The Hidden Epidemic

Photo by Anne Fishbein It was a proud day at City Hall last month when two dozen police officers stood up to receive the city’s highest honor. Councilwoman Ruth Galanter presented decorative commendations to members of the Westside Task Force for their contributions in apprehending the “Westside Rapist,” the burglar who terrorized women from Venice to Westwood this winter.

But while nobody questioned that effective interagency cooperation had brought a crime spree to a halt, some in attendance believed the celebration was premature. Taking the podium after the ceremony, Karen Pomer, the survivor of sexual assault by another serial rapist in Santa Monica, in October 1995, interjected a sobering dose of reality.

"It’s wonderful that the police caught the Westside Rapist, but he’s not the only one out there," said Pomer, a co-founder of the Rainbow Sisters Project, a national rape survivors advocacy group. "There is an epidemic of rape in Los Angeles. It occurs every day out of view of the media. I challenge the City Council to do more to prevent it."

Pomer has the numbers to back her critique. Despite high-profile arrests like that of the Westside Rapist, rape remains a quiet scourge in this country. While other violent crime has dropped precipitously in recent years, the number of rape cases has not. Between 1994 and 1997, reported cases of forcible rape declined just 8 percent, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in contrast to homicide, which dropped 31 percent, and robbery, off 28 percent. In 1998, reported cases of rape in Los Angeles declined by only 1.3 percent from the previous year. All in all, the LAPD tallied 1,395 rapes in the city last year, and authorities agree that unlike other violent crime, most rapes go unreported. Federal officials estimate the real number of rape cases in L.A. exceeds 4,000 per year.

"There are millions of traumatized women out there," Pomer said later in an interview, noting that many suffer for years with posttraumatic stress syndrome and other psychological ailments. "It’s time we started examining how serious a problem this is in our society and how we can help these women."

The saga of the Westside Rapist began last December 21, when a young man described by one witness as a "clean-cut college student" broke into a home in Santa Monica and raped a woman. He fled the scene in the woman’s vehicle. Six weeks later, police say, the same individual began committing a series of similar attacks in Palms, Westwood and Venice.

For months the tension built. UCLA went on alert, and a composite drawing was posted in virtually every apartment building and restaurant in the area. In Venice and Santa Monica, emotional community meetings were held with police, as residents recalled the period a decade ago when the "Nightstalker," Richard Ramirez, terrorized the Southland. The case of the Westside Rapist "created a lot of fear," said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica–UCLA Medical Center. "It was a situation that affected everyone."

To coordinate the investigation, the LAPD formed a task force that included police from Santa Monica, UCLA and the California Department of Justice. In an impressive deployment of resources, the task force would utilize five lead detectives, up to a dozen investigators and 75 uniformed officers, some using dogs. By April 14, the police had developed evidence to arrest Jelani Efron King, 20, and law-enforcement officials are supremely confident they’ve apprehended the right man. "It’s one of the best cases, as far as evidence, I’ve seen in 20 years on the force," said Detective Kurt Wachter, of LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Department.

But while the press and law enforcement focused intense interest on Jelani King’s arrest, local government took little notice. As Pomer noted in her remarks to the City Council, neither the city nor the county of Los Angeles spends a penny on rape crisis or prevention programs. What money there is comes from the federal government, foundations and private sources, and service providers say those funds, despite volunteer-based staffing, are insufficient. The city has allotted no new funds for rape crisis, hot lines and counseling in next year’s budget.

"I think it’s absolutely scandalous. It’s unconscionable," says Paula Petrotta, executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women. "In the [City Council’s] recent budget hearings, they were debating how much to spend on the issue of stray dogs and cats. Why are we not more concerned about these women who are being attacked?"

The answer may lie in the nature of the crime. While the Westside Rapist quickly became notorious, rape routinely draws little attention. According to federal surveys, more than two-thirds of rapes are committed by people known to the victims, making the crime more difficult to combat.

"We can’t leave rape prevention to having police on the street," said Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. "You can’t get at it in the same law-enforcement way as other crimes." Giggans said her agency, which runs the city’s largest rape hot line, as well as support groups and counseling services across Los Angeles, is already struggling to make ends meet, and cannot sponsor the youth-outreach programs she believes could make a difference in changing ingrained social attitudes about rape. "Right now the funds are just not there."

At City Hall, some blame the Mayor’s Office for the lack of movement on this issue. In one of his first moves after his 1993 election, Richard Riordan moved to fold the city’s Commission on the Status of Women into another social-service agency, but was rebuffed by the City Council on a 15-0 vote. In the meantime, the mayor established the Commission on Children and Families — some say as a valentine to his wife, Nancy Daly Riordan, who’s made charity for children a hallmark of her public image. And while the new Commission on Children and Families enjoys a million-dollar annual budget, Petrotta has been rebuffed in her efforts to secure $77,000 to fund a city program targeting young, at-risk women.

"The mayor has made no secret that women’s issues are not as important as children," said one Spring Street insider. "He prefers warm and fuzzy issues, but what he doesn’t understand is that if mommies are not taken care of, they can’t care for their children."

It’s always painful, and it’s always ugly, but Karen Pomer never hesitates to talk about her own ordeal at the hands of a serial rapist who held her for more than six hours and assaulted her at a number of different locations. The man was never apprehended.

Pomer recounted the story again at a daylong event the Rainbow Sisters sponsored at the L.A. Central Public Library the same week the Westside Rapist was arrested. Entitled "You Are Not Alone: A Day Honoring Women Who Have Survived Rape," the workshop gave survivors of sexual assault an opportunity to tell their personal stories and, in Pomer’s words, "end the silence about rape."

The event featured TV public-service announcements of survivors urging other rape victims to accept themselves and come forward. The spot was filmed by music-industry executive Kate Miller, who herself was raped in 1994. Separately, Rainbow Sisters initiated a nationwide signature campaign intended to persuade the U.S. surgeon general to declare rape a national health problem and help marshal resources to address it.

"All this political activity is a part of our healing process," Pomer said. "It’s healthy to be out of the closet."

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