Months after 1979 assaults, a town was publicly informed there was a predator at large

This is Part 3 of “The Stocking Mask,” a narrative series by Staunton News Leader, part of the USA TODAY Network. Want to start from the beginning? Follow this link.

STAUNTON, Va. – Summer’s slow burn continued.

The crimes of the man dubbed the stocking mask rapist finally reached the public on the local section – page seven – of The Staunton Leader in the July 10 edition.

Some of the city’s most powerful institutions – its all-girls college, its police department, and its daily newspaper – appeared to push information about multiple break-ins and rapes over the heads of citizens, hoping it would land harmlessly at some point in the future, perhaps in a small five-paragraph arrest brief on the inside pages of the paper.  

Maybe they thought they were protecting the privacy of the victims, and that it outweighed notifying other women there was a sexual predator in their midst.  

Maybe they’d hoped that a suspect would be caught before they had to admit there was a serial rapist on the loose, and that questions about whether their silence had emboldened the rapist and endangered more women would be trumped by news of an arrest.

But even buried on page seven, the July 10 headline – “Rape suspect still sought by police” – and the connection of the rapes with other area break-ins and attempted sexual assaults had an immediate and significant impact on the city.

Two days before the story came out, the rapist broke into an apartment, stealing two BIC Venturi stereo speakers.  

Stereo speakers in the 1970s were even larger than many people born in the age of cell phones and earbuds might think. If the residents held the door open for the thief, walking out with two speakers the size of a dorm-room fridge would still be an awkward task.  

This 1970s-era ad for BIC Venturi speakers shows off their size, not easy to tote around in a burglary.
This 1970s-era ad for BIC Venturi speakers shows off their size, not easy to tote around in a burglary.
Ann Arbor Public Library archives

The intruder didn’t have far to walk in the dark that Sunday night; he lived down the hill, less than 150 feet away.

Although the Leader reported on several weekend break-ins resulting in losses, they did not report on the heist of stereo speakers. It appeared that crimes considered connected to the rapist were not being reported to the media, or not being printed by the newspaper.

Until July 10. 

The Staunton Leader’s report on “a man sought for two rapes and two attempted sexual assaults in Staunton,” a story without a byline, was jarring: every paragraph added another crime connected to the perpetrator of those two rapes.

It underscored without saying it that police had already connected the dots between a series of disturbing break-ins and violent assaults going back five months, without once warning the public of a serial offender.

The short article described the suspect as a Black male “from 20-30 years old, 5-foot-11, 150-155 pounds, and with a short Afro hairstyle. He has reportedly threatened his young victims with a knife. 

“Obtaining a good description of the suspect has been difficult since he has attacked in the dark and in most cases has worn a stocking over his face to disguise his features.”

Police had made a composite sketch of the suspect but warned it was “of poor quality” and did not release the image for use in the paper.

Police had made a composite sketch of the suspect but warned it was “of poor quality” and did not release the image for use in the paper.

Then came the details of other crimes linked to the same unknown suspect.

On June 3, the rapist “reportedly broke into the home of a Lancaster Avenue woman and raped her.”

One of the attempted sexual assaults connected to a man wearing a stocking mask occurred on March 9 when two teenaged girls at a private school were confronted in their dorm room and forced to strip but then escaped their room and ran for help.

The other unsuccessful assault happened on May 27, in the midst of the weekend break-in spree the rapist later admitted to, when “a man with a stocking over his head reportedly forced his way through the front door of the home of a Frederick Street woman who was in her living room at the time.”

On those summer nights, they still kept their windows open to let in the cool air, unaware they were advertising easy entry to an intruder. If they were naive about the rapist’s tendencies, it was because they were uninformed about them.

The article stated, “Several sexually motivated break-ins have also been reported in the past few months. On May 29, a Market Street resident returned to her home to find that it had been broken into, but only some underwear had been stolen.”

Sentence by sentence, the story was an unwitting indictment of the police’s knowledge of a series of sexually motivated break-ins, unsuccessful assaults and violent rapes spread over five months and counting.

The connections were made, and the shape of the whole was obvious: a single predator brazenly breaking and entering homes, first violating women by going through their underwear, then escalating to surprising and raping women while holding a knife to their throats. 

Twenty-six-year-old Anne Roberts, newly married and newly situated as a Staunton resident, watched the city go by from her job at The Beverley Book Company downtown.

From those windows Roberts would gaze out at her adopted city and watch the people. “It was just such a great place to live,” she’d say in a 2021 interview. “When you’re younger, you’re just so optimistic. You go around oblivious to bad things.”

Staunton resident Brenda Canning
The police said we had to set traps ourselves. We had to put up NO TRESPASSING signs. We’d string up fishing line in the driveway.

She hadn’t heard anything about a rapist in town that summer. When she did find out from a neighbor that a woman had been raped one street over from her, she was incredulous that the word hadn’t gotten out. “Everybody knew everybody,” she said.

An object lesson in just how small Staunton was: resident Brenda Canning married her high school boyfriend Art. They moved out of the city for a few years. When they had children they bought a house back in Staunton, right next door to her childhood house. From her front door she could see the porch only 15 feet away where she and Art had stood while her parents had snapped photographs of them before they headed off to their senior prom.

One of her best friends was now living in Canning’s childhood home. They both worked as nurses at the emergency room at Kings Daughters hospital, where at least one of the rape victims had been treated. They didn’t know the same rapist had assaulted two other women by the time July came. They didn’t know the police had connected the rapist to several unsuccessful rape attempts, also unreported in the local paper.

On those summer nights, they still kept their windows open to let in the cool air, unaware they were advertising easy entry to an intruder. If they were naive about the rapist’s tendencies, it was because they were uninformed about them.

Despite Staunton’s reputation as a safe place, it was never as safe for women as some might have imagined. They had always been on their own.

But it would be naive to think this would be their first time worrying about a male predator. When a former employee at the hospital began stalking Canning’s friend, the police did not offer much in the way of protection.

“The police said we had to set traps ourselves,” Canning said. “We had to put up NO TRESPASSING signs. We’d string up fishing line in the driveway” between their houses, “about, you know, knee-high. And then between the fence and the bench. And one morning we got up and the bench leg was pulled out, and we knew that somebody had been there.”

The two women used an intercom system shared between the houses so they could immediately talk to one another.

When the news reached the public that a serial rapist was breaking into houses, Debbie, a single woman living alone, had more than a prowler to worry about. 

“As a woman, it was an unsettling feeling,” Canning said. “It really was, and the backyards are really dark.”

Despite Staunton’s reputation as a safe place, it was never as safe for women as some might have imagined. They had always been on their own.

In a letter to the editor published on July 19, "Five Concerned Single Women" called for more transparency from the police and the local paper so that women could "take an active part in protecting ourselves." (News Leader re-creation)
In a letter to the editor published on July 19, “Five Concerned Single Women” called for more transparency from the police and the local paper so that women could “take an active part in protecting ourselves.” (News Leader re-creation)
Jeff Schwaner/The News Leader

The daily paper had finally started to report on the story. A letter to the editor nine days later suggested that women had forced the newspaper’s hand.

“This letter is a cry from five concerned single women who reside in the Staunton area to our public officials and the news media,” the letter published on Thursday, July 19 began. It went on to list the streets on which rapes or sexually oriented break-ins had occurred.  

“There is a great possibility that there have been more incidents that haven’t been reported to the police, much less to the public,” the letter writers stated. 

“The most frightening aspect of this crisis is that our law enforcement officials have not reported these attacks to news reporters and deny their existence when questioned.”

Chasing after a suspect is not sufficient, they wrote. “Public awareness is a courtesy which could prevent unprotected and unsuspecting women from making themselves easy targets.”

July 15 letter to the editor from Five Concerned Single Women
The most frightening aspect of this crisis is that our law enforcement officials have not reported these attacks to news reporters and deny their existence when questioned.

The letter writers scooped their newspaper and police with what might have been the most keen observation to date: “According to our sources, the rapes have been consistently occurring on weekends, for the past six to eight weeks in the downtown area. Only two incidents were reported to and published by the Leader prior to the article of July 10, which was instigated by the undersigned.”

The writers ended by saying that being “notified of such offenders” will help them “take an active part in protecting ourselves.”

The letter, signed “FIVE CONCERNED SINGLE WOMEN,” added the daily newspaper to the list of institutions who’d sabotaged the safety and security of women in the city. 

Looking back, the July victim doesn’t remember the letter to the editor. She was still processing the attack and its aftermath. Stories in The Leader would later detail “angry women” demanding justice or victims testifying to the grand jury about a night they’d rather forget. The public discourse of the day didn’t really allow for discussion of the trauma of the crimes, nor of the commitment each woman had to apply to their own well-being in those weeks and months afterward.

A front-page story in the July 15 paper offered People Against Rape’s co-chairman Ms. Billie Rosenberger’s advice for women on “Making yourself less vulnerable to rape.” Top of the list: close and lock doors and windows.

“[B]reak your daily routine so a potential rapist won’t learn what to expect, don’t put your first name on your mailbox or in the telephone directory, and keep a weapon handy such as a can of hair spray or ammonia in a squeeze bottle,” the story noted. 

Rosenberger advised that attacking the rapist could backfire. “If you hit them and can’t get away to safety, you’ve only made them madder.” She suggested that acting crazy, developing a nervous tic or vomiting might discourage a rapist, and that “the rapist is also a human and trying to talk him out of it has also worked.”

Perhaps most telling was not a piece of advice but an aside. Rosenberger told reporter Patrick Kelly that she had “noted an increasing number of telephone calls in recent months from women concerned about the danger of rape.”

Two weeks later, the rapist was back inside the building from which he stole stereo speakers, this time breaking into a different apartment in the building. It was the only criminal activity that he would later admit to from the month of August. Even then, he was staying close to home, breaking into a building which he’d already had success entering.

He might have noticed more cars parked on the side of the streets when he went out late at night. Police had begun to stake out areas around the college.

And one reporter had begun to stake out the police.

– Jeff Schwaner is a journalist at The News Leader in Staunton and a storytelling and watchdog coach for the USA TODAY Network. Contact him at jschwaner@newsleader.com.