In the mid- to late-1990s, a man called the “South Side Rapist” spread fear through St. Louis and other parts of the area. After police named the man as Dennis Rabbitt, then 42, in early November, Post-Dispatch reporter Paul Hampel (with information from reporter William C. Lhotka) wrote this article, published on Nov. 15, 1998, about his life:
10 years of terror: Father of 2 served time in ’92 assault on woman; now, he’s a fugitive and leads turn up nothing
Until the late 1980s, suspected serial rapist Dennis N. Rabbitt lived what would seem to be the typical life of a married father of two.
He ran a downtown bar and restaurant to pay off a mortgage on a home in West County and to keep up with car payments. People who knew him at the time have said he seemed like a normal guy, the last person in the world you’d think would be a danger to anyone.
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That was about 10 years, one divorce and possibly more than two dozen rapes ago.
Police say DNA evidence identifies Rabbitt, 42, of Cedar Hill, as the “South Side Rapist” who has attacked St. Louis area women on both sides of the river.
Rabbitt is now the quarry in a nationwide manhunt. Saturday night, the Fox network’s TV show “America’s Most Wanted” broadcast his picture and told viewers to be on the lookout. If he’s caught, prosecutors venture that he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.
But some of the victims in the 10-year rape spree will never-see their attacker brought to justice. Police say several have died since the assaults.
On the run
Rabbitt fled his home sometime after Oct. 29, the day a St. Louis detective, acting on a tip that Rabbitt was peeping into south St. Louis windows, asked him to submit a saliva sample.
Rabbitt complied. The detective left. That afternoon, Rabbitt placed a courtesy call to his bosses at Roy F. Weston Inc., a local hazardous waste disposal company. He had worked for the firm since March 23 as a laborer crew chief cleaning up the old Army Ordnance Plant in Weldon Spring.
“He phoned us on Oct. 29 to say he wouldn’t be coming back to work,” said Ed Pettiss, a company spokesman. “We officially terminated his employment Nov. 10.”
Pettiss declined to discuss Rabbitt’s job performance.
By the time the DNA results came back one week later and allegedly linked Rabbitt to assaults by the South Side Rapist who had terrorized local women since Sept. 12, 1988, he had quit the area, police said.
He stayed the better part of the next week at a motel in Springfield, Mo., where he registered under his real name. He caught the Missouri Tigers football game in Columbia on Saturday, Nov. 7, police believe. He spent that night at a motel in Joplin, again signing his real name at the front desk. He checked out the next morning.
There has not been a confirmed sighting of him since.
The going gets strange
Rabbitt’s relationship with the criminal justice system has had its share of surreal moments.
In October 1992, a woman was assaulted by an intruder in her home in Fairmont City. The woman’s son came home from work and interrupted the attack. He chased the intruder — later identified as Rabbitt — out the door and began beating him on U.S. 40. Police arrived and rescued Rabbitt from the woman’s son.
Rabbitt spent the next nine months in the St. Clair County Jail before pleading guilty of burglary. He had already served part of a five-year sentence before that for another burglary conviction dating to 1989.
In April 1996, Kirkwood police found Rabbitt sleeping in the yard of a home in the 1900 block of Dougherty Ferry Road, near the site of a home burglary. A burglary case could not be made against Rabbitt, but he was charged in city summonses with trespassing and urinating on the lawn. Police said they smelled liquor on his breath.
And then there was the first time the Post-Dispatch referred to the mysterious attacker by his now-infamous nickname. The reference came in a 1993 story — published almost five years after Rabbitt’s alleged first attack — about Bill Haas’ decision to drop out of the 1992 St. Louis circuit attorney’s race.
Haas said he quit the race so that he could track down “the South Side Rapist.”
Divorced, with two children
Dennis Rabbitt got married on July 16, 1980. He and his wife had two children.
Dennis Rabbitt petitioned for divorce on Sep. 16, 1987, about a year before the incident police consider his first rape, against a woman in her 20s in south St. Louis.
Rabbitt’s divorce petition sought custody of the children. His wife filed a cross petition for dissolution of marriage. She also sought custody of the children and $600 a month in child support.
Rabbitt alleged that because his wife had been “seeing and spending nights with another,” in addition to other disagreements, he could no longer be reasonably expected to live with her.
The Rabbitt family lived in Manchester at the time, and estimated the value of their house at $100,000 with a mortgage of $75,000. They owned a 1986 Ford Taurus, but owed a lot on it, and a 1986 Yugo that Ford Motor Co. repossessed.
His wife contended that the couple had joint ownership in D&A Enterprises, a corporation that owned a restaurant and bar at 312 Washington Avenue.
The case dragged on for 18 months. Eventually, the couple consented to legal transfer of custody of the children to his wife’s parents.
The divorce was finalized on June 20, 1989. By that time, police allege, Rabbitt had raped two women on Sept. 12, 1988, and Oct. 8, 1988.
At least 21 investigators are tracking Rabbitt, including members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Fugitive Task Force; St. Louis city and county police; Collinsville police; and Jefferson County sheriffs -detectives.
“We’re just plugging away at little leads here and there,” said Lt. Mark Tulgetske, chief of detectives with the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department. Some sightings have sounded hopeful but didn’t check out.
Then there are the maddening distractions: the guy who called to say he spotted Rabbitt eating at a restaurant before Oct. 29. The old lady who is an avid reader and remembered seeing something a while back in a magazine about a rapist in Oregon. She called Tulgetske to tell police they’d probably find Rabbitt in the Pacific Northwest.
“Rabbitt’s face is not unusual,” Tulgetske said. “Everybody’s seen somebody who looks like him.”
So Tulgetske and his crew continue to e-mail and fax mug shots and work the phones: “Hello, New Orleans Police Department,” says Lt. Ernie Howell. “If you’ll give me your fax number I’d like to send you a mug shot of a serial rapist we’re tracking “
Across the aisle, another detective sighs, shakes his head and patiently replies, “Yes, sir. We heard Rabbitt lived for a while in Las Vegas …” before slamming down the phone.
Another call comes in that has detectives kicking around the possibility that Rabbitt may be driving a green, 1979 four-door Cadillac DeVille.
That’s the car Rabbitt was driving about 4:50 a.m. on Aug. 3 when a state trooper stopped him in the northbound lanes of Interstate 270 near Manchester Road.
St. Louis County court records show Rabbitt was charged with a traffic violation — failure to show proof of insurance.
Police previously figured Rabbitt was eluding police in a faded red, four-door 1985 Nissan Sentra. Now, they say that Rabbitt could be driving any vehicle.
Tulgetske’s office has fielded calls putting Rabbitt in the past week everywhere from San Diego to Collinsville. The detectives have spent the last week skipping lunch and sleep. When they get home, their pagers continue to beep with more leads.
Tulgetske hopes that Saturday night’s mention of the case in the television program “America’s Most Wanted will root the rapist out. (The program’s producers plan to devote an entire segment on Rabbitt’s case on Nov. 21 if he isn’t caught before then.)
Tulgetske thinks Rabbitt sees himself as the protagonist in something like a cheap crime novel.
“He’s still got secrets to tell,” Tulgetske said. “And he’d love to share his secrets. This is the exciting part for him. We’re now at the chase scene of the Dennis Rabbitt story.”
Rabbit was arrested in Albuquerque, N.M., in February 1999. He pleaded guilty to 48 crimes related to sexual assaults on 14 women in January 2000.