Our Story with Robert Howard Bruce: The Ether Rapist
November 19, 2009
BY ROBERT SACHS
Last week, a serial rapist, Robert Howard Bruce, was arrested in Pueblo, Colorado. What had appeared at first to be a case of a local Peeping Tom going a step too far by trying to bomb a local policeman’s house because he did not want the policeman to testify against him, has turned into a national, if not international affair. Because of this act, Bruce had his DNA taken and entered into the national criminal data bank. The result was a stream of DNA matches to rapes occurring over a period of nearly 20 years in Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico.
It isn’t uncommon for it to take a long period of time for such criminals to finally meet their doom by slipping up in some way. But, I wish I could say that it was just their slip up that contributed to their demise. For, from my own experience, I think there are some serious flaws in our criminal justice system in how rape, domestic violence, and other acts against women, especially young women are handled. To illustrate this point, I would like to share with readers the story of my daughter who was, in fact, attacked by Robert Howard Bruce.
It was early May of 1996, 2 days before our daughter’s eighteenth birthday; the week of finals at her high school. Along with studying, she also waited tables at a local restaurant in the University of New Mexico campus area. On this particular night, she arrived home from work at about 1 a.m., exhausted, and went straight off to sleep.
But, as she told us later, as she was dropping off to sleep, she felt that something was wrong. She felt drunk and yet, she knew that she had neither had a drink nor any drug that night. In her trance-like state of early sleep, she fought to bring herself back into full consciousness. And, as she did, she smelled a chemical and felt a hand over her mouth. She opened her mouth more fully and then bit down on the hand.
Whomever it was, fought to get his hand out of her mouth. She saw the hand pull back through the jimmied open window. Screaming, she ran through the house to find us.
Leaping out of bed, I saw my terrified daughter running towards me in her white nightgown, stained with red dye, reeking of ether. My wife held our daughter while I called 9-1-1.
Within 10 minutes, Albuquerque police were on the scene. Our daughter explained what had happened. Going outside with the police I found that the red rag used to cover my daughter’s face was a Tibetan prayer flag that had been hanging on the side of the house. This convinced us that whoever it was would have red dye all over his hands, maybe his clothes as well and that he must have been on foot. Certainly, the police would have a good chance at sweeping the area and catching him.
But, that is not what happened. Basically, they elected to do nothing at all.
And, what the police told us that night still appalls us to this day.
They said that as she was not successfully raped or murdered, that they would not pursue the case. There wasn’t enough money to investigate an attack without a violent crime attached to it. But, here they were, only 10 minutes after the attack, streaks still on our windows, and a rag that had definitely been used by the attacker. It didn’t matter. They just packed up and drove off.
In the days to come, there was no follow up contact from the police, no one to query how our daughter was, no recommendation for her to have a physical or psychological evaluation. We were, in essence, abandoned, and it set in our daughter’s mind for years what she was worth in the eyes of officialdom.
What made matters worse was that we learned from a neighbor that there was already neighborhood awareness of a stalker who used ether to attack and rape women in the UNM area. These attacks had happened late at night in early May every year for several years. We were even given the name of one of the most recent victims.
With no follow up or protection from the police (Would this stalker try again?), we put our daughter in hiding. Three weeks later, we were packed and moved from Albuquerque. We did so because after graduation, which happened the week after this event, our daughter had made plans to be with a boyfriend who lived in California. As a social worker, I could tell that she was experiencing PTSD and that eventually she would fall apart and we would need to be close by. So, I gave up my job and we all moved to San Luis Obispo.
Thirteen years later, our daughter is doing fine. She has a son and is going to school to get her teaching credential in northern California. The fear she had of going out at night by herself or sleeping alone in a room or house have passed. We feel that she has made remarkable strides. Friends and neighbors who knew the story have been emailing and calling.
Which brings me back to the case against Robert Howard Bruce. In reading his legacy and the trail that police could not close in on, so much evidence had been gathering on this man. But I wonder, if it had not been that he tried to blow up a house of a policeman, would the authorities have been willing to go to all the lengths they are going to now to get this man behind bars? Ten years of raping women in Albuquerque, cases in Texas, Colorado, other parts of the world. DNA evidence pouring in from all over the world we have been told. It wasn’t until DNA evidence was taken from Bruce after he tried to bomb the policeman’s house that all the other DNA matches began to occur. But this man had had run-ins with the law before; even a case of domestic violence where he threatened his former wife with a rifle. I find it incredulous that after an incident like that, a potentially violent man would not have a DNA file established and if there had been that it could have led to an earlier arrest and conviction.
As a social worker and social activist, I have seen too often how violence against women, especially in domestic violence cases, does not really carry much weight in the legal system. I have also seen first hand in other circumstances how poorly young women are treated by police and how their concerns are too easily dismissed.
In recent days, after Bruce’s arrest and the discovery of another serial rapist and murderer in Ohio, national news outlets are beginning to look at rape in the criminal just system. What they have revealed is that very few of the cases of rape reported ever end in a conviction. Worse still is the discovery that even in places where rape kits are administered to women who show up in hospitals, these kits are infrequently picked up by the authorities for investigations.
The result is that if there even is any DNA evidence available, it just isn’t being used. And our wives and daughters remain more at risk as a result. With all this in the news and based on my daughter’s own experience, I am left to wonder if anything would have really come to the light of day on the heinous activities of Robert Howard Bruce had he not done the what seems to be the most unthinkable act in the eyes of the law; threaten one of their own.
In a story that appeared in the Albuquerque papers, Bruce reportedly was talking about whether or not he would get a book deal for his story. And because our media is so voyeuristic, I am curious to see when CBS or NBC has one of their specials to cover the Robert Howard Bruce legacy.
I don’t think a book deal should ever be offered. I think that he should be put away and ignored, or better still, given some kind of community service that he would need to do for the rest of his life without ant media attention. Just because he craves attention and the media likes murder and sex crimes, do we really have to satisfy his itch – or ours?
And then, many of us are wondering, how will it all go down in the courts? What charges will stick, which ones won’t? And, how long will he stay behind bars before he is given parole? With everything considered, but especially the damage to all the young women whose lives he changed forever, will Robert Howard Bruce be given a sentence that truly reflects his criminal intent and action? We wonder.
Robert Sachs is an author and counselor who has lived in San Luis Obispo for 13 years.