Screams in the Dark

A serial rapist was preying on prostitutes. As police looked the other way, the list of victims grew.

Nathan Ford
It was a cold February morning in 2002, and as usual, Melissa Brown was desperate for a fix.

She was working the corner of West 65th and Detroit. A black truck pulled over, driven by a well-muscled man with clean teeth, a flat nose, and big hands. He invited her inside.

As he pulled away from the curb, her gut told her something was wrong. But it was cold, she was high, and he looked like he could pay.

Pale and compact, Melissa has the hunched shoulders and weary eyes of a veteran of the streets. Her mouth is a firm, unsmiling line, and her left forearm bears a tattoo with a black rose, a heart, and the names of her three children.

When the man parked the car off West 77th Street, Melissa decided she'd had enough. The man came around the truck as though he were going to let her out, but as soon as he opened the door, he grabbed her by the throat.

He dragged her down a hillside, under a bridge near the railroad tracks, and started beating her. He forced her down on her knees. "Just suck my dick, bitch," he said.

She tried to fight back. That only enraged him. When the train rumbled overhead, he rammed her head against the wall, ripping out fistfuls of her hair.

As he brutalized her, she slipped in and out of consciousness. There was a blur of pain. The bitter stench of sweat. The foul taste of blood.

When he was done, he left her naked under the bridge, a crumpled condom beside her.

As Melissa regained consciousness, men with RTA badges were trying to arrest her. "Get this trash off our tracks," they said.

Her memory is fuzzy after that. She might have gone to a hospital. She definitely never called police. The rapist knew she wouldn't. "Ain't nobody gonna listen to a prostitute," he had told her.

The attack became one of the stories Melissa told her friends around the crack house. She cautioned anyone who would listen to steer clear of the muscular guy in the dark truck.

But not everyone heard her warning.

In early 2002, Melanie GiaMaria wasn't ready to be anybody's savior. A 25-year-old grad student at Case Western Reserve, she was simultaneously pursuing degrees in law and social work.

As part of her studies, she was interning at the Women's Re-Entry Network, a nonprofit group that helps women in jail improve their lives and stay out of trouble when they are released.

An imposing woman with a mass of curly brown hair, GiaMaria was drawn to helping rape victims, in part because of her own demons. An older relative had molested and raped her when she was a child. She volunteered at the Rape Crisis Center for years before working in the Cuyahoga County jail.

GiaMaria knew that many female inmates were also victims of sexual assault, so in January 2002, she started a support group. Within weeks, she began hearing stories about a man with a wide, flat nose, who was preying on West Side hookers.

"Emily," a former prostitute who spoke to Scene on the condition of anonymity, says that she met the rapist near West 76th Street and Lorain. He asked whether she wanted some quick money. When she agreed, he punched her in the face and forced her to lie down in an alley. The condom was already on. He choked her, then threatened to stab her in the face with a knife. "I believed he was gonna kill me," Emily says.

Then GiaMaria heard Melissa's story. Melissa referred GiaMaria to a third inmate, Laura. (Scene could not locate Laura and is withholding her last name to protect her privacy.)

Laura told GiaMaria that she had met her attacker in an alley at the corner of West 76th and Lorain. He grabbed her by the neck and ordered her to take off her clothes. He choked her until she gave him oral sex, then pulled a condom from his pocket, put it on, and raped her. "He asked me if it was just as good for me as it was for him," she later wrote in a police report.

It was clear to GiaMaria that a serial rapist was preying on West Side prostitutes. She decided to call the police.

Instead of going to the jail to interview the victims, the police told GiaMaria to visit the station. When she arrived, Officer Pamela Berg gave her blank crime reports for the incarcerated women to fill out.

Melissa and Laura each filled out the forms. GiaMaria photocopied the paperwork for her own files, then returned the originals to the police.

Berg wasn't in the office the day GiaMaria stopped by, so she left the forms with someone else in the department. To make sure Berg got the reports, GiaMaria called at least twice and left messages on the officer's answering machine. The calls were never returned.

Meanwhile, Emily was out of jail on house arrest. On March 25, 2002, GiaMaria accompanied her to the Justice Center to make a rape report in person.

An officer with the sex-crimes unit ushered Emily into a small room, where she looked at hundreds of mug shots on a slide projector. She picked out a few faces that looked familiar, but wasn't sure if her attacker was among them.

She says she was supposed to come back and look another time, but she never heard from the police again.

When GiaMaria began her quest to report the rapes, the sex-crimes unit was in disarray.

In May 2002, The Plain Dealer published a scathing front-page report, portraying the unit as a collection of Keystone Kops. For two years, the officers had failed to investigate the rape of a 10-year-old girl who knew her attacker. Record-keeping was so bad that in 2000, not a single case was logged. One detective had 51 cases with named suspects sitting in a desk drawer, gathering dust.

In a unit swamped with work, the claims of a few drug-addicted prostitutes were not likely to rate as a high priority. (Today, the unit has only 13 detectives handling more than 1,500 cases a year.) Melissa was such a repeat offender that vice cops even had a nickname for her: "Downtown Melissa Brown." All the victims had waited months -- and in one case, a full year -- to report the crime, so chances of finding evidence were slim. Besides, the victims would be a tough sell on the witness stand. All three had drifted in and out of jail, and their memories were clouded by drugs.

But if you ask the police, they will offer none of these excuses. Instead, they claim they were simply never told about the crimes.

Lieutenant Michael Baumiller, the head of the sex-crimes unit, says that his detectives were never made aware of GiaMaria's claims that a serial rapist was hunting West Side prostitutes. If they'd known, he affirms, such a tip surely would have been followed up.

"Hell, yeah, we'd listen to that," Baumiller says.

Baumiller calls Officer Berg a dedicated veteran with a "spotless" reputation. And indeed, Berg's personnel file paints a portrait of a dedicated detective. But it also shows that Berg has a history of not showing up.

"Det. Berg is habitually late for work despite being admonished for her tardiness," her supervisor, Lieutenant Lucie Duvall, wrote in a 1993 review. "In addition, she takes an exceptionally large amount of time off from work, which places a burden on her partner and other Unit personnel."

Berg refused to be interviewed for this story. "I do not talk to reporters," she says.

Police records confirm that Officer Berg spoke with Emily on March 25, 2002, and that Emily told her she had been raped a year earlier.

But Emily's file makes no mention of a photo array, which Baumiller asserts is proof that it never happened. If Emily had looked at mug shots, she would have filled out a standard form, Baumiller insists. The ID number of anyone she picked as a possible suspect would have been duly recorded.

The file indicates that Emily's case was assigned to Detective Arthur King, who followed up with a visit to her house in July. But the case was dropped after Emily failed to respond to several attempts to obtain her written statement. A city prosecutor decided that, without such basic evidence, there simply wasn't enough to take to a grand jury.

As for Melissa and Laura, Baumiller insists that detectives never received rape reports from them in 2002. There's no record of their cases in computer files or in the department's handwritten log book, which Baumiller says is updated religiously and spot-checked by police inspectors several times a year.

"We wouldn't have gotten a report and not assigned it," Baumiller says.

He maintains that detectives didn't receive the reports until May 2005, by which time the alleged rapist, Nathan Ford, was already in jail.

By then he had raped at least eight other women, including a 13-year-old girl walking home from school, a 19-year-old student alone in a Cleveland State classroom, and a 55-year-old teacher who was attacked in her own home.

Ford was arrested in late March 2005. About a month later, The Plain Dealer published a story detailing the sex-crimes unit's rigorous hunt to find him. "Dogged sleuthing hunts down rape suspect" the headline crowed.

That Sunday morning, GiaMaria was lying on the couch at her boyfriend's house, reading the paper while he made breakfast. "Oh my God, you've got to see this," she told him.

Staring back at her from the newspaper was the man whose rapes had haunted her for three years -- the well-muscled man with the wide, flat nose. "I read that article and saw his picture, and something told me that it was him," she says.

When she returned to work, GiaMaria contacted Alan Strickler, the detective assigned to the Ford case. She told him the story she'd told Berg three years earlier and even gave him copies of the field reports that Melissa and Laura had filled out.

Strickler asked which detective GiaMaria had spoken to in 2002, but she couldn't remember. After he left, she went back to her files and found Berg's business card.

When Strickler returned to her office with another detective, GiaMaria gave them Berg's business card. The two police officers exchanged an embarrassed look, she says.

On May 6, 2005, Strickler and Baumiller followed up on the tip by visiting Laura at an East Side pre-release center for inmates. The officers took down a written statement about her attack.

In the interview, she confirmed she had first reported the rape sometime between October 2001 and April 2002. She also confirmed that Ford was indeed her attacker, saying that she had recognized his photo on TV.

Melissa was harder to track down. She had been released from jail in April 2004 and disappeared. So on May 5, 2005, Strickler wrote an incident report based on the handwritten crime report Melissa had filled out three years earlier. His brief, barely coherent summary of her original account offered few details: "[The rapist] took her under a bridge when the Rapid was passing he grabbed her neck, feet barely touching the ground then he raped her."

Five months later, Strickler talked to a county prosecutor about Melissa and Laura's cases, but nothing came of the conversation.

Last week, Ford pleaded no contest to 53 felony charges -- including rape, kidnapping, and felonious assault. He faces up to 432 years in prison.

While police and prosecutors celebrated the outcome as a victory, the fact remains that Ford had been raping women for eight years before police even started looking for him.

Their search began in April 2004, after a 55-year-old teacher reported being raped by a man who broke into her home, punched her in the mouth, and ripped out phone cords so she couldn't call the police.

He was careful not to leave DNA evidence. Before he raped her, he demanded that she spread towels on her mattress. After he was finished, he forced her to bathe and wash her clothes.

Despite the rapist's care, he left traces of semen on a cup at the woman's house. Police sent the evidence to the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, hoping its database could link the DNA to other unsolved rape cases.

Four months later, on August 31, 2004, the police received a letter informing them that the unknown rapist was connected with five other unsolved rape cases. Over the next few months, three more matches arrived, bringing the total to eight.

Detectives from the sex-crimes unit began working on the case that summer. But it wasn't until the following spring, in March 2005, that the police went public with their quest.

That month, The Plain Dealer published a series of articles about the search for the serial rapist. The articles offered descriptions that sounded eerily similar to Melissa's 2002 police report: a muscular man who offered women money for sex and used a condom with at least four of them.

Soon after the articles were published, the police received an anonymous tip that led them to Ford, a former Lake County probation officer. Police arrested him and took a mouth swab that matched his DNA to eight of the unsolved rape cases.

As it turns out, Ford had slipped through the Cuyahoga County justice system just weeks before Melissa was raped.

In January 2002, he was arrested as a fugitive and sent to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he was wanted on a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure. A day later, he was released on bail. Melissa says he attacked her 11 days later; 9 days after that, Ford raped a 13-year-old girl.

But rather than consider the possibility that Ford could've been caught in 2002 instead of 2005, the police prefer to poke holes in GiaMaria's story:

Why, if she was so meticulous, didn't she date the crime reports she supposedly dropped off for Berg? Why didn't she wait to deliver them in person? And if she was frustrated that Berg didn't call her back, why didn't she contact a supervisor?

The bottom line, the police argue, is that they would never ignore reports of a serial rapist. "If we had an indication or some proof that there was a serial rapist, we would've taken action on it," police spokesman Lieutenant Thomas Stacho maintains.

Yet GiaMaria is just as adamant about her version of events, and unlike the police, she kept meticulous records.

She points out that all three victims confirm that she helped them report the rapes back in 2002. She even has a "to-do" list from four years ago that shows that she planned to accompany Emily to the police station on March 25, 2002, to report her rape.

In light of her position as an attorney and an officer of the court, GiaMaria is offended that the police even question her credibility.

"This isn't a situation where it's me against them," she says. "It's supposed to be about making sure that the bad guy's put away."

GiaMaria is certain that the police got her tip about a serial rapist -- how else did she end up with those blank police reports to fill out?

She's equally certain that Laura and Melissa's rape reports were delivered to the unit. "They had them, and I will testify under oath," she says.

The reason she didn't date the reports is simple: She didn't know it was necessary. "I'm not a police officer, and I don't know how to fill out police reports," she says. "If they would've done their job at the time, then [the reports] would've had dates on them. " GiaMaria's account is backed up by the recollections of Stacey Hall, her former supervisor at the Women's Re-Entry program.

Hall remembers discussing the rape cases with GiaMaria and giving her permission to help the victims fill out the police field reports. She recalls viewing the completed documents and hearing from GiaMaria that they were dropped off at the sex-crimes unit.

Although Hall didn't accompany her on the trip, she says she has no reason to think that GiaMaria didn't follow through. She describes GiaMaria as "pretty obsessive-compulsive about keeping track of things" and dedicated to her job.

"Melanie has always been the most organized person," Hall says. "She's incredibly consistent."

To GiaMaria, the whole affair was an object lesson in how poorly the police treat her clientele.

"It just worries me that people don't take my clients' rights seriously," GiaMaria says. "It really becomes an issue not only for my women, but for all women."

On a late-June afternoon, Melissa Brown prepares to leave the county jail. Dressed in a blue jail-issued jumpsuit, she can barely contain her anger when asked about Ford. "I taste blood when I speak his name," she spits.

As for the police, she maintains that they botched the case against Ford when she reported it in 2002. "Them son-of-a-bitches never talked to me," she says of the sex-crimes unit.

Yet when she talks about the rape, Brown's tough-girl attitude melts. She breaks down in tears, sobbing and choking like a child unable to catch her breath. For all the drugs, it's this memory that won't fade.

"I wish I could forget this," she says. "And I can't."

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