Mask Rapist successfully eluded capture because he was very careful about his trade. Once he had zeroed in on a target—as detectives would later discover—he would stalk the woman to locate her home and then peek in her windows to learn her habits. In some cases he broke into the apartment when she was away so that he could ascertain the layout and locate any possible firearms or valuables. It was clear to police that this enigmatic figure was expending an enormous amount of energy plotting each caper. A rapist is, first and foremost, a sex addict: someone who derives as much sick pleasure from his preliminary rituals as he does from the sexual act itself.
"A rapist is, first and foremost, a sex addict: someone who derives as much sick pleasure from his preliminary rituals as he does from the sexual act itself."
Another piece of the puzzle was that, during the commission of the crime, he often took time to search through the belongings of his victims, stealing only high-priced jewelry. That pattern, coupled with his ability to gain entrance into homes stealthily and efficiently, led officers to believe that he had experience as a professional cat burglar as well. This theory was further confirmed by his thorough removal of anything that could be used as evidence against him.
Another important clue regarding his particular form of deviancy came from his interactions with victims. He was clearly not an “anger rapist,” who uses unnecessarily brutal force during the assault. Even more certain was that he was not a “sadistic rapist,” whose sexual enjoyment involves tormenting or torturing his prey.
No, Ski Mask was clearly what experts call a “power-reassurance rapist.” This perpetrator only uses violence as a last resort, preferring to keep the interaction with his victim as pleasant as possible. One woman even commented that he seemed “to be such a nice guy.” Although he was friendly, he constantly sought—almost demanded—compliments and affirmations about his performance and his physical attributes.
By April 1987 investigators had compiled an impressive dossier on the Ski Mask Rapist. After two years and at least 20 victims, the squad had come to know quite a bit about him. And yet, they were frustratingly no closer to capturing him than when he started his spree.
Then, one night, they finally got the break they were waiting for. A local minister, who also happened to be a reserve police officer, noted the license plate number of an unfamiliar car inexplicably sitting in the parking lot of his church in the middle of the night. Minutes later he heard a report on his police scanner of a rape near his church. He immediately notified police of the strange car, giving them the license plate number.
"And yet knowing who he was and proving his guilt to a jury were two vastly different things. This would become all too real in the maddening months ahead as victim after victim continued to fall prey..."
Police officers were soon knocking at the apartment door of a man named Gilbert Escobedo. He lived with his girlfriend and claimed he had been in bed with her all night. Although she had been sound asleep, she confirmed his alibi. The police knew he was lying, but lacking any positive evidence linking him to the crime, there was nothing they could do. It came as no surprise to detectives when they ran his criminal record and discovered he had a long “rap sheet” of criminal activity, including indecent exposure, window peeping and three burglary convictions. Touchton and his colleagues finally had a name to attach to their elusive criminal. And yet knowing who he was and proving his guilt to a jury were two vastly different things. This would become all too real in the maddening months ahead as victim after victim continued to fall prey to Escobedo’s assaults.
They knew from scientific studies that convicting this man of rape was a long shot. Most rapes aren’t even reported—some estimates being as low as 1 out of every 6. When the police are called in, only 38% result in an arrest. And most of those who are arrested are not convicted. (2) Touchton and his men knew that they were facing a formidable foe with little hope of stopping him.
On April 24, 1990 a terrified college student called police to report a man attempting to break into her apartment. Police were quick to respond and caught Escobedo outside the sliding door in the back of her apartment. He was hauled off to the police station for questioning.
Detectives that had been assigned to the Ski Mask case handled the questioning. All they could hope to pin on him was a charge of attempted burglary. They wanted much more. They desperately wanted to nail him on the entire series of crimes they knew he had committed. The trouble was that none of his victims could identify him, and he had left no physical evidence to connect him to any of his crime scenes. Their only hope of convicting Escobedo was for him to voluntarily confess to his crime spree. As a callous ex-con who was not easily ruffled, this was highly unlikely.
Touchton and his men knew that to gain a confession from this cagey criminal, they would have to persuade him to come clean of his own volition. One tidbit of information the arresting police officers passed along was that Escobedo mentioned he had attended a Bible study that evening at prestigious Prestonwood Baptist Church. This would play a key role in their strategy to rattle Escobedo.
And there was something else in their arsenal. Criminologists had just begun collecting DNA samples at crime scenes to identify suspects with pinpoint accuracy. They counted on the fact that Escobedo had heard about this breakthrough in forensic science.
"...Aren’t you tired of carrying this guilt around? Wouldn’t it be better to confess what you have done and make things right with God?”
The investigators decided they would employ a two-pronged attack: They began by telling their suspect that they had DNA samples left behind at a number of his crime scenes. It was a bluff, but it shook him. Then one of the detectives—who happened to be a Christian—approached the suspect as “a brother in the Lord,” appealing to his conscience. “Gilbert, aren’t you tired of carrying this guilt around? Wouldn’t it be better to confess what you have done and make things right with God?”
The plan worked. Escobedo admitted that he was the man they had sought for five long years. He wrote out a confession that he prefaced by saying, “After talking to [the detectives], I voluntarily want to clean up my business, since I am a Christian and I do have a conscience.”
During subsequent interrogations, 48 rapes were definitely attributed to him, but police were certain that number could easily have been as many as 100, since most rapes go unreported.
Through a plea bargain, Gilbert Escobedo received 10 life sentences—to be served concurrently. He would not be eligible for parole for twenty years. And the women of North Dallas let out a collective sigh of relief.
Epilogue—February 13, 2016
I was on a tour of prisons in Texas as part of Pure Life Ministries’ outreach to sex offenders. I was about to give a talk about overcoming sexual addiction to a group of prisoners. I had already visited a number of high-powered maximum security penitentiaries such as the infamous “Walls Unit” at Huntsville. But the “Duncan Unit” would be a different type of facility—a prison dedicated to housing geriatric inmates. Over half of the 537 prisoners who now call it home are serving sentences of at least 20 years. Most of them were convicted of sex crimes.
Before I entered the chapel, the chaplain tipped me that the infamous Ski Mask Rapist would be in attendance. I entered the chapel and sure enough, Gilbert Escobedo had positioned himself right on the front row, his white uniform fitting snugly to his rotund figure. Although he had gained weight during his years of imprisonment, he carried it fairly well on his 5-foot, 5-inch frame. At 64 years of age, he seemed the picture of health and happiness.
Gilbert nodded his head approvingly as I gave my talk, beaming a smile that indicated he was thoroughly enjoying it. He approached me when I finished, seemingly eager to impress me—a trait he had exhibited in other circumstances so many years before.
Afterward, I pondered his spiritual condition, wondering if he had ever been born again and truly repented of his crimes. On the one hand, it was hard to dismiss the fact that he had been attending church off-and-on during the entirety of his crime spree. Gilbert Escobedo was an extremely narcissistic egomaniac during his heyday. What stood out to me was the way he would remain with his victims as if he honestly believed the two of them had just enjoyed an intimate time of closeness—oblivious to the fact that the terror-stricken women desperately wanted him to leave. This detachment from reality carried over into his interviews with detectives. When he spoke of his crimes, he seemed unconcerned about the devastation he had brought into the lives of his victims.
On the other hand, there were certainly some circumstances that lent credence to the idea that he had experienced some level of genuine repentance. For one thing, part of his incentive to confess his crimes was a desire to make things right with the Lord. Indeed, in the hours following his confession, he dropped to his knees in his jail cell and asked God to forgive him. But more impressive even than this was the fact that for 25 years after his arrest he never wavered in his Christian confession.
I asked the chaplain if he thought Escobedo was a Christian. “Who knows?” he responded. “He claimed to be a Christian when he committed his crimes.” I suppose that pretty much sums up what any mortal man can know about the true spiritual condition of Gilbert Escobedo.
(1) Much of the material of this article was derived from the excellent book by Howard Swindle, Trespasses: Portrait of a Serial Rapist, Penguin Books, 1996.
(2) Senate Judiciary Committee: “Violence Against Women: The Response to Rape.”
Steve Gallagher is the Founder and President of Pure Life Ministries. He has dedicated his life to helping men find freedom from sexual sin and leading Christians into the abundant life in God that comes through deep repentance.
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