Investigators find connections in attacks on girls in two states

By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - A man authorities believe is responsible for seven assaults on young Ohio girls has been linked to two recent attacks in northwestern Pennsylvania.
"We're pretty certain it's the same guy," said Scott Wilson, an FBI special agent in Ohio.
Ohio authorities had connected the seven assaults within the state last year. After two northwestern Pennsylvania girls were attacked this spring, FBI agents there used a national crime-matching database to link those attacks to the ones in Ohio, Wilson said.
Authorities in both states have now formed a special task force to investigate the attacks.
The assaults usually follow a pattern, Wilson said.
The man knocks on the door of a house, and starts up a conversation with the girl inside, often pretending to be a delivery person. During the conversation, he finds out if the girl is home alone, and if she is, he asks to use the phone. Once inside, he attempts to, and in several cases manages to, sexually assault the victim, Wilson said.
Sometimes the man wears a uniform and carries a clipboard or a package, Wilson said. So far, no weapon has been used, he said.
Several times, the attacker has stolen cell phones from the victims, presumably so they can't call for help, said Lake County Sheriff Dan Dunlap.
The first known attack by the man occurred in Lake County, northeast of Cleveland, in April 2001.
Most of the attacks have occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, Dunlap said.
The victims, who range in age from 11 to 17, have given similar descriptions of the man, though accounts of his height and weight differ. He is believed to be a white male in his 20s to mid-30s, with blond or light brown hair, Wilson said.
In several instances, the man came to the door soon after the girls had been dropped off by their school bus, Wilson said. He reportedly travels in a dark, four-door sedan.
Wilson said he believes it was the first time each of the victims had seen the man.
Wilson would not comment on whether authorities have DNA evidence linking the attacks.
And while a copycat or multiple attackers is a possibility, Wilson said authorities are "pretty certain" they are dealing with one individual.
Authorities have enlisted the help of FBI profilers to try to identify certain characteristics about the suspect, Dunlap said.
The man may live or work in the area of the attacks.
"They operate in a comfort zone where they feel they're anonymous, but they're not so far away that they don't know where they're at," Dunlap said.
The attacker may seem more nervous or preoccupied than normal, be unnaturally interested in news stories about the case and make up excuses for leaving work early, Dunlap said.
The man may also be changing his appearance, like growing a beard, Dunlap said.
Forming a task force is common in cases where the crimes have been committed in several different communities, Wilson said.
Task force members share information daily and have frequent meetings.
The agencies involved include the FBI in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Lake County sheriff's office, and Ohio police departments in Bath, Hinckley, Boston Heights, Bainbridge, Hudson and Milton Township.
Now that the school year is winding down, the suspect will probably change his methods, Dunlap said.
"The most important time to lock your house is when you're in it," he said.
Authorities are urging anyone who may encounter the suspect to write down details about him, especially a full or partial license plate number.
"Try to remember what you see -- what did the person look like? What did he say?" Dunlap said.
Anyone with information or tips on the case can contact the Task Force hot line at (800) 894-3599.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)