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SATI e-News: October 9, 2002

High Profile Cases Highlight Rape of Elderly Women

Los Angeles police arrested and charged 41 year-old Gary David Johnson for recent attacks on seven women between the ages of 65 and 87, two of which resulted in sexual assault. Johnson has a criminal record in California, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina.

Separately, San Jose law enforcement officials, investigating rapes of three elderly women in recent months, learned through DNA testing that three different perpetrators are involved. The victims were 55, 71 and 94 years of age. In a fourth case, police arrested a 19-year old man for the rape at knifepoint, of a 70 year-old San Jose woman last June.

While crime statistics make it appear practically non-existent, rape of the elderly can and does occur. When it does, it frequently turns deadly. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report “Sex Offense and Offenders,” 1 in 7 sexual assault murder victims were 60 or older. 2.6% of rape victims over the age of 60 were killed during the rape. Only one age group of rape victims—ages 13 through 17—had a higher murder rate, at 3.3%.

Special Agent Mark E. Safarik, a profiler in the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI Academy, has researched and written extensively about the topic of sexual homicides of elderly women. The study, published in the May issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, involved a review of 110 offenders who perpetrated the rape and murder of 128 women 60 years and older. The mean age of the victims was 77.

“People find it difficult to imagine why a rapist would target an elderly victim, because society still equates sexual arousal and desire with rape,” Safarik said in a phone interview. “You’re dealing with issues of power and anger in these cases, and for a number of these offenders the victim is largely symbolic,” he added. Safarik speculated that the anger level, particularly with those who target elderly women, could be one explanation for the high murder rate of victims.

Safarik found that rapists who target and murder elderly women varied greatly by age and race, but were homogenous in many other characteristics and methods of operation.

The study found that these individuals are typically undereducated, unemployed and substance abusers--usually alcohol. They are socially incompetent, do not fit into their peer group, and sexually inadequate with only 48% of the offenders leaving semen at the crime scene.

The vast majority (92%) have some sort of criminal history, but mostly misdemeanor incidents. “In approximately 80% of the cases, you will not find them in your sex offender database,” said Safarik.

They are not criminally sophisticated criminals, and frequently leave evidence at the crime scene. Another commonality is their proximity to the victim. 56% of the assailants live within six blocks of their victim, and 30% of those on the very same street. “Focus the initial investigation on the neighborhood,” Safarik suggests.

“Contrary to what some might think, their primary goal is the sexual assault,” says Safarik. Although they will usually make off with cash or jewelry afterwards, burglary is not the primary motivation—it is an afterthought.

The victim’s race is a good predictor for the race of the rapist only if the elderly victim is a black or Hispanic woman. Black men are the likely assailants if the sexual homicide victim is an elderly black woman. Likewise, Hispanic men are the likely attacker if the elderly victim is an elderly Hispanic women. White women not only make up 84 % of the victims in the study, but are the targets of rapists of all races. However, white men are unlikely candidates if the elderly victim is black or Hispanic, as they focus almost exclusively on elderly white women.

“The best predictor for age of the perpetrator is the level of injury,” according to Safarik. The more violent the injuries the sexual homicide victim suffers, the higher the likelihood that the offender is younger than the mean offender age of 27 years.

So, why does rape of elderly women not show up in statistics? The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the most comprehensive and longitudinal measure of crime and victim characteristics, is based on a phone survey of 100,000 households. The sub-sample victim populations are small. Segments within the victim population are even smaller, and so may not be representative of the population. In addition, the NCVS does not account for victims who do not survive, which is where elderly women are most likely to show up. The other major government crime assessment tool, Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), captures data on crimes that are reported to law enforcement. Demographics are only captured on offenders and homicide victims.

“Rapist targeting elderly women strikes again,” Los Angeles Police Department press release, August 14, 2002.

“Unlikely sleuths help catch rape suspects, Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2002.

“No link in rapes of three women,” San Jose Mercury News, September 10, 2002.

“DNA evidence links East Bay man to rape of San Jose woman,” San Jose Mercury News, July 24, 2002.

“Rapist left clues in struggle with Palo Alto victim,” San Jose Mercury News, May 14, 2002.

“Sex Offenses and Offenders,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997.

“Sexual Homicide of Elderly Females: Linking Offender Characteristics to Victim and Crime Scene Attributes," authors Mark E. Safarik, John P. Jarvis, Kathleen E. Nussbaum, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Sage Publications, May 2002, pp. 500-525.

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