Research suggests that serial rapists use more sophisticated techniques and possess more specialized awareness than average single-victim offenders (Park, Schlesinger, Pinizzotto & Davis, 2008). Although there is a substantial body of literature on the attack styles of offenders, data and theoretical models on the interactional styles and performance rituals of serial rapists are relatively scarce. The current study uses a qualitative analysis of major American newspaper accounts to discuss the behavioral patterns and performance styles of the con-style serial rapist as depicted by crime reporters. The con rapist uses deceptive persuasion and everyday disguises (e.g., posing as a police officer or as someone in need of assistance) to gain the trust of potential victims in order to isolate them, reduce capable guardianship, and to amplify their vulnerability. Guided by an analysis of coverage in major American newspapers from 1940-2010, we develop a con-rapist typology organized around the special forms of deceit and social camouflage used by offenders. Our typology includes the Working Con (42% of con rapists), the Good Samaritan (31%), the Supplicating Con (17%), and the Transactional Con (10%). We discuss each variation on the con-approach in terms of the premise, performance, and props used to accomplish the act.
Over 25 years ago, Hazelwood and Warren (1990) published their influential typology of the attack styles of serial rapists. According to the authors, typical serial rapist attacks include the blitz approach, the surprise strategy, and the con style. The blitz approach involves the use of a sudden, direct attack in public spaces. The blitzer uses a burst of explosive coercion to subdue the victim, often followed by forcibly moving the victim to a more isolated space where he attempts to execute the rape. The blitz style appears to be less sophisticated, more opportunistic and involves less organization and planning than other attack styles. The surprise approach is more premeditated than the blitz strategy and appears to involve a preselection of victims and a strategic plan to attack the victim when vulnerability is heightened (e.g., breaking into a residence when the occupant is sleeping). The con approach involves using planning, deception, and persuasion to gain the trust of victims to isolate them and reduce potential guardianship. The con, for example, often feigns a need for assistance (e.g., asking for help from a motorist), offers assistance (e.g., offering a ride to a woman at a bus stop, knocking at the victim's residence in the guise of a maintenance man), or poses as a trusted authority figure (e.g., police officer).
Understanding serial rapists is a meaningful enterprise, as much research has found that a minority of offenders commit a majority of the offenses, producing an average of between 7 and 11 victims. (Hazelwood & Warren, 1990; Warren, Reboussin, Hazelwood, Gibbs, Trumbetta, & Cummings, 1998; Lisak & Miller, 2002; Wright, Vander Ven, & Fesmire, 2016). For example, in their analysis of 1,037 offenders, Wright. et al. (2016) found an average of ten victims per offender. Thus, it is important for scholars to investigate the forms of serial rape and the profiles and styles of those who commit it in order to build empirically-driven prevention models and to inform law enforcement practices.
The current study focuses on the strategic practices of the Con Rapist. Con rapists are unique in that they represent the only attack style type in Hazelwood and Warren’s model that interact verbally with the victim before the attack. The con rapist appears to have the verbal and performative dexterity to manipulate victims in ways that increase their vulnerability. Thus, it is important that scholars develop models to bring understanding to the specific tactics used by con rapists to lure victims into attack sites. The general literature on con artists (Maurer, 1940; Pettit, 2011), suggests that they tend to be well-mannered and charismatic and know how to talk to marks and forge bonds of trust with them in relatively short amounts of time. Thus, the mannerisms and linguistic skills employed by con artists can be characterized as forms of impression management. It is suggested that the con-style rapist will use many of these same mannerisms and techniques when targeting and conning their victims. In this context, we identify a four-part typology of the con approach and treat each variant on the style of the con-rapist as a social-theatrical enterprise that involves a premise, a performance, and props. The four types of the con-style rapist are: (1) the Working Con, (2) the Good Samaritan, (3) the Supplicating Con and (4) the Transactional Con.
Based on their analysis of incarcerated serial rapists, Hazelwood and Warren (1990) found that the most common style used was the surprise approach, followed by the con style, and—the least-used—blitz approach. Scholars have estimated the distribution and patterns of attack styles outlined by Hazelwood and Warren (1990). Park, Schlesinger, Pinizotto, and Davis (2008), for example, found that 79.5% of their sample (n=44) employed the surprise attack, while 18.6% of their sample offenders favored the blitz method and 11.6% used the con approach.
An alternative typology of offender styles can be found in Beauregard, Rossmo and Proulx's (2007) discussion of the hunting process of serial rapists (n=72). According to their analysis, the most common approach style was the use of trickery or false identity to gain the trust of potential victims. This approach—similar to the con approach—was used 48% of the time while the use of more direct physical or violent acts—similar to the characterization of the blitz style—was used in 40% of the cases. Furthermore, the findings indicated that trickery or false identity was the most common method (35%) of moving victims to the crime site.
In their study of 16 Finnish serial rapists, Santtilla, Junkkilla, and Sandnabba (2005) found the most common style of approach was the conﬁdence approach, defined by the authors as an interaction that was initiated with some sort of verbal contact. This loose definition of the con-rapist lacks attention to the more sophisticated use of ruses and theatrics implied by Hazelwood and Warren’s original conception of the con. In any case, the Finnish researchers estimated the confidence approach was used by 67% percent of the offenders in their pool, with the surprise or blitz-attack methods being much less common.
Woodhams and Labuschagne (2012) found that just 28% percent of their sample offenders used a surprise approach (defined by the authors as grabbing or physically controlling the victim from the start), while 77% used some sort of con-approach in their rape series. Compared to previous scholarship, the authors developed a more elaborate discussion of the variations on the con-theme. The offenders in the Woodhams and Labuschagne sample were identified as using one or a combination of six different poses or ruses. The six approaches included: engaging the victim in a conversation, offering to help or assist the victim, offering the promise of employment, pretending to be an authority figure, pretending to be in need of help, and bribing the victim. Of these variations, the most frequently used was the promise of employment (48% of offenses).
To summarize, past scholarship suggests that con rapists appear to develop semi-scripted plans to amplify the vulnerability of their victims. This is consistent with the general finding that serial offenders employ more planning than single-victim offenders. For example, Park, Schlesinger, Pinozzotto, & Davis (2008) found that serial rapists, compared to single-victim rapists, are more criminally sophisticated than their single-victim counterparts and display more forensic awareness (e.g., they are more likely to use a condom). Understanding these strategies and level of sophistication could offer insight into prevention strategies and public safety messaging.
Like Woodhams and Labuschagne (2012), the current study is an attempt to delineate further and describe the variations on the con-style approach to serial rape. Drawing from serial rape accounts published in major American newspapers from 1940-2010, we develop a con-style rapist typology and estimate the social profile of offenders.
The confidence game, or “the con,” refers not only to instances of criminal fraud but also to actions taken by “talented actors who methodically and regularly build up informal social relationships just for the purpose of abusing them” (Goffman, 1952, p. 451). According to previous researchers, confidence artists are “modern entrepreneurs engaged in highly-organized industries with rules, apprenticeships, alliances, and most importantly, an exclusive, technical vocabulary” (Pettit, 2011, p. 148). Thus, according to Maurer (1940) and Pettit (2011), the con uses the same amount of professionalism and care when approaching their marks as any other highly-skilled professional in a conventional occupation. Of particular interest to those who study con artists is their ability to use impression management tactics to persuade a "mark," or the target of a con, to trust them and to follow their instructions. To do this effectively, the con must employ elaborate and meticulous personal fronts and often engineers social settings that secure trust and reliability (Goffman, 1959; Maurer, 1940).
The con rapist is a planful, resourceful social actor. He is aware that the successful execution of his plan depends upon isolating a victim outside the reaches of social support or bystander intervention. In addition, the con-style serial rapist may be more likely than a single-victim offender to exhibit criminally sophisticated behaviors. According to Park et al. (2008), serial rape offenders are more likely to bind and gag their victims preventing them from calling out for help or escaping before the rape could be completed. They were also more likely to exhibit forensic awareness by removing semen from the crime scene once the rape was completed. It is this insight and criminal sophistication that helps to facilitate the serial rape offender’s ability to offend against multiple victims and elude detection by police.
Drawing from the routine activities approach (see Felson and Eckert 2016), it would appear that the Con Rapist knows that crime is possible when offenders, targets, and the absence of guardianship meet in time and space, and he aims to artfully construct social scenes that maximize that convergence. Thus, understanding the behavioral patterns and rituals of the con rapist requires an integration of the routine activities approach with Goffman's (1959; 1967) dramaturgical approach. The dramaturgical perspective trains a sociological scope on the social roles and everyday performances that people use to meet audience expectations and to promote desired identities. Assuming familiar and trusted roles and playing the part of sympathetic characters builds a tapestry of socially recognized camouflage within which the serial rapist hides. He wears the mask of empathy or the clothing of a plumber, for example, to obscure his dark plans. While the routine activities approach emphasizes the way that natural human traffic patterns result in the convergence of motivated offenders, suitable targets and lack of capable guardianship in time and space (Felson and Eckert, 2016), we are arguing that the con rapist cloaks himself in social camouflage (e.g., familiar social poses, recognizable occupations, appeals for help) in order to manufacture target suitability and the absence of capable guardianship. One of the keys to setting the stage for a con-rape, then, is impression management.
Coined by Erving Goffman in his theory of the presentation of self, impression management refers to techniques which prevent performance disruptions (Goffman, 1959). In other words, a performer's methods of monitoring their behavior so as not to ‘blow their cover' during a performance. The performer must also monitor the behavior of the audience (or "read'" their audience) to make sure that their performance is not under-or over-acted so as not to raise questions from the audience which may discredit their performance. Psychologists of deception have demonstrated that deceitful social actors are especially gifted and polished at the art of persuasion. According to Rivers and Derkson (2015) on the psychology of deceptive rhetoric, "In the case of both rhetoric and social psychology, artifice is best hidden because otherwise it will be resisted. Persuasion works best if people are not aware of the means of persuasion, or, better yet, of the fact that they are being persuaded" (p. 635).
Similarly, Bogaard, Meijer, Vrij, and Merckelbach (2016) assert that people are most vulnerable to deception when they hold incorrect beliefs about the nonverbal indicators of deception. For example, one commonly held belief is that deceitful people can be detected by gaze aversion. According to Bogaard et al. (2016), however, deceptive actors are not particularly prone to gaze aversion. The skilled con artist then is likely to be practiced at looking the mark in the eye. Furthermore, deception scholars recognize that the con game requires "buy-in" from the mark. The con will use rhetorical techniques to persuade the mark that he or she is the initiator of the interaction. According to Rivers and Derkson (2015), "To move people, let them think they move themselves; the most effective persuaders are hidden persuaders” (p. 635).
The data analyzed in the current study were collected from archived newspaper articles from 1940 to 2010. We selected 1940 as our lower parameter as 1940 was the first year that we identified newspaper coverage of a rape series. We selected 2010 as our upper parameter as it was the final year given coverage in our selected newspaper archives. Newspapers are one of the most commonly used resources when attempting to trace serial crime over time. Jenkins (1992), for example, used secondary data sources and media accounts to estimate trends in serial murder over time. Jenkins defended his reliance on news accounts by arguing that sensationalized crimes—like serial offenses— often receive heavy coverage in media outlets. Jenkins’ analysis suggests that major newspapers, like the New York Times, reliably and consistently discover and report upon serial offender stories scattered throughout the United States.
According to Duwe (2000)—a multiple homicide scholar that drew data from media accounts—media outlets profit from reporting on sensational topics that might generate increasing readership. Serial rape may be likely to be reported more by both newspapers and victims because serial rape is more likely to involve strangers (which is associated with increasing victim reporting) and because its extreme nature and threat to the social order appeals to the general public as newsworthy. This may be especially true in the case of offenders who had high-ranking or authoritative occupations (such as doctors or police officers). The current study attempts to summarize the information contained in news accounts with the understanding that news stories are, at least partially, biased constructions of reality.
Following Wright, Vander Ven and Fesmire (2016), we conceptualize serial rape as three or more separate events of sexual coercion (with or without penetration) that occur over a period greater than 72 hours. Serial rape offenders actively seek, hunt or lure victims and attacks are linked together by some set of offense characteristics that may include the offender’s physical characteristics, a common style of attack, or characteristics of the victim.
Newspaper articles were selected from five well-established newspapers that represent large geographic areas of the United States. The archived articles were found by exploring Proquest, a research database used by libraries around the world. Described as having access to over three centuries worth of newspaper articles, Proquest has been explored as a data source by a variety of scholars across disciplines (Huang, Kvasny, Joshi, Trauth, & Mahar, 2009; Jones, 2005; Savelsberg, King & Cleeland, 2002; Woloshin & Schwartz, 2006).
The newspapers examined were The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and The Washington Post. These newspapers were selected because of their long-running reputation as regional media outlets that are also known for reporting on national news stories. Wright et al. (2016) argue that the use of these papers, in particular, is important, due to their “consistently being in print during the researched time period” (451). While none of our selected sources were located in the southern region of the United States, our data suggest that our archived articles include coverage of multiple crime series’ occurring in southern states (e.g., Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee).
The five-member research team coded 2,987 articles for content using Systematic Thematic Discovery (STD)—a three-step process used to analyze qualitative data (Vander Ven, Wright, Fesmire 2018; Butler, Ningard, Pugh and Vander Ven, 2017; Vander Ven, 2011). Step one involves developing a theoretical framework to build a search term list. Within each newspaper archive, we searched general terms such as “rape” and “rapist” to identify cases. Within each newspaper archive, we searched general terms such as “rape” and “rapist” to identify cases. Before entering the data, the two principal investigators facilitated training sessions with three research assistants. The training session involved a presentation of principal research questions and an explanation of the logic of the codebook (created by the principal investigators). The principal investigators then conducted a data gathering and coding seminar for the rest of the team. Training lasted multiple sessions, culminating in a pilot coding exercise to develop a measure of intercoder agreement and to test the logic and utility of our codebook.
Step two of STD involves the coders examining the text with the developed theoretical framework to identify and highlight themes and subthemes. Themes (e.g., con-rapist methods) and sub-themes (e.g., the props and performances used by con-rapists) were identified in step two until reaching a saturation point (i.e., new themes no longer emerge). Serial rape stories were then analyzed and coded for content. As a result of our Proquest search, our sample consists of 1,037 identified serial rape offenders identified in news accounts. While there are clear limitations to drawing from news accounts, we attempted to draw from more than one newspaper article to develop information on each case. Like Brolan, Wilson, and Yardley (2016), who studied news accounts of contract killers, the majority of each of our serial rape cases draws data from more than one news article. Finally, step three involves using the themes discovered as data points and employing an interpretive analysis to link the themes together in a systematic way to bring understanding to the phenomena under investigation.
Intercoder agreement estimates the degree to which researchers’ coding decisions agree and, thus, gives researchers confidence in their operational definitions, concept categories, and in the effectiveness of coder training (Kolbe & Burnett, 1991). To generate an estimate of intercoder agreement, the entire research team coded the same 35 articles (5 articles per each of the 7 decades under examination). Each coder entered data on the offender, victim, time and place of attack, and attack style as it was described in news accounts. Following the work of Corovic, Christianson, and Bergman (2012)—who used agreement percentages to estimate intercoder agreement of serial and single-rape offenders—the research team computed a raw percentage value to assess intercoder agreement by calculating the percentage of our coding decisions that agreed (i.e., the total number of entries that matched as a percent of the total number of items coded and entered). After the pilot coding exercise, we calculated our overall inter-rater agreement value to be 87% (item agreement ranged from 63-100%). That is, 87% of our entries agreed. Eighty-seven percent agreement among five coders across 23 variables suggests a high-level of agreement. Moreover, intercoder agreement for our key variable, attack style, was estimated at 89%.
Popping (1988) argues that percent agreement is one of the most commonly used methods of estimating intercoder agreement. Percent agreement is not always an ideal measure and may overestimate reliability—especially when nominal variables with few entry options are entered (e.g., sex or race). However, Stemler (2004) maintains that the percent agreement strategy is an effective approach with most nominal data and allows coders to diagnose rater discrepancies and improve the coding process. Our assessment of intercoder agreement permitted the research team to assess the extent to which coders varied on their agreement of some entries relative to others. After examining our pilot coding data, we discovered that we had better agreement on certain variables (e.g., agreement of ‘newspaper source' was 100 percent) and weaker agreement on other variables (e.g., agreement for ‘victim count' was 63 percent).
This discovery alerted the research team to potential inconsistencies in the manner in which we identified and recorded victim counts as they were depicted in media accounts. Thus, the team revisited the 35 articles included in our pilot analysis and coded ‘victim count' together, working through our methodological decisions. The pilot coding exercise and the resulting conversation it generated created better consensus on the identification and recording of victims counts and of other variables and guided our coding from that point forward. While the team did not re-calculate our percent agreement measure after the pilot exercise, we felt confident that the exercise helped to raise the level of agreement regarding recognizing victims counts in articles. It should be noted that all of the variables in the current analysis (e.g., offender characteristics, attack style, variations on the con approach) registered percent agreement measures above 80 percent.
Ninety-eight percent of our sample was male, and the average age of the offender at their first offense was estimated at 27.15 years old. With respect to the race/ethnicity of the offenders in our sample, 46.1% of the offenders were identified as African American, 29% were Caucasian, 19% were designated as Latino, and 5% of the sample was Asian. It should be noted that the newspaper accounts clearly identified the race of the offender in only 297 cases. In cases where the race or ethnicity of the offender was not identified, we used identifying information in the article (e.g., offender name, age, criminal charges, and city where the offender was active) to search supplementary sources such as online sex offender registries, prison inmate directories and genealogical resources such as ancestry.com in order to identify the race of the offender. By doing so, race was identified in an additional 198 cases.
Style of attack was identified and entered for 768 of the offenders in the data. The offenders’ style of attack was identified and entered using Hazelwood and Warren’s (1990) original typology of the con, blitz, and surprise offender. In addition to these three methods of attack, our analysis identified a previously unmeasured method of assault—drugging. Drugging was considered a discrete method because it involved tactics that did not fit into the original three categories. Drugging includes the use of a medicine, anesthetic, or street drug to render the victim vulnerable to assault.
Offenders were coded as using a con style of approach if they approached their victims and engaged them in a face-to-face interaction for the purpose of deceiving and attacking them (Hazelwood & Warren, 1990). Of the 768 offenders whose styles were readily apparent in the news account, 221 of the offenders clearly employed the con style of attack at some point in their rape series.
Unlike con-style offenders, offenders using the surprise method of attack did not seek personal interaction with their victims; these offenders attacked victims in their homes or hid in waiting in unguarded spaces (e.g., apartment laundry rooms) and caught them off-guard. The blitz offender is much like the surprise offender in that they also did not rely on personal interaction with their victims—the blitz involved a sudden use of physical force to overcome the victim.
Figure 1 displays the distribution of offenders across attack style. Of the 768 offenders whose style of attack was described in the data, 47% employed the surprise attack, 28% used a con strategy, 22% blitzed their victims, and 3% used the drugging approach. In some cases, offenders employed more than one attack style during their crime series. Figure 1 displays the percentage of offenders that used each of the styles during their series of rapes.
Figure 1. Offender attack styles (n=768)
Newspaper articles detailing attacks committed by con offenders were coded for common themes and patterns of behavior using analytic induction. This type of analysis is used to define and redefine a specific phenomenon and explanatory factors which allow researchers to identify how "universal" relationships within the data are maintained (Katz, 2001). When initially starting our analysis, we focused on offenders who used their occupations or posed as a particular occupation in order to attack their victims. A close examination of the data revealed that, in addition to the use of occupation to deceive victims, offenders used other discrete strategies and interactional ruses. For example, the data suggested that some offenders used a plea for help or offered assistance to their victims to lure them into their trap. This discovery resulted in the addition of three other styles of attack used by the con-style serial rapist which were not anticipated as is customary when using analytic inductive coding (Katz, 2001).
Using analytic induction, we were able to identify and define four types of con-style offenders. Two coders examined all of the con-rapist cases together and reached consensus on which one of the con-rapist categories was represented in each case. In addition to constructing the profiles of each of these types of cons, the two investigators (the first and second authors) worked together to categorize the content of the con in terms of the premise, the performance, and the props used to approach and control each victim. The premise refers to the dramatic situation set up by the con (e.g., "there has been a car accident, and I need your help"). The premise requires the selection of certain types of victims in order to enhance the plausibility of the ruse and to reduce guardianship. The performance includes the use of language and a strategically elaborated demeanor to gain the trust of the victim (e.g., dramatic courtesy, empathy, or authoritative language). Props include physical objects used to authenticate the con (e.g., uniforms, badges, automobiles). Each of these elements of the con routine is discussed in more detail as they pertain to the following con-subtypes as illustrated through case examples.
Drawing from newspaper account data, we estimate the social profile of the con-rapist and compare those characteristics to descriptive data for the total sample. As all of the con rapists in our sample are male, we refer to these offenders as “he” throughout the analysis below. The average age (at first known offense) of the con-style offender is 29.4 years old which is considerably older than the mean age (27.15) measured for the full sample that includes all styles. In addition, of the 101 con-style cases in which race and/or ethnicity was identified, 45% were identified as African American, 36% were Caucasian, 15% were Latino, and 3% were Asian. There were no significant patterns found in the victim population. This may be due to the con-style rapists’ selecting victims based on a lack of capable guardianship and opportunity to offend rather than an individual or physical characteristic of the victim.
Analysis of the data indicated four discrete types of con used by the serial offenders in our sample: (1) the Working Con, (2) the Good Samaritan, (3) the Supplicating Con and (4) the Transactional Con. Descriptions of each style of con approach, examples of their use of premise, performance and props, and their frequency within the data can be found in Table 1.
Number and % of offenders (n=221)
The Working Con
Assaults while on the job or under the guise of a trusted occupation. Occupational poses may include plainclothes police officers or maintenance worker
The Good Samaritan
Offers victims some type of assistance or engages them in conversation; uses helpful demeanor to gain the trust of victims
The Supplicating Con
Asks victims for some type of help or assistance; may ask for the time, directions or to use their telephone
The Transactional Con
Assaults victims during an authentic or posed commercial exchange or economic transaction
The working con enters into a familiar, recognizable interaction ritual with the victim by setting up the encounter as a routine occupational exercise. The working con appears to be merely “doing his job” and, in the course of his job enactment, asks the victim to perform a complementary, but subservient role. That is, he relies on the victim’s commitment to yielding to the professional authority of the occupational task that he is pretending to accomplish. Thus, the victim unwittingly accepts a role in the con’s pre-staged drama by attending to the typical role expectations associated with interacting with a professional that is “just doing his job.” The resulting ritual is a collaboration between the offender and victim, the con and the “mark,” not unlike the typical complementary performances given by the doctor-patient dyad or the teacher-student pairing.
Offenders in our sample were categorized as working cons because they either assaulted their victims while on the job or under the guise of an occupation. Table 2 lists each of the most commonly-used occupations and their frequency in the data. The working con approach was used by 42% (n=93) of con offenders and the most common occupational poses used by offenders were maintenance or repair workers and police or investigative officers.
The working con may pose as a maintenance worker directed by some unknown supervisor (and without the occupant’s knowledge) to a residence to perform routine repairs. For some potential victims, this premise is familiar and recognizable. The premise may be particularly plausible for apartment dwellers or renters who must deal with strangers working on their homes with some regularity. Working cons that were employed as law enforcement officers (or posed as them) generally stopped and detained targeted victims and used their assumed authority to isolate them and increase vulnerability.
Table 2. Frequency of occupational pose
Frequency (n= 93)
Police Officers and Agents of Law Enforcement
Maintenance Workers or Repairmen (e.g. appliance repairmen, plumbers)
Doctors, Physicians, Medical Professionals
Postal workers (e.g. delivery boy, messenger)
Offered victims jobs
Door-to-door salesman/survey taker
The working con-rapist hides behind the mask of a profession, using authoritative, but ordinary, language and demeanor. The language and persuasive techniques used by the working con varied depending on the occupational pose used by the offender. In the case of maintenance or repair workers, the offender simply knocked on victims’ doors and claimed that they were there to “fix a leak” or that they had been sent by a building supervisor. For example, one rapist in our sample was able to persuade victims to let him into their home by telling them that he was there to “check the air conditioner” (New York Times, 1985). The language of offenders using these types of occupations tended to be simplistic and seemingly-professional as they asked about household appliances and repairs that needed to be made within the home.
Offenders who drew upon the role of a law enforcement officer used more authoritative language and, at times, threatened their targets with imprisonment or some type of punishment if they did not comply with their demands. One alleged rapist used his job as an INS (Immigration and Neutralization Service) agent to target women of Latina descent while he was off-duty but driving his federal vehicle. The offender would show victims his badge and, after determining that the victim had no green card or legal status, placed them under arrest. The agent, who communicated with his victims in Spanish, would threaten his victims with deportation before allegedly raping them. The assailant also alternately identified himself to victims as a customs agent or undercover police officer (Lerner & Connelly, 1990).
In the series known as the "Phony Cop Rapists," two men abducted three women at bus stops in three separate incidents, convincing the women that they were police detectives investigating a robbery and that the women fit the descriptions of the robbery suspects. Assistant U.S. Attorney William D. Nussbaum described the two cons' method of attack as "the perfect scam" (Valente, 1974). By telling the victims that they matched descriptions of suspects in a robbery, the men presented themselves in a threatening and intimidating way that most likely elicited fear in the victims. In this way, these offenders were able to use their language and demeanor as techniques of impression management to put on a convincing performance and ultimately persuade their victims that they were, in fact, police officers. When selecting their victims, most offenders who used the working con chose victims with whom they were required to interact as a part of their ‘job.’ In the case of the police officer pose, offenders often used their authority to target women of vulnerable populations such as prostitutes or women that could be threatened with imprisonment if they did not comply with their demands.
Offenders that used the pose of a maintenance worker or deliveryman employed a more routine, subtle, professional approach creating the impression of a harmless tradesperson performing an innocuous task. By illustration, a detective on the case of an alleged rapist who posed as a deliveryman delivering a large package described him as "very well-spoken and cool" (New York Times, 1971). This seemingly ‘well-mannered’ demeanor was instrumental in his attacks because it allowed him to gain the trust of his victims who were not aware of his intentions to harm them. According to detectives, The Delivery Man Rapist chose “fashionable apartment houses and attractive young wives in their early 20’s.” He would then go up to the victim’s apartment and ask for a tape measure to determine if a fictional package would fit through the door. Detectives said while measuring the door, he would then determine whether or not the victim was home alone: “If he decided there was too much danger, the policeman said, he would leave saying he was going to get the package, but he would never return. If he decided it was safe, he would attack…” (New York Times, 1971).
The Deliveryman Rapist's method of ‘scoping out' the apartments of potential victims can be seen as a clear illustration of the usefulness of integrating the routine activities approach with the dramaturgical lens. The assailant was able to first select an apartment which housed a seemingly suitable target and then used his techniques of impression management (claiming to have a large package and measuring the door of the apartment) to determine if she was home alone (in the absence of capable guardianship).
Working cons produced familiar props to authenticate their pose. Props were most often used by offenders in the working con approach, especially in cases where offenders posed as a police or investigative officer. These props included items such as fake or authentic badges, handcuffs, guns and flashing dashboard lights. Some offenders in the data were so successful in their use of props that they become known by the props that they used. A 46-year-old Virginia man who was convicted of abducting and raping a young secretary, became known as the ‘Flasher Rapist’ because he used a flashing red light on the dashboard of his vehicle to persuade lone female motorists to stop their cars at night. Thinking the man in the car behind them was a police officer, some of his targeted victims stopped. Johnson’s prop proved to represent his undoing as he was captured by police upon the discovery of the red light on the dashboard of his car (The Washington Post, 1973). In cases where cons posed as maintenance workers or delivery personnel, offenders used uniforms and tools as props to give legitimacy to their ruse. In the case of the Deliveryman Rapist, for example, the offender’s props were illusionary in that he referred to a “large package” that he needed to deliver and asked for the use of a tape measure, a common tool of his trade.
The Good Samaritan rapist produces a theatrical scene around his willingness to assist a woman in need. Like the Working Con, the Good Samaritan casts the victim in a subordinate role by convincing them that they need help. Consistent with Woodhams and Labuschagne's (2012) identification of rapists that start an interaction by offering help, offenders using the ‘Good Samaritan' style of approach offered to help their victims and, once they built a rapport with them, assaulted them. Offenders in this category targeted stranded female motorists, women waiting at bus stops, or women hitchhiking alone. In some cases, offenders in this category creatively manufactured a problem for victims so that they would seek help or were simply nearby when victims needed assistance. This approach was used by convicted rapist Paul Seward who became known as ‘The Flat-Tire Rapist' because he would let air out of the tires of female motorists' vehicles and wait for them to return to their vehicle. Once the women returned, Seward would approach them and offer to help (Feldman, 1985). Offenders who used the ‘Good Samaritan' approach accounted for 31% (n=68) of offenders in the current study.
The Good Samaritan poses as a person of unusually high moral fiber who is going out of his way to ensure the safety of his ultimate target. Offenders demonstrated their “goodness” through words, deeds, and references to their attachment to socially valued roles. Like offenders who used the working con, offenders in this category appear to be adept at using persuasive language and at giving convincing performances. However, as opposed to convincing victims of their occupational status, these offenders used language to assure victims they were of good moral character and that they could be trusted. ‘Good Samaritan’ cons used techniques as varied as simply engaging in conversation with their victims to offering them the chance to play Nintendo and eat ice cream (Chicago Tribune, 1996). One assailant, by example, told women waiting at bus stops that “the buses were not running” and offered them rides in his red Nissan Pathfinder (The New York Times, 1989).
The ‘Flat-Tire Rapist' also relied on language and persuasive techniques when interacting with his victims. After helping the stranded female motorists with their vehicles, he would initially deny any form of compensation claiming that he had simply acted “as a good Christian” (Feldman, 1985). The Flat Tire Rapist would then concede and ask the women for a ride to the bus stop or hospital to visit his ill mother. By fabricating claims about his strong Christian faith and desire to visit his ill mother, Seward attempted to persuade victims that he was a genuinely kind and moral person that they could trust. This approach demonstrates the Con Rapist's use of dramaturgy to isolate victims and reduce capable guardianship in the process.
The ‘Parking Lot Rapist’ (a title assigned by the media) used a similar, family-centered claim. After lying to victims and telling them that their cars had been hit in the parking lot of a department store, he would allegedly tell them that his “… wife and kids got the license number. My wife is on the phone now” (Los Angeles Times, 1978). By playing the “family man,” the ‘Parking Lot Rapist’ struck a sympathy-worthy pose, which helped him to convince his victims that he presented no threat to their safety.
Most frequently, these offenders targeted women who appeared to be alone and in need of some type of assistance. In some cases, these offenders went as far as to stake out the victims’ homes or follow them in their vehicles in order to track their movements and determine when they were alone. It can be assumed, using a routine activities approach, that women were targeted in this way because the offenders perceived them as suitable targets when they were alone and without capable guardianship. In these cases, offenders may perceive capable guardians to be the victims’ husbands, partners, or another individual who may overpower them in their attempt to assault the victim. This style of victim selection was used by the ‘Parking Lot Rapist’ (Los Angeles Times, 1985).
According to newspaper accounts, the offender “cruised the streets of Los Angeles, looking for unaccompanied women parking their vehicles” or staked out the parking lot of a large department store to look for possible targets. Once a female motorist parked her car, he followed her into the store and told her that her car had been hit in the parking lot. He would then walk back to the car with the victim and tell her that there might be damage to the frame of the car. He would offer to ride with the victim to see if the car “tilts” and even asked victims if he could drive the car in order to identify further damage done to their vehicle. He would then drive the women to secluded locations and assault them (Los Angeles Times, 1978).
The Good Samaritan’s premise often revolved around car accidents, car failures, or other transportation breakdowns (e.g., the buses were no longer running). Thus, the Good Samaritan sometimes used automobiles as props. One obvious and effective prop was the visibly deflated tires conjured up by the “Flat-Tire Rapist.” Similarly, the “Parking Lot Rapist,” used his victims’ cars as props when he claimed that they had been hit, and possibly damaged, by another motorist. In both cases, the offender’s con—that the victim’s automobile had been rendered untrustworthy—allowed him access to the victim’s car and afforded him an opportunity to drive away with her in the guise of a mock “test run” to make sure the vehicle was safe for travel. Once in the vehicle with the victim, the Good Samaritan was able to move the victim to the ultimate crime scene where he executed the rape.
In the case of the Good Samaritan, the use of automobiles as props are especially effective. First, car failure is a familiar and plausible premise. Second, the prop or bait—in this case, the automobile—becomes the mechanism through which the offender transports the victim from the site of engagement to the unguarded crime scene. The Good Samaritan’s game is a simple sleight of hand maneuver. In very short order, he transforms himself from a “good man,” an altruist, or guardian into an unfettered predator.
The Supplicating Con category bears a resemblance to Woodhams and Labuschagne's (2012) "asking for assistance" category of con-style rapists. Unlike the Working Con or Good Samaritan pose, the Supplicating Con strategically casts himself in a subordinate position by asking for help. His requests are simple and routine thereby normalizing the interaction. The Supplicating Con exploits the victim’s desire to attend to commonly held values related to helping and assisting those in need. While the Working Con and Good Samaritan cast the victim in a subordinate role, the Supplicating Con takes a “one down” position, artificially and temporarily transferring power to the victim. He asks her to be altruistic or, at least, to extend a common courtesy (e.g., reporting the time of day). Instead of offering assistance like the Good Samaritan, these offenders asked for assistance. These pleas for assistance were most often simple requests, such as asking victims for the time, asking for directions, or asking to use a telephone directory. As a result, these types of attacks tended to occur in secluded public areas such as parks, on the street, or in or near the victims' homes. Once the victim agreed to help the offender and either let them into their home or became distracted by a task (such as looking at their watch), the offender attacked them. Seventeen percent (n=38) of offenders in the current analysis used the supplicating con approach.
Since most supplicating offenders asked for small favors from their victims, their language tended to be straight-forward and the interactions with victims were relatively brief. In the case of offenders who asked the time in order to engage in interaction with their victims, victims complied because it was a question they could answer rather easily. It was during this brief moment of distraction that many offenders then attacked and over-powered their victims. This method was allegedly used by a serial rapist in Stoneham, Massachusetts in 1973. According to an intended victim, the offender approached her from behind while she walked alone one night and asked, “Do you know what time it is?” and then lunged for her. Fortunately, she was able to escape and call the police (Richwine, 1973).
An eighteen-year-old offender was described by some of his victims as having a “pleasant and disarming manner.” In selecting his victims, the offender would ride around on his bicycle looking for a woman or girl walking home alone. He would then ride ahead of her,
choose a parked vehicle which was unlocked and wait for her. Once she reached the vehicle, he would then approach her and engage her in conversation. During these conversations, Steffey would either ask for directions or ask if they had met before. He would then force the victim into the vehicle and assault her, pretending to have a gun in his coat pocket (Korman, 1942). According to media accounts, the offender was able to use his youth and physical attractiveness in order to disarm his victims and put on a successful performance.
In some instances, the Supplicating Con added emotional power to his request for help by manipulating targets with recognizable images of vulnerability and innocence. Consider the case of a 30-year-old offender, who was convicted of raping six children in the Chicago area in 1985. As part of his performance, the offender seemingly played upon the compassion that children have for animals in order to move them to the attack site. In one of the attacks on a 12-year-old girl, the offender claimed that his cat was trapped in a basement and asked her to help him. He then led the young girl to an abandoned basement—beyond the reach of capable guardianship— where he threatened to kill her and then executed the rape (Myers, 1985).
Offenders who used the supplicating con approach rarely used props or specific styles of dress when approaching their victims. However, exceptions to this rule were also found in the data. One offender, for instance, would allegedly dress in jogging clothes and go to a park where he stopped women jogging alone to ask for the time. His jogger pose, recognizable exercise uniform, and simple inquiry as to what time it was contributed to his ability to engage with his victims successfully. Another offender prop, the fictitious trapped cat, represented the kind of innocence that moved victims to accompany the offender to the eventual attack site.
The Transactional Con sets the bait by offering to enter into a routine monetary transaction. Here the recognizable premise is a simple exchange of goods and services. The "mark" is especially vulnerable here because he or she has voluntarily joined the interaction in order to make a desired transaction of some kind. Offenders who used the transactional con approach used the ruse of a commercial transaction (buying or selling a good or service) to contact and assault their victims. Offenders either pretended to be customers interested in purchasing an item or service or falsely advertised a good or service in order to lure their victims. If offenders contacted their victims, they would often use the transactional ploy to gain entry into victims' homes where they would then assault them. In other cases, offenders posted false advertisements for items for sale and waited to be contacted by potential victims.
The transactional con offender accounted for 10% (n=22) of the con offenders in the current sample. Several of the offenders in this category either posed as buyers interested in subleasing a room or buying a home (n=5) or targeted female sex workers (n=10). In instances where offenders posed as prospective buyers, they would visit the homes of the victims and inquire about the item for sale. In cases where the offenders were the ones placing the advertisement, the offenders would use these ads to lure victims once they voiced interest in purchasing the item. An alleged robber and rapist terrorized women in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago in the early ’90s when he assaulted three women while they were working in small boutiques. According to police detectives, the man “pretended to buy something and then pulled a gun and demanded that victims ‘hand over the money’” (Mitra, 1992). A similar approach was used to target shopkeepers in Queens by an assailant who would pose as a customer just as a store was closing. After entering the store, he would then allegedly force the victims into the back of the store where he would assault them (New York Times, 1990).
Victims of the transactional con who worked as prostitutes often told police that cons who posed as potential clients were professional in demeanor and not out of the ordinary. Offenders agreed to pay the women before taking them away in their vehicles. Men who posed as clients and targeted prostitutes relied heavily on this professional demeanor and followed scripted protocol associated with these transactions. As a result, they were able to convince victims that their transactions were legitimate.
A transactional rapist of four prostitutes in Brockton, Rhode Island in 2008, approached one victim and “asked how much she would charge for sex.” When the victim told him $100, he allegedly invited her into his pickup truck and drove her to a secluded location. According to detectives, “the ‘date’ started off casually before the offender became violent: “The woman asked if she could smoke; the man said that was fine because he was smoking a cigar. He asked if she was a cop; she said she was not. He parked in a secluded parking lot, grabbed a rope, a knife and wooden bat from behind where she was sitting, and threw her to the ground…” (Carroll, 2008).
Compared to the other types of con offenders in the current study, those who used the transactional approach selected their victims from a much smaller victim pool. For instance, almost half of these offenders exclusively targeted victims who were prostitutes. In the case of offenders who responded to advertisements for housing, their victim selection was confined to those individuals who had posted the ads. The ‘Real Estate Rapist,’ who was linked to attacks on seven women in the Washington D.C. area, responded to ads for houses for sale and pretended to be an interested buyer. This offender, who was never apprehended by police, entered homes “on the pretense that he [was] a prospective buyer of the property” in order to assault housewives who were home alone at the time (The Washington Post, 1974).
If the transactional con used a false advertisement to lure their victims, these advertisements served as their props. These ads were perceived as authentic by victims because the language resembled that of any other ad. Thus, victims of transactional cons had no way of knowing that these prospective buyers or sellers would harm them because they relied on the language of a printed or online advertisement. The online marketplace has grown exponentially in recent years. On-line trading sites provide thick camouflage for serial predators to stalk victims. Transactional cons may increasingly use trading sites, like Craigslist, to lay traps in the form of ads to ensnare victims. And criminologists argue that guardianship is chronically low and ineffective on such websites, making internet marketplaces attractive resources for predators.
The current analysis seeks to fill a gap in knowledge about the interaction rituals of serial rapists by providing a systematic, qualitative analysis of the con-style serial rapist. There is still, however, a tremendous amount of work to be done concerning the analysis of serial rape offenders and their victims. Our data suggest that a common ploy of the con-style rapist is to use his occupation (or to strike an occupational pose) to amplify the vulnerability of their human targets. As discussed, some con-rapists pose as maintenance workers or trades specialists to gain access to the homes of victims. Thus, such offenders may be seen as variants of the doorstep criminal. Scholars of doorstep crime argue that policies might be constructed in a way to discourage deceptive offenders from posing as laborers or specialists in the trades in order to get access to victims. For example, Gorden and Buchanan (2013) suggest that appropriate measures might include adopting a registration system for domestic contractors, which would provide homeowners with a list of reliable and authentic contractors. In addition, this research may also inform prevention or self-defense programs that are aimed at educating women about these types of offenders and their tactics. This knowledge may increase the likelihood that potential victims could identify a potential offender before the offender has the opportunity to attack.
The most common occupational role employed as an attack resource in our sample was the law enforcement officer. In fact, 38% of the Working Cons in our sample used a law enforcement position or pose to isolate victims. This strategy gained national attention recently when police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of using his badge and authority to sexually victimize 13 African-American women in one of Oklahoma City’s most socially disadvantaged neighborhoods (Crump, 2016). Allegedly, Holtzclaw selected marginalized women with criminal histories (e.g., prostitution or drug charges) who he believed lacked the social leverage, guardianship, or credibility to report his attacks.
Police violence scholars suggest that there are a variety of reasons for predatory behavior perpetrated by those expected to “protect and serve.” In studies of police sexual violence, researchers have demonstrated that officers who are repeat sexual offenders are likely to be transferred across numerous jurisdictions while they await formal charges or convictions (Rabe-Hemp & Braithwaite, 2012; Kraska & Kappeler, 1995). These findings—alongside the results of the current study—suggest that finding more effective methods for identifying these offenders would be an important enterprise.
Currently, there are systems in place within police organizations that are designed to increase officer accountability. Some of these strategies include increasing supervision of police officers, mandatory reporting of critical incidents, rigorous performance evaluations, thorough investigations of police misconduct, and the monitoring and alteration of department policies (Archbold, 2013). However, these programs are enforced by individual police organizations and often lack third-party oversight.
Some police agencies also use virtual supervision in the form of early warning/intervention systems (EW/EI). These are “data-driven computer programs that monitor the performance of police officers” by identifying patterns of police behavior that may be problematic (Archbold, 2013). These behaviors include reported incidents of use of force, the use of firearms, citizen complaints, liability claims, excessive sick leave and damages to department vehicles. All police agencies should monitor police sexual misconduct in a similar way by using EW/EI programs to track allegations of sexual improprieties.
More generally, our findings have implications for theoretical development. The strategic practices of con rapists suggest that they use performative techniques to isolate potential victims and to reduce guardianship. Thus, the dramaturgical perspective brings to life the motivated offender described in the routine activities approach. Generally, the routine activities approach treats the convergence of motivated offenders, suitable targets, and lack of capable guardianship as a coincidental, unintended consequence of patterns of social traffic. Our analysis of con rapists, on the contrary, suggests that motivated offenders use dramaturgical techniques to facilitate low guardianship. This approach is especially relevant for con rapists that use dramaturgical approaches to get victims into their automobile where they can move the victim away from potential guardianship to the attack site.
Finally, there are clear limitations to the research and drawing conclusions from media reports. First, newspaper stories are accounts; the facts they report are not empirically-derived in a systematic way. While crime reporters strive to draw information from reliable sources (e.g., law enforcement sources, court records, and eyewitness statements), news stories reflect the biases and instincts of individual reporters who may be motivated to shape their accounts in ways that sensationalize and dramatize criminal acts for an audience that is drawn to extreme and incomprehensible violence. Furthermore, the body of reporting on a particular crime series is often produced by a number of independent reporters who may not share information with one another or cross-check their sources in a structured manner. Thus, reporting on a given crime series may be inconsistent and include contradictory information.
Future research implications also include tracking the behaviors and tactics used by the con-style serial rapist over time to see how they change or evolve. The methods of the Transactional Con, for example, have certainly changed in synchrony with developments in the virtual, online world. Financial transactions are increasingly initiated on websites and in chatrooms—sites with relatively little guardianship. The door-to-door salesman is a thing of the past. Transactional Cons are more likely to use Facebook, Craigslist, and the like, to lure hopeful buyers and sellers into a high-risk transaction that may result in sexual coercion. Increasing online guardianship is no easy task. As Reyns, Henson, and Fisher (2016) argued, online behavior is generally a solitary activity, and social control is scarce. Thus, finding innovative ways to increase guardianship in the virtual world may provide promising strategies for reducing serial victimization in “the real.”
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Clara Fesmire (M.A., Ohio University, 2015) is an investigator in the Franklin County (OH) Public Defender’s Office.
Thomas Vander Ven (Ph.D., University of Cincinnati, 1998) is a professor of sociology and director of graduate studies at Ohio University. He is the author of Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard (2011, NYU Press).
Lauren Wright (Ph.D., University of Central Florida, 2017) is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northeastern State University in the Department of Criminology, Justice Studies, and Global Security.