TAMPA — "I'm a serial rapist," he taunted her. "I'm a serial killer."
His hands closed around her neck and things went black.
She heard someone banging on the door. Her attacker scrambled out a window, and the 30-year-old victim stumbled through the unfamiliar Port Tampa house.
The police had come, answering her 911 call.
"Thank God," she remembers thinking.
But police had come to the neighborhood before. Detectives knew the man she said attacked her. Judges and probation officers knew him, too.
Tommy Lee Sailor, 37, had been arrested at least 30 times before the Jan. 1 attack — never for murder, but three times on rape charges. He had spent only three years outside prison since age 16.
Four times, probation officers told judges and parole commissioners that prison was the best place for Sailor.
In July, after the last warning, the Florida Department of Corrections released him, counting on an ankle monitor and a probation officer to track his whereabouts.
On New Year's Day, the state lost track of him.
The woman didn't know any of that when she met him at a bar.
Now she hopes hers is the case that sends him away forever.
She feels embarrassed about how it happened. So do two other victims, they said, in interviews with the St. Petersburg Times.
She wasn't planning to go out on New Year's Eve, but her mother offered to babysit, so she went looking for some old friends at Tillie's Place in Port Tampa.
Late in the night, she struck up a conversation with a 5-foot-8 man standing near the bar. She had never seen him before, but she took cues from others. "Everybody who was there that knew him seemed to respect him," she said.
Last call came and went. The mother of two thought about getting a cab, but the man offered a ride. He said he had a car at his house, nearby. When they got there, she didn't see a vehicle.
He asked her in.
"In my right mind, I wouldn't have gone in the house," she said. "But I was drinking. I was being stupid."
Within five minutes, she knew she was in the wrong place.
"I could see this look in his eyes," she said.
• • •
These are the things state officials know about Sailor.
When he was 11, police charged him with lewd and lascivious behavior with a child. A judge withheld adjudication.
He made it to the ninth grade at the former Monroe Junior High School. But in 1987 alone he got arrested 11 times. Among his listed offenses: aggravated assault, grand theft motor vehicle and battery on a law enforcement officer.
At age 16, he armed himself with a can of Mace and stole beer. The courts had heard enough. A judge sent him to prison. Earlier crimes caught up with him, lengthening his sentence.
He earned a GED in prison, then got out in 1992 at age 20.
He still faced 30 years' probation when he moved in with his Port Tampa grandmother and got a job at a Subway.
Eleven months after his release, he was charged with robbery.
Probation officers Maureen Watson and Annetta Austin recommended that Sailor be returned to prison "for the maximum time allowed," his probation permanently revoked. Sailor, wrote Watson, "is not a good candidate for any type of street supervision due to his violent tendencies and continual criminal behavior."
But the robbery victim decided not to pursue charges, according to Mark Cox, spokesman for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.
Sailor, then 21, had been out of prison little more than a year when three women told police he had raped them, all within a month.
One woman, a former girlfriend, said they were sharing a beer in a Port Tampa park on Valentine's Day 1994, when he dragged her to the men's bathroom, choked her and forced himself on her. She was 29.
Two weeks later, on March 1, he met a medical assistant at a gas station and drove her to a secluded spot near MacDill Air Force Base, where he beat her, raped her, then apologized and wiped her mouth. She was 27.
Two weeks after that, he met a Circle K clerk at a bar. They wound up in her car, which got stuck in the sand on a dirt path at the edge of the base.
The clerk, who was 29, tried to stay calm while he raped her repeatedly. Afterward, she cried and asked him why.
"Because I knew you wanted it," he said, according to a police report.
Prosecutors dropped the Valentine's Day case. The victim, who previously had consensual sex with Sailor, waited a month to report the attack and was, according to police, reluctant to take him to court.
As the other two cases headed to trial, Sailor struck a deal.
Sentencing guidelines at the time suggested he could serve 11 to 19 years in prison for each sexual battery, if convicted.
Probation officers Annetta Austin and Maria Hanes recommended the maximum. They also wanted Sailor to spend an additional 17 years in prison for breaking the terms of his probation.
Had that happened, he might have been an old man when released.
Instead, he pleaded guilty to the two rapes and an unrelated robbery.
Circuit Judge Donald Evans, now retired, approved the deal.
Sailor would serve three 10-year sentences, concurrently, meaning he could be out by age 32.
• • •
Even in prison, Sailor found trouble.
In 1995, he beat a corrections officer with a scrub brush and got two years and two months added to his sentence.
In 1997, he beat another officer with a rake and got 12 years and eight months to be served concurrent with his sentence.
In July 2008, the DOC released him at age 36 and put him under strict watch, called controlled supervision.
Before Sailor got out, a psychological evaluator for the Department of Children and Families interviewed him and decided not to keep him under the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows sexually violent predators to be committed for treatment against their will.
One likely reason: The rapes occurred within a month's time. Involuntary treatment is usually reserved for sex offenders whose attacks span six months or longer, said Suzonne Kline, director of the state's Sexually Violent Predator Program.
Once released, Sailor wore a GPS device on his ankle, lived with his uncle in Port Tampa and was required to be home at 6 p.m. every night.
He took classes at Manhattan Hairstyling Academy and attended required sex offender treatment courses.
Twice, he got caught breaking the rules of his probation — once for crossing the county line and another time for speeding, driving without a license, drinking beer and breaking curfew, police said.
That landed him back in prison last June.
The Florida Parole Commission sent a hearing examiner, John B. Doyle, to meet with him. Doyle heard from Sailor, Tampa police Officer Michael Jacobson and probation officer Aaron Gil.
"I would like to get another chance so that I can finish school," Sailor told Doyle.
Gil recommended that Sailor go back to prison, based "on the seriousness of his original offenses."
But Doyle, the examiner, decided otherwise.
"You did a lot of time on the street, Tommy, and you're doing something with your life, getting to school," Doyle said, according to an audio recording of the hearing. "But it looks like you're having a small problem with drinking. I did find you guilty of all charges, but I'll take a gamble on you."
Doyle noted that Sailor was about to finish training at the beauty school. That meant he would be able to get a job. That meant he could repay the cost of his supervision.
At the time, Sailor owed $2,868 to the Department of Corrections.
On July 22, the parole commission met and agreed to let Sailor stay on probation.
On July 23, DCF's psychological evaluators looked at Sailor's situation and did nothing to block his release. After all, he hadn't previously met the criteria for involuntary sex offender commitment. He had attended 25 of 28 sex offender classes. And his most recent offenses were not sexual in nature.
Sailor left prison once more, moving into his uncle's house near Tillie's Place.
• • •
On New Year's Day, April Schultz was close enough to hear the sirens, see the police cars, feel the thunder of a helicopter over Port Tampa.
Schultz, 43, didn't know the manhunt was for someone whose face had already been etched in her mind, whose touch she hasn't been able to scrub off with three showers a day for nearly 16 years.
She was the medical assistant raped in 1994. The Times doesn't usually identify rape victims, but she has no need for anonymity, she said. It's his shame, not hers.
She left Port Tampa after the attack. She had only recently returned.
A letter had come in 2008 saying Sailor was about to be released, but it didn't register with her that he lived just four streets away from her new place.
When she learned of this month's attack, she started packing again.
• • •
What will happen to Sailor now is unclear.
If convicted of sexual battery with a deadly weapon, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
If then considered for release, he would again face the possibility of involuntary commitment to a sex offender treatment facility.
Through jail officials, he declined to be interviewed for this story.
• • •
The Circle K clerk is 45 now. She moved away. Despite years of counseling, his name makes her shudder.
"Every time he's walking free," she says, "there's a problem."
Schultz, the former medical assistant, says Sailor should be castrated.
"He should have never been out," she said. "He's not a person who can function outside the walls of prison."
The victim of the New Year's Day attack still feels panicky. Even a trip to the grocery store rattles her. She can't sleep. If she had her way, she would never leave home again.
She firmly believes she could have died that night.
Instead, she outsmarted him. She secretly called 911, leaving the line open so that a police dispatcher could hear the episode unfold and send help.
Now, the audio recording bears witness to her attack.
She reeled when she learned what Sailor had done to other women in 1994.
"Why," she asked, "is he even out?"
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.