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Thomas was brought to an interview room at the precinct. A few hours later, Hernandez arrived to debrief him.
The man sitting across from Hernandez didn't fit the stereotype of a sex offender. Thomas helped manage a computer system at a Manhattan law firm. He had a wife and a daughter, and they all lived in the same neighborhood where the attack had taken place.
The detective gave Thomas breakfast and drew him into conversation. Thomas waived his right to remain silent, and never asked for a lawyer, records show.
"He starts telling me the story of one particular victim," Hernandez says. "I say, 'Listen, you've done this in the past, haven't you?' He says, 'Yeah.' 'How many times?' He goes, 'I don't know, seven or eight times.' "
The detective then asked Thomas for the general area where the attacks took place: "He says, 'Pretty much in this area, along the Fort Washington section of Washington Heights.' "
Hernandez was now puzzled. Why hadn't the 33rd Precinct Detective Squad heard anything about this pattern of violence? Surely the victims had filed reports about the previous incidents. But he could find no record.
He was aware of a sexual assault and robbery that had occurred on September 23, because he had done the interview himself. That case had been properly classified as a robbery and attempted rape, and it had been sent to the Manhattan Special Victims Unit for further investigation. But where were the others?
"I'm thinking, if there have been other cases, maybe Special Victims forgot to notify the precinct that they have a pattern," Hernandez says. "There should be a pattern sheet. But no. Sex Crimes says there's only the one case."
What should have happened is that all six of the earlier cases—not just the one Hernandez investigated—should have been classified as serious crimes and a pattern declared. When that happens, patrol, plainclothes anti-crime units, Sex Crimes, and the Robbery units would all be on alert for a man fitting the description of the attacker.
"It made no sense that there was no pattern," Hernandez says. "Then it dawned on me. They [precinct supervisors] are fudging numbers, misclassifying cases. So I start looking."
Thomas provided the detective with general dates and times and locations. Hernandez and a fellow detective, Barry Felder, drove him through the neighborhood and had him point out the crime scenes, records show: 647 West 172nd Street. 779 Riverside Drive. 156-08 Riverside Drive. 560 West 170th Street. 620 West 171st Street. Two others.
Hernandez then returned to the precinct, paged through all of the complaint reports, and hit pay dirt. Precinct patrol supervisors, he says, had classified the prior incidents as criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor, except in one case, criminal possession of a weapon.
"They used every non-felony you could think of," he says. "If you read the narrative, the minimum they should have been classified as was burglary 1. The minute he grabs you in the hallway, armed, that makes it a burglary in the first degree."
To a dedicated investigator like Hernandez, that was shocking enough. That meant that for nearly two months, a serial robber-rapist was attacking women in Washington Heights, but the police didn't have the information that would have helped catch him.
"If you read the narrative, they are describing some kind of sexual assault or attempt," Hernandez says. "He came up behind them, grabbed them, placed the knife to the neck, or displayed it. He would demand money or their cell phones. If they didn't put up resistance, he was either going to fondle them or commit some other kind of sex crime to them."
Thomas lived in the neighborhood, which made it even more likely that he would have been caught had a pattern been announced.
"None of us were aware of it until he showed us the locations, and I was able to piece it together," Hernandez says. But supervisors had made sure that the early reports were shaded to keep them from being filed as serious, felonious crimes. "They look to eliminate certain elements in the narrative. One word or two words can make the charge into a misdemeanor."
Thomas estimated that his crime spree started in late August, a little over two months before he was arrested. He targeted white or Asian woman because he believed they were less likely to fight back. Some of the victims were on their way home from the subway station late at night. He would accost them at the door of their building, show a knife from behind, grab them, and try to force his way into the building. If they screamed or showed resistance, he fled.
One victim was a light-skinned Hispanic woman who worked as a waitress in a pub frequented by cops. Another was a German tourist on an extended stay in the city. A third was a Japanese woman. A fourth was a musician.
After Thomas was caught, the District Attorney charged the same cases that had originally been classified as misdemeanor trespass as first-degree robbery, burglary, sexual assault, and attempted rape.
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