For years, a man dubbed “The Pillowcase Rapist” terrorized South Florida, slipping into apartments in the dark, his face shielded by cloth, mercilessly raping women at knifepoint.
A Miami-Dade police task force chased tips, conducted stakeouts, analyzed forensic evidence and even commissioned a lifelike sculpture from the one victim who glimpsed his face. All to no avail — the task force disbanded in 1987 and the case went frustratingly cold.
But thanks to a DNA hit, authorities have arrested a man they believe is the Pillowcase Rapist. Law-enforcement sources identified the suspect as 60-year-old Robert Eugene Koehler, a registered sex offender from Palm Bay, who was arrested on Saturday and is being held at a jail in Brevard County to await transfer to Miami-Dade.
The details of the evidence that led Miami-Dade police, prosecutors and state and federal agents to Koehler remained secret on Monday. Law-enforcement agencies declined to speak publicly. An arrest warrant for Koehler remained sealed.
For now, one source said, Koehler is being charged with only one rape, but others are expected down the road.
The news of the arrest was welcomed by old-time police detectives who hunted the rapist. Dave Simmons, the retired Miami-Dade sexual battery detective who spearheaded the task force, called the news “tremendous.”
“Thank goodness for the victims. I’d talked with most all of them over the years,” Simmons said. “They would call periodically to check on the progress of the case. It’s good for them to have closure.”
The Pillowcase Rapist terrorized women from South Miami to Deerfield Beach between May 1981 and February 1986. Using a pillowcase, towel or shirt to hide his identity, the soft-spoken rapist broke into town homes and apartments and attacked more than 40 women.
Investigators also explored the possibility that the attacks might have been committed by more than one rapist. Although the numbers have varied slightly in press accounts, Simmons believed at least 44 were committed by the same man.
“He was careful not to leave physical evidence — hence how he was able to escape detection for so long,” Simmons said.
The first reported rape occurred May 1, 1981, at the Alisian Lakes apartments, 4920 NW 79th Ave. So was the second, the third, the fourth and the fifth. The next summer the crimes began to occur in Coconut Grove, then Broward County, then back to Dade.
He was so bold that he returned to one victim’s apartment five weeks after one rape, masturbating on her lingerie.
On Edgewater Drive in Coral Gables he raped a woman in a fashionable high-rise apartment. He returned four weeks later and raped her neighbor, one door away.
Among his victims were a schoolteacher, nurse, airline flight attendant, artist, model, health spa instructor, insurance executive, publicist and student. All but one lived in townhouses or apartments. He usually entered their homes through unlocked sliding-glass doors and open windows, threatening them with a knife, assaulting them quickly and sometimes stealing cash.
“I would like to see him slowly die, piece by piece,” one victim told the Miami Herald in a magazine story published in 1985.
At the time, police detectives said the rapist was likely young, athletic and white and with no discernible accent. From lab tests, they concluded his blood type was O, but with a rare subgrouping characteristic found in 1 percent of the population. They also knew he wore a size 10 1/2 shoe.
Edna Buchanan, the Miami Herald’s legendary crime reporter, relentlessly covered the hunt for the rapist in a series of stories in 1985. It was part of the work that won her the Pulitzer Prize.
The task force, headed by the indefatigable Simmons, labored for years until it was officially disbanded in 1987.
The case was not forgotten. In recent years, the Pillowcase Rapist case was investigated by Miami-Dade police, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and agents from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
DNA technology, so crucial to rape investigations today, was not available to rape investigators back in the early 1980s.
It was unclear Monday whether Koehler’s DNA had ever been placed in any law-enforcement databases.
Koehler would have been in his early 20s during the sex-attack spree. FDLE lists him as a registered sex offender for a sexual battery conviction in 1991 in Palm Beach County. But the conviction was before Florida law required convicts to submit DNA.
Increasingly, do-it-yourself DNA tests, which are then submitted to companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA — have led to breaks in decades-old cases.
Most famously, investigators identified the so-called Golden State Killer using DNA hits generated by sites such as Ancestry.com, which allows people to upload their DNA profiles in hopes of finding distant relatives or ancestors. Police used GEDMatch, a free site that allows police and the public to scour genetic profiles.
In Florida, last month, investigators announced they used genetic information from distant relatives to link Robert Brian Thomas, 61, to two savage rapes in Pinellas County. He is awaiting trial.
Koehler remained jailed in Brevard County on Monday. He’ll eventually be brought to a Miami-Dade jail to await trial.
His criminal history showed a smattering of arrests over the decades — including one for aggravated assault in Miami in 1980. The outcome of the case was unclear on Monday.