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Chasing Rabbitt

Why was the South Side Rapist so hard to catch--and why do his motives still elude us?

Dennis Rabbitt was raping women for 25 years before he was caught--and for almost 20 years before anybody even started looking for him. But when the St. Louis Police Department started its hunt, it looked as if he'd begun in 1992 and raped six women on the South Side. Figuring he was driven by some specific vendetta or fetish, they combed through old unsolved rape cases and searched desperately for a pattern in the new ones, some common denominator linking the victims.

There was none.

Rabbitt started raping in the early 1970s, as a teenager, and is estimated to have raped more than 100 women across Missouri and Illinois and, at the end, in New Mexico. The victims' ages (14 to 82), traits and appearance were irrelevant--he says he thought them all beautiful and performed oral sex to bring them pleasure. On a few occasions he turned explosively violent; most of the time he menaced the women into submission and then acted like a rough, awkward but eager suitor. He boasts, face flushed, about what he took to be orgasms, dismissing any suggestion that fear might make a woman tremble and breathe hard. He says it wasn't until he talked with police, after a four-month nationwide manhunt finally brought him back to St. Louis in handcuffs, that he realized he'd done damage.

He is serving six consecutive life sentences.

During the investigation, the police hotline rang off the hook, but of perhaps 2,000 clues, not one pointed to Rabbitt. He had been married, had a daughter and son, ran a successful bar at Fourth and Washington, came from a family with political connections. He was rumored to be Stan Musial's godson, which was perhaps his father's wishful thinking; he'd hung photos in the family tavern of Musial presenting young Dennis with bowling trophies at Redbird Lanes.

"Dennis is a likable guy; you can't help but like him," says Detective Mark Kennedy, who spent three years of his life--and many sleepless nights--working on this case. "He graduated from DuBourg in '75; I graduated from St. John the Baptist in '75. I was riding with police officers who'd grown up with him. He was an Irish Catholic kid from the South Side who hung out at his dad's tavern and played softball--just an everyday guy, nothing extraordinary about him. Except for the fact that he was the most notorious serial rapist of all time."

"Geography? Just happened to be where I was at," says Rabbitt with a shrug. "I was getting comfortable in Independence, Mo.-- it would have been a matter of time." He pauses. "The neatest thing they did with me, they brought in a guy from Canada and he put stars on all the areas I'd hit and pointed to the street I lived on."

What the profiler actually said was that the rapist was probably living south of the St. Louis State Hospital on Arsenal and west of South Kingshighway. Rabbitt was then living in the 4900 block of Winona. "I was in really good shape in those days," he says wistfully. "I would rape a woman up around Hampton Village and I'd be home in half an hour, jogging."

The "South Side Rapist" tag came from the news media because of the cluster of cases in 1992. It took years for the police to connect those rapes to incidents throughout St. Louis County and across the river in Collinsville, or to earlier incidents that might have yielded more clues. When Rabbitt started raping, police reports weren't computerized; then his territory expanded across jurisdictions and there was no centralized database. All police had to go on was the rapist's own behavior. "He used a bright flashlight," says Kennedy. "He said certain things, in a certain order. And he had a way of speaking which almost implied he was a policeman: 'Don't call the police; I monitor their channel.' That had us going for a long time, checking vacation schedules and work schedules, even gathering DNA from several police officers.

"Where we got hung up on Dennis Rabbitt was that we were looking for a sex offender when we should have been looking for a burglar," Kennedy continues. The turning point came one evening when Kennedy had a beer with the geographic profiler: "He was talking to me about the lions of the Serengeti and their hunting patterns, which, he said, were very close to the hunting patterns of serial criminals. He said they failed--both the lions and the criminals--about 70 percent of the time. That was the epiphany. If he wasn't getting to the sex act, we should have been looking at nighttime burglaries."

Police started paying closer attention to reports of prowlers. And the first break in the case came not after a rape but when a man gave chase after seeing Rabbitt as he peered in a window.

Rabbitt had his dog, a Lab-collie mix named Baby, in the van with him that night. He sped toward Jamieson and headed west on I-44. He was pulled over for having false plates--"That was irresponsible of me"--then continued on to "this house where the woman always walks around in a see-through negligee. I thought, 'Well, I'll watch her for a while.' Then I went out to Fenton and kicked in another basement window and a guy chased me to the van and I sped off again. That was a typical night."

Stopped a second time by the police, Rabbitt continued on to Pacific and raped a pregnant woman. "I'd been in that house before, just looking," he says. "She was a very nice person. I asked her if she wanted to do a couple of things, she said no, I said OK."

It was Detective Randy Sasenger, a member of the South Patrol detective bureau who says he was grudgingly allowed to work with the sex crimes unit on the case, who tracked Rabbitt down, following a lead to the stolen license plates from the postal inspector's files. For days, Sasenger spent his off hours waiting for the van to show up. When he finally saw it, he walked into a backyard party and asked who owned the van. Rabbitt identified himself, and Sasenger said, "Well, guess what? You're coming with me." On Oct. 29, 1998, Rabbitt gave a DNA sample. But back then, DNA matching could take as long as four weeks. Sasenger had to release him.

"He said, 'Are you the South Side Rapist?'" Rabbitt recalls. "I said, 'Uh-uh, it's not me.' He drove me back home, and, every once in a while, he'd turn around and say, 'Dennis, are you the South Side Rapist?' I have more respect for that man than you would believe."

One week later, DNA technical leader Mary Beth Karr called Sasenger. "You've got your man," she said. "Dennis Rabbitt is the South Side Rapist."

But by then he'd flown.

He was found, months later, in Albuquerque. After a token attempt to break and run, he seemed almost relieved. "Am I coming home with you guys?" he asked Sasenger and Kennedy, who had flown out to get him. He confessed to everything but one rape--which he still maintains he did not commit--and offered to take the St. Louis police on a tour, help them close his old cases. Sasenger wanted to take him up on it: "We had a stack of rapes but no DNA, and he said, 'I'll show you everything I did if you let me have a McDonald's hamburger for the last time, visit my parents' graves and go pet my dog one last time.' But Mary Warnecke [then commander of the Sex Crimes and Family Violence Unit] said no; it would just be a media frenzy and a waste of time."

Capt. Warnecke says now, "We weren't going to permit Dennis Rabbitt to get a sort of personal gratification tour. We had done everything we could in terms of showing him photos and reviewing every possible similar case."

Sasenger left the force, weary of interdepartmental politics, after Rabbitt pleaded guilty. But he continued corresponding with Rabbitt, curious as to why he was violent on some occasions and not on others. "One woman said, 'This is a Catholic person, because he knows how to treat a woman politely,'" Sasenger recalls. "Others said, 'He treated me like a date.' Others he just punched."

The first time Rabbitt heard his nickname, he was living in an upstairs apartment near the old Southtown Famous Barr site. His elderly landlady asked whether he'd heard about this South Side Rapist and, when he said no, thrust a South Side Journal into his hands. He says he read halfway through the article before the street names started to form a pattern. "This sounds like me," he thought.

When he confessed, Rabbitt unwittingly confirmed his profiler's lion analogy, saying that he had stopped short of rape about 70 percent of the time. "I could hear this voice saying, 'No, yes, no, yes,' fighting with myself," he says. "I'd walk out of there with this headache. Believe it or not, I won probably the majority of the time."

It wasn't always an epic struggle: Sometimes a woman screamed or fought, and he ran. Often he restrained himself to "poking around," watching through windows, "rooting" in houses, watching couples make love or women as they slept.

Dr. John Rabun, a forensic psychiatrist who helped police focus their hunt for the South Side Rapist, says that, contrary to their assumptions, "it was about sex." Unlike rapists who want to punish women, Rabbitt was a serial rapist who, like serial killers, was driven by a twisted, obsessive urge for sexual gratification. But the turn-on wasn't women. It was access.

"I'd be walking down the street, and a door or window would be open and it would just draw me," Rabbitt says. "It was ... erotic." The victims' identity didn't matter: "They were part of me anyway. I may have been in their houses 15 or 20 times, just looking around."

The randomness of this pseudointimacy made for unexpected scenarios. "Once I climbed in bed with a guy," Rabbitt recalls cheerfully. "He had long hair, and he was in a pink bedroom."

Driven by indiscriminate desire, Rabbitt became an especially good burglar, unscrewing outside light bulbs, looking through back windows to see whether a woman's purse lay on the kitchen table or counter, breaking a basement window and returning a week later to see whether it had been repaired. Sometimes he took currency; once, he says, the woman assumed that he was there for money and he didn't want to contradict her. He took a ring in Kirkwood just to vary his m.o. But what excited him was getting into houses, not stealing.

"He always kept a ready supply of hunting grounds so, when the mood struck, he didn't have to spend a lot of time looking," says Kennedy, recalling how, even on the way to a court date, Rabbitt was noticing open windows, pointing out apartments that would be easy to enter.

Rabbitt admitted raping a woman in the row of four-family flats near Jamieson and Chippewa but couldn't remember exactly where. "I took a picture of the row of buildings and threw it in front of him," says Kennedy. "He said, 'It still doesn't jog my memory, but if I was going to do one, I'd do that one, it's got old-style windows.'"

He was pointing to the flat where the woman had been raped.

Rabbitt remembers how, as a small boy, he kept running inside so that his playmates wouldn't see him drink from his baby bottle. Yet by the third grade he was hiding dirty magazines he'd swiped from his father's tavern inside his schoolbooks so that Sister Jana wouldn't catch him with pornography.

The Rabbitts lived over the tavern at 6632 Macklind, now Weber's Bar, right where Macklind cuts into Loughborough at a diagonal. The upstairs back porch, where Dennis kept his pet bunny, jutted close to the first house on Loughborough. "A very beautiful woman lived in that house," he says. "She never closed her window. I invited my friends up to watch; we were up there every night. I thought I was getting away with something." One night, he says, she pressed her breast against the window, and he realized with a jolt that she'd known all along that he'd been watching.

"After she moved, I was so hooked on it that I went around the neighborhood," says Rabbitt. "I went within a 10-block radius, and the routines never changed. Sometimes I even took my little cousin with me. He thought it was a game."

The only child of parents who had him late in life, Rabbitt dreaded their fights and spent a lot of time off on his own, the stealth of voyeurism fusing with his dream of dying for his country. "That kinda got mixed in with this peeping thing, because I was very quiet--it was like I was a soldier," he says. "I could get into places, and nobody would know I was there."

Once, he says, he looked into a house "by the White Castle at Bowles Avenue" (he's big on landmarks) and saw a woman writhing on the floor having phone sex. "People do things when you are watching they wouldn't do if you were there," he says. "I found a lot of lust, and it fed my lust."

At home, Rabbitt says his mother drilled a tiny hole in the bathroom door to make sure he wasn't doing anything inappropriate. He says he watched her through the hole, too, adding that one of them would stuff the hole with toilet tissue and the other would poke it out with a toothpick.

One evening when he was 16 or 17, Rabbitt went out as usual to lurk at women's windows--and went through one. He says he doesn't know what catapulted him through that window--yet he'd brought his father's knife and stripped off his clothes so he wouldn't risk leaving anything behind. When the woman screamed, he dropped the knife and jumped back out the window. Shaking and naked, he hid in the alley and watched the police arrive, then dressed in someone's back yard. All that week, he heard people at the tavern talking about the incident. To this day, he's convinced that his father, who had twice run for state representative and whose tavern was a hangout for neighborhood cops, realized that he was guilty and got him off.

"Just the way he looked at me, I believe he knew," says Rabbitt. "And the knife had prints on it. My dad always had connections."

Rabbitt says that when he turned 18, his father announced, "Dennis, I've gotten you of age and kept you out of jail, now it's up to you."

"The lady in St. Charles did a composite, and afterward she said, 'The eyes. The eyes are him,'" Rabbitt says. "She was right. I had seen those eyes. They are focused and very intent. They're beady. They're evil. It was like those eyes just came on me. I could feel my intent changing, and my demeanor. My body got hot."

Shy, heavy and unsure, Rabbitt didn't date, he fantasized--and the fantasies grew more and more powerful. Then, in his early twenties, he met his future wife. "I fell in love the first moment I saw her, and it took me half the summer to ask her out," he says. "I sold stocks my father had bought me when I was a kid so I could buy her a diamond ring. My life made sense all of a sudden." A few months later, she left him, he says, then returned to say she was pregnant. They married in 1980. Rabbitt opened a bar downtown and bought her suede boots from Neiman Marcus. They had a second child, lived in Ballwin, ran up debt. Rabbitt continued raping. His wife left him for good in 1989.

"She said he was immature and unreliable but pretty straight-up sexually," says Kennedy. "He was living out his fantasies outside the marriage."

Today, Rabbitt describes the difference: "When it's consensual, it's real. It's right here, being played out before you, and it comes to a climax. Rape is in here" (he taps his temple with a finger). "When I'm just starting having sex with the woman, the rape has already come to a climax in my head, so it's over very quickly."

Kennedy called him a "minute man," and several of his victims said he couldn't keep an erection; one woman reported that she couldn't even feel him inside her. Dr. Richard Scott, the forensic psychologist who evaluated Rabbitt after he was apprehended, says that's not unusual; serial rapists expend so much energy on the fantasy and the logistics, they're nearly finished before they start.

Rabbitt now says, "The worst thing a person can do is start fantasizing. I made my fantasies real. What I was seeing in my head was not what was before me." When he was "rooting" in houses, he found it especially gratifying "if I would find a sex toy or something; then I knew the person was as lustful as I was." He raped in a blur, imagining himself a lover who was there to fulfill her. Then the spell broke and he rushed to get away, usually forcing the woman to bathe and disabling the phone before running.

When a victim made it obvious that the pleasure was not mutual--the teenage girl who fought him off like a tiger; the Christian woman who prayed aloud through the entire rape; the elderly victim who blurted that it had been years since she'd had sex--the scene ruptured. He beat the girl up and says that afterward, he lay in the grass, crying and vomiting. He begged the Christian woman to forgive him. He turned violent with the elderly woman, cutting her vagina with a knife, and later claimed to have no memory of anything but "a lot of blood." The cops chalked the violence up to pragmatic purposes--access at any cost. But Rabun, the psychiatrist, points out another possibility.

She had shattered Rabbitt's fantasy.

"I knew him from the neighborhood; he was two years behind me at DuBourg," says Mike Murphy. "He was the kind of guy you got free beer from, a big, dumb, goofy guy. He'd make jokes about his cousin, Peter Rabbitt, and his aunt, Bunny Rabbitt. I remember tackling him at a football game: He was big, but he'd just kind of let you down easy. Anyway, I was in Colorado, checking the Post-Dispatch on the Internet, and I saw his picture. Then I read the headline: 'South Side Rapist.'"

Murphy returned to St. Louis in 2001 and set out to write a book about Rabbitt. He assumed that Rabbitt's divorce had unhinged him, that all of the rage and rejection and loneliness had exploded in a series of rapes. When he learned that his old schoolmate had started raping at 17, he was stunned. Hours of interviews later, he was still trying to reconcile the differences between the victims' police reports and Rabbitt's version of their experience.

Murphy wound up deciding that Rabbitt was indeed, as Sasenger said on A&E's Cold Case Files, "a monster." "For one thing," Murphy writes in Confessions of the South Side Rapist, "Rabbitt is too polished, too controlled, too scripted and too matter of fact when describing his actions." Murphy was also suspicious of the convenient memory lapses, the automatic quality of Rabbitt's descriptions, his lack of fervent remorse. Rabbitt, he concluded, was a psychopath.

Dr. Richard Scott, who conducted Rabbitt's psychological evaluation, disagrees: "He had severe disruptions in attachment, but he can feel pain; he gets anxious. That's one reason he was an alcoholic. Intraspecies predators are folks who are probably born biologically different from the rest of us or made in the first three to five years of life. They don't have the same emotional reactions to stimuli as the rest of us; their limbic system [believed to control emotions and behavior] doesn't activate." Scott sees Rabbitt as sexually deviant, with a narcissism so severe that "it's a primitive level of development, the equivalent of a 4- or 5-year-old."

Rabbitt talks about his crimes matter-of-factly and parrots learned truths, yet he tears up at his father's deathbed words: "Your mom loves me. She helped me." Rabbitt shows little shame at his crimes but cringes when describing the death of his mother, shot by her second husband in 1982 while babysitting Rabbitt's daughter.

The emotion stays with his parents because that's where he got stuck.

In the adult world, Scott continues, "he has no depth. The way we talk about it in the shrink world is 'an intellectual understanding of a concept but no emotional identification with it.' Listen for the phrasing. He has captured certain phrases he uses over and over: 'I was fulfilling them.' 'I think it had something to do with love.' He creates an image of going into a home where a woman is alone and in need--and once he invaded a home and sexually assaulted someone, he never went back. Once he had been real, he couldn't risk rejection."

The memory lapses don't surprise Scott: Rabbitt drank heavily and raped in a fugue of obsession and fantasy. Before a rape, he says, he felt "a lot of pressure building up, a lot of anxiety, and tried to stop it by drinking, but it didn't work." After a rape, he says, he "usually drank myself into a stupor, laid down with my dog and just held her--because that dog loved me."

Scott smiles at the quote: "Do you know how easy it is to have a relationship with a loyal dog? He had no idea what love was really about. His father was a chronic alcoholic who went blind when he was 10. He had guy friends he plied with money and alcohol he stole from his father. And he had all these early sexual experiences in which he could count on seeing women naked."

Scott analyzed Rabbitt's way of thinking, his self-absorption, his distorted logic. Impulsive yet methodical, he has the sort of mind that records physical details but marks no time, fixates yet can sharpen in an instant. Many of his observations about himself have come to him only recently, from cops and psychologists. He talks freely about rape and remorse, yet sounds more worried about an odd habit that started in childhood: "I used to pick up a piece of paper and bend it and shake it and make faces at it. There was a euphoric feeling. At first I thought I was retarded, but then I saw my mother do the same thing." He pauses. "The first thing I asked the cops was, 'This ain't hereditary, is it?' Because I was worried about my son."

When Kennedy theorized about Rabbitt's reasons for performing oral sex, Rabbitt corrected him: "No, they like that."

"It is an act that is pleasing to a woman and not to a man," he says. Then his face falls, and he says he now knows that it is a perversion that God did not intend; one of his victims, "the Christian lady," prayed even harder when he began, "which I thank her for every day."

Sitting in a conference room at the maximum-security South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Mo., Rabbitt's face is as soft and accommodating as one of the pillows he pressed across his victims' faces. He has, like many inmates serving life sentences, found religion and therefore forgiveness. It didn't stop his fellow inmates from stabbing him this spring, when the word went out to get sex offenders, but it keeps the demons at bay.

"When I was a kid, I couldn't step on a bug; my conscience hurt me," he says. "That Holy Spirit, that still voice, went to sleep--and when I confessed, it came back."

He keeps a mental list of the things that might have made a difference: If his parents had shown any love. If he had tried harder to have a relationship with his children after his wife left him. "I couldn't bring myself to do that," he says, "but I've slept in their back yard, just lay there on the bench. It made me feel close to them."

He also keeps a list of missed clues: The burglary he was convicted of in Collinsville, in which he wore socks over his hands just as the South Side Rapist was later known to do, and the mysterious halt in rapes during his Illinois prison sentence. The rape in Kirkwood, where he'd been arrested for trespassing after police found him drunk and asleep beneath a woman's window. The psychiatrist who evaluated him at age 14 or so, after he was caught peeping in University City, and pronounced him normal.

All along, he's shown an eagerness to be friends with the cops, just as his father was at the tavern. And he admires Sasenger deeply: "Randy was out there looking for me when he wasn't getting paid. If I had to clone a cop, I would put 100,000 Randys out there. He's a very special man."

Rabbitt is crushed that Sasenger believes that he committed the High Ridge rape, the only one he denies. "I did not do that rape," he says firmly. "I would never do a daylight on a parking lot. The police are satisfied that the case is closed. They are not looking, but I am. I watch the papers every day for a rapist who uses a razor knife."

For the rest of us, the larger puzzle is Rabbitt himself. As chilling as it is to think him a psychopath, it is worse to think him a regular guy--and to remember that no one suspected him, ever.

Sasenger still writes to Rabbitt, hoping for clues to make the irrational rational. Kennedy gave up altogether: "Man, I can't explain him. All I tried to do was catch him."

After the initial forensic evaluation, Scott's wife, also a psychologist, asked, "What was he like?" Scott remembers answering, "He's not a monster.' You go in thinking, 'OK, when do the fangs sprout?'--and they don't. Yet the damage he did was monstrous."

Rabbitt's need was voracious, and his ability to compartmentalize--to know something without feeling it, to be something without admitting it--let him divide up the world. "If you have a name and you are a person to him, he won't harm you," Scott continues. "If you are the object of his fantasy, if you are his victim, he can do you great harm. And separate it in his mind."

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