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For 7 Years, Case Has 'Really Been My Life'

The lead investigator searching for the Belmont Shore rapist came to know the victims and the extent of their devastation.

August 16, 2004|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

The elderly widow was recovering from cancer surgery but the rapist did not spare her. She was still wearing a colostomy bag two weeks later when he returned to attack her again, then crept out of her Belmont Shore home.

Year after year, Long Beach Det. Katherine Kriskovic heard such tales from terrorized women -- 25 in all -- while the Belmont Shore serial rapist eluded capture.

"It's been an emotional seven years, and you can't help but gain a special bond with these women," Kriskovic said. "They want to know, 'Am I safe? Have you got him yet?' "

Last week she got to call them and say yes.

"It was so great to hear the joy and the relief in their voices," she said. "They finally wouldn't have to tell their stories again."

After seven years as lead detective on the serial rape case, Kriskovic only now has felt able to tell her own story about the exhaustive investigation.

A Long Beach jury Tuesday found Mark Wayne Rathbun, 34, guilty of committing 59 felonies -- including burglary, rape, sodomy and oral copulation -- against 14 women in Long Beach, Los Alamitos and Huntington Beach over five years. He is set to be sentenced Sept. 15 for a minimum term that exceeds a life term: 500 years.

Police and prosecutors said they believe Rathbun actually sexually assaulted at least 31 women over six years, including two in Seattle. Those two predated Long Beach's, and he was not yet concealing his face with masks or shirts. But authorities only went with cases that had strong DNA evidence.

During the lengthy trial, Kriskovic sat beside the prosecutor in court, helping coordinate the testimonies of the experts and 14 victims.

Off the top of her head, she could recall the technical evidence, crime scene addresses and, perhaps more important, a personal narrative of devastation over seven years.

"It's really been my life all this time," she said with a sigh.

Her role in the case began not from the first attack in January 1997, but after an assault in May of that year.

To many worried residents of the Belmont Shore neighborhood of 8,000 in Long Beach, the police effort could only be seen in a composite sketch of a man in a knit cap.

But behind the suspect flier was a daunting degree of work. Kriskovic and two homicide detectives, one who had been on loan to the FBI, the other brought back from retirement, worked the case exclusively. Half a dozen others from the sexual assault unit rotated while working their regular caseloads.

Officers from the career criminal apprehension unit also helped. Patrol officers conducted field interviews. And the Los Angeles County sheriff's crime lab was instrumental, Kriskovic said. Police were urged to get saliva swabs from anyone questioned, and 75 men who were asked agreed, she said.

If a resident reported someone lurking around, for instance, detectives might attempt to follow the man and, if he ate at a fast-food joint, collect his fork for DNA testing.

The level of help to Long Beach, one criminalist said, was "extraordinary.... We felt there was imminent danger to the community."

Kriskovic worked so closely for so long with the lab analysts that she knows their phone numbers by heart. Dealing with 70 police agencies makes it difficult to develop camaraderie, but the criminalists did with Kriskovic's team.

"She has a good, warm personality, but what struck me more than anything else," said John Bockrath, senior criminalist at the crime lab, "was she was very passionate, very frustrated, but very persistent and diligent. And very open to suggestions. She knew the limitations of what she could do. Without catching this guy in the act or somebody shooting him, you were just going to have to go out there and beat the streets and find him."

Until 1999, Kriskovic said, detectives thought they had two serial rapists in the coastal neighborhood. Older women in the Heights area were being assaulted north of 2nd Street, while younger women were being raped south of 2nd, Kriskovic said.

The rapist talked very little and accommodated complaints of pain by the older victims -- the oldest 77 -- but chatted and cuddled and sometimes stayed for hours with the younger victims "like it was a date," the detective said.

In late 1998, a woman was assaulted in Belmont Shore and scent-tracking dogs led police from the crime scene to an apartment building that was home to a Long Beach parks and recreation employee. Jeffrey Grant was jailed for almost three months before DNA evidence cleared him.

He filed a federal wrongful arrest lawsuit against the city, and the department's detectives were accused of lacking probable cause with which to arrest him. He won the case; the city appealed and settled by paying Grant $2.3 million.

It was clearly a blow to the investigation, Kriskovic said, but "I wouldn't handle the case any differently today."

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