Justice:Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted

Who is the “South Hill Rapist”?

The Kevin Coe Story

By Kevin Coe

Edited by Clara A.T. Boggs, JD Editor-in-Chief

(Published in Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 25, page 7)

In the summer of 1979, a series of rapes were committed on the south side of Spokane, Washington. A year and a half later this crime wave was still raging on. Early on the Spokane media had tagged the attacker the “Jogging Rapist,” because the one common element in nearly every one of the rapes was that the attacker had been dressed in a jogging outfit. However, since all of the attacks had happened on Spokane's south side, the rapist was renamed the “South Hill Rapist.” The moniker stuck.

The media whipped the public into quite a furor over the South Hill Rapist. Candlelight vigils were held in Spokane parks. Mace and handgun sales went through the roof. Land office business was done in T-shirts sporting various drawings and slogans referring to the South Hill Rapist, and vigilante groups had sprung up everywhere. It was generally thought that the police were doing nothing about the dreaded South Hill Rapist.

By early 1981, South Hill Rapist-mania had reached the boiling point and beyond. Paranoia was widespread. Innocent men, jogging harmlessly, were sprayed with mace by fearful women. The news was full of stories about bizarre incidents related to alarm over the the South Hill Rapist. Into this dangerous brew was tossed the caustic and asinine remark of one Captain Richard Olberding of the Spokane Police Department. Oberding ungrammatically and irresponsibly commented that Spokane women should “just lay back and enjoy it” if victimized by the South Hill Rapist. Keystone Kop Olberding's astounding gaffe took an already highly agitated situation to new heights of public insanity. With the beleaguered chief inspector's career on the ropes, Spokane's 18-month runaway rape spree was about to be magically ‘solved.’

I was a pro-growth advocate -- as was my father, Gordon Coe, the managing editor of the Spokane Chronicle. Upon my return to Spokane in the late 1970s, my father and I started Spokane Metro Growth as a private booster unit to promote the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metropolitan area.

As an activist for ‘a bigger and better’ Spokane, I had become increasingly concerned with the staggering news coverage the South Hill Rapist’s spree was receiving. For someone who was trying to promote Spokane as a terrific place to raise a family, an ongoing series of rapes was not helpful. Gordon Coe’s Chronicle had covered the South Hill Rapist story in a responsible and low-key manner, yet the rest of the Spokane media, both print and electronic, was handling the case in a very sensational way.

In January 1981, The Spokesman-Review, the area's morning paper, published a report by its South Hill Rapist task force, which theorized that the attacker rode buses seeking his prey. I decided to do some investigative work on my own. For a time, I followed buses on Spokane’s south side and watched for any suspicious activity. I intended to furnish the results of my search to Secret Witness, an organization that paid cash rewards for clues which led to convictions for major crimes. Secret Witness used Gordon Coe’s Chronicle office phone number as one method for receiving clues. But, it was better, my father and I agreed, if I sent any clues I discovered to the Secret Witness mailing address.

The theory The Spokesman-Review had published proved to be a dud. Soon it was obvious to me that it would be almost impossible for the South Hill Rapist to operate in the way the newspaper had suggested. I dropped my search for clues. Before I did though, I was stopped by a patrol car one night in mid-January on the lower south side. The patrol officer had observed me parked on a bus line (I was waiting for a bus to follow) and found my behavior curious. The cop asked to see my driver's license and asked me what I was doing. When I told him, the cop responded curtly, “Stay out of police business.” No doubt, an incident report on this matter was filed. No doubt that report would have come across the desk of Captain Olberding. It's likely that Olberding made note of the name Coe; ten years earlier, Olberding had brought a lawsuit against The Spokesman-Review, sister publication of the Chronicle, and had lost. He harbored a great hatred for the local media. Olberding, who was in overall charge of the South Hill Rapist investigating unit, had made his crude “enjoy it” remark in the first week of February 1981. Two weeks later, totally out of nowhere, I became the Spokane Police Department's prime suspect in the baffling South Hill Rapist case. The framing, smearing, and railroading of an innocent man had begun.

The police placed an electronic “bug” on the underside of my car. For two weeks a surveillance team shadowed me everywhere. The cops saw me commit no crimes. The investigation was coming up empty. This likely would have resulted in my being dropped as a suspect were it not for an unrelated matter that happened less than a week into the surveillance effort.

On March 1, 1981, in my capacity as a realtor, I previewed the luxury home of Fire Chief Al O’Connor. As I toured the property, I heard angry voices arguing. A woman was screaming at O'Connor, accusing him of seeing another woman. Because of the fracas, I decided to simply leave my realtor card and call back in a few days. While exiting the home, I caught a glimpse of the raving women. Two days later, driving down the freeway, I was stunned to hear on the radio that Al O’Connor had died. At dinner that evening, I chatted with my parents about O'Connor's death. My mother, Ruth, said it was “...amazing that Linda O'Connor had again lost a husband under peculiar circumstances.”

Ruth then related how, a decade or so earlier, Linda O'Connor had been married to a prominent physician who died abruptly. “Many people thought it was murder,” Ruth related. “But, Linda Lipp, her name then, was never charged.” I considered this for a couple of days, then wrote prosecutor, Don Brockett, a letter offering testimony regarding what I had seen and heard while inspecting the O’Connor home if Linda O’Connor was charged with homicide. Brockett would have received my letter sometime from March 6 to March 9. For some reason, Brockett had no intention of charging Al O’Connor's widow with murder even though an autopsy revealed the presence of seven drugs in the fire chief’s body.

Months later at a coroner's inquest, a split jury went along with Brockett and no murder charges were brought against Linda O’Connor. Eventually, however, she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of abusing prescription drugs. Coroner Lois Shanks, an avid Brockett-hater, was livid about the outcome of the inquest. She denounced Brockett vigorously, as did members of Al O’Connor's family.

At two police lineups, I was identified by five of the twenty-two South Hill Rapist’s victims the police were able to assemble to view the farce. From these lineups, and a photo lineup viewed by one victim, I was charged with six counts of rape, even though I did not at all resemble the attacker described in the original police reports filed by the South Hill Rapist’s victims.

The best criminal case lawyers in Spokane were at the public defender's office. Then I went with public defenders to defend me in what I assumed would be an easy victory since the wrong man had been arrested and the evidence would prove this obvious fact.

I sought a way to prove my innocence scientifically. I asked Bill Beeman, the public defender’s office investigator assigned to my case, to look into this possibility. In mid-May, Beeman happened upon a major break which should have closed the case and resulted in my exoneration. Beeman had been given a hot tip from an old friend, a criminologist at the Eastern Washington State Crime Lab: There was no sperm motility in any of the rape-kit semen specimens taken in the forty-three South Hill Rapist assaults.

I knew from a 1978 semen test that my sperm motility was not zero. Roger Gigler, my lead lawyer, wanted a new test done. In mid-June the results of a test done by Spokane Valley General Hospital came back. My sperm motility was a normal 80%. A pre-trial hearing should have been held, replete with expert testimony, and the charges against me should have been dropped. Yet, through fantastic bungling or a darker reason, there was no such pre-trial hearing. At trial there was no expert testimony given on sperm motility, and, in fact, my lawyers did not even put the sperm-motility test results into evidence. In July 1981, I was acquitted on two counts and convicted on four counts. In August 1981, four days after my sentencing, Don Brockett ordered the destruction of all physical evidence in my case even though he was fully aware of the sperm-motility discrepancy and the fact that I was interested in re-testing the rape-kit specimens.

In November 1981, Don Brockett, acting on phony information from a massage parlor prostitute who had criminal charges pending, ordered a sting operation to entrap my mother, Ruth Coe, in a murder for hire scheme. The targets of the supposed “hit man” -- an undercover cop -- were Brockett and the judge from my trial. Ruth Coe was emotionally distraught from seeing her innocent son sent to prison and she was very vulnerable to the police entrapment. In May 1982, a judge convicted Ruth of solicitation of murder, an idea concocted by Brockett and the Spokane Police Department, not Ruth. She had been booked for a flight to Honolulu and a long vacation on the day the police phoned with their assassination scheme. The setup of Ruth Coe attracted the attention of a crackpot and little known novelist who announced he would write a book on the Coe cases. In late 1983, his idiotic and libelous book on the suppositious cases was published. The work was made into an even more idiotic and libelous TV movie, aired by CBS in 1991. The book flopped nationally but sold well in Washington State. This ruined my chance for a fair re-trial as jurors brought with them a cemented parti pris (prejudice) of my ‘guilt’.

I became aware of PGM testing, a forensic method that had been used in California for years, in January 1982. I was eager to subpena the rape-kits and prove my innocence via PGM. In March 1982, I fired my Spokane public defender and hired two of Seattle's top private lawyers, David Allen and Richard Hansen. I stressed that I wanted PGM tests done. Allen and Hansen were attracted to the case because police hypnosis used on all but one of the rape victims. The new lawyers implored me to hold off on PGM and let them proceed on the hypnosis issue which they felt was a sure winner. “We’ll have you out of prison in no time,” Hansen assured me.

Two and a quarter years later, due to hypnosis and Don Brockett’s refusal to provide police reports to the defense, the Washington Supreme Court reversed my convictions. In December 1984, during the pre-retrial phase, I insisted that Allen and Hansen subpena the rape-kits. They did so. Several days later, the prosecution (minus Brockett, who had been removed from the case by court order), sheepishly told the retrial judge how, at Brockett's direction, the kits had been destroyed over three years earlier. One kit remained, but the sample was too small to test.

There would be no proving me innocent by PGM or DNA, then a nascent technology. In February 1985, I was reconvicted on three of the four counts, a second jury rendering a guilty verdict with no inculpatory evidence presented to it, only massive negative publicity, and having no idea that my sperm motility did not match the rape kits. The Washington Supreme Court overturned two of those convictions in January 1988, and affirmed one. I petitioned for a Writ of Habeas Corpus with destruction of the rape kits as the lead issue. The Seattle Federal District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court denied the Writ; then, in March 1994, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear my claim.

Not long ago, while watching an episode of the old television program, Quincy, I discovered that sperm motility is identifier evidence as the medical examiner saves an innocent man accused of rape. I need a lawyer interested in justice and who recognizes the huge lawsuit potential here) to file a personal restraint petition to free me based on the sperm motility proof of innocence. I possess the evidence that clears me and perforce results in my release from custody. Civil rights litigation must then be pursued vigorously. I am an innocent man who has spent 23 years incarcerated when no proof of guilt was adduced in court and existing proof of my innocence was never adduced in court.

Thank you for considering my story.

JD Note: Kevin Coe was released from the custody of the Washington Department of Corrections after completing his prison sentence. He is now civilly committed indefinitely at the Washington State's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

At the time this article was written Kevin Coe's address was:
Kevin Coe #279538
Washington State Penitentiary Unit 5-C-30
1313 N 13th Avenue
Walla Walla, WA 99362

JD Staff Note: The victim in the lone conviction remaining against Kevin said the rapist resembled the actor Erik Estrada, who played on the CHiPs TV series -- black hair and Spanish or Italian looking. Kevin is fair skinned and has light brown hair. A JD investigator found many unsettling things out about this case, including that the Spokane prosecutor’s office destroyed the rape kits that could have conclusively proven Kevin’s innocence.