May 21, 2006 in City
‘The case has consumed me’
With freedom four months away, the man known as the South Hill rapist intends to clear his name
Each morning, convicted rapist Kevin Coe rises early in his 6-foot wide, 9-foot deep, 10-foot tall cell and performs his isometric exercises.
The AM talk radio is blaring when he’s not watching television. His cell is filled with his bunk, commode, desk, typewriter, foot locker and the boxes that contain the twisted legal history of his life.
“The case has consumed me, sure,” Coe said, looking down at the bundle of files. “That’s all I work on. That’s all I do. I am probably the world’s leading expert on this case. In fact, I’m sorry that I know as much as I do about it. But it’s been necessary.”
Barring state intervention, the man known as the South Hill rapist will be released Sept. 8 from the Washington State Penitentiary. But he’s guarding his future activities as effectively as the steel and concrete walls of the state’s most secure prison have kept him locked away for the past quarter century.
“I can’t tell you what my plans are,” Coe said during a rare prison interview last week. “And even if I knew what they were, I wouldn’t tell you.”
While the pending release has rekindled uneasiness among some Spokane residents, Coe labeled the chances of his return to the Lilac City in a word: “Preposterous.”
In less than four months, he will have served his entire 25-year debt to society for the only rape conviction appellate judges let stand from a case that was so sensational it became international news, the topic of a true crime best-seller and a made-for-television movie.
The string of at least 43 sexual attacks attributed to the South Hill rapist between 1979 and 1981 gripped Spokane residents in fear like no other crime spree. The fear was not even matched when detectives were again stymied more than a decade later in their efforts to find serial killer Robert Yates, who now occupies a cell in the same prison unit as Coe.
The only likely remaining step in the Coe case will come in early September when the state Attorney General’s Office announces whether it will pursue a civil procedure to lock up Coe for life in a mental institution as a violent sexual predator.
If not, Coe walks. No parole. No strings.
Retired Spokane Police Officer Roy Allen, 68, who was the lead detective in the investigation that led to Coe’s arrest back on March 10, 1981, cringes at the idea of a free Coe.
“He’s the guiltiest man I have ever known in my life,” Allen said, describing Coe as a classic psychopath who thought he could talk his way out of anything. “I told him, ‘If we caught you red-handed, you would claim it was her idea.’”
In prison, Coe refused all counseling, prison spokeswoman Lori Scamahorn confirmed. He refused to attend parole hearings that could have won his release as early as 1991.
Instead, he has spent his time poring over the case files that were used to convict him, searching for exoneration through legal loopholes or anything else.
His latest theory involves a 100-page examination focusing on his own sperm motility. Coe claims it proves his innocence because his sperm has greater vitality than the sperm samples taken from the rape victims.
That argument was presented by his attorneys during his second trial and rejected by jurors. Nonetheless, he has dubbed the sperm examination, “Forensic Proof of Innocence, Anatomy of an Unjustice (sic).”
“This is really a very, very bad conviction,” Coe said. “I’ve asked (the courts) to take a rational, reasonable look at this, totally unlike what the jury did.”
But that’s unlikely to happen because it already has been considered irrelevant by jurors who listened to the entire body of evidence against him, according to lawyers on both sides of Coe’s second trial.
With the end of his prison term looming, Coe granted The Spokesman-Review’s request for an on-the-record interview in hopes of advancing his sperm defense. He refused to allow a camera.
Guards provided the escort for the former disc jockey and real estate agent whose only major commission came from selling a home to his late parents, Ruth and Gordon Coe. The father retired as the managing editor of the former afternoon newspaper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, after his son’s 1981 arrest.
Coe sat at a wobbly wooden table inside the interview room encased in cinderblock, steel and safety glass.
He smelled of scented soap. His expression was serious and focused.
Now 59, Coe still has a full head of sandy-blond hair with just a hint of gray. He wore a yellow sweatshirt, khaki jeans and brown shoes. His hair is shortly cropped on the sides, but his longish bangs curl down to his eyebrows.
Although fit for his age, Coe’s skin has begun to loosen, mostly hiding the 6-inch scar on his neck from a 1994 attack by a fellow inmate who slashed him with a shank after reading a copy of Jack Olsen’s 1983 non-fiction book about Coe and his family, titled “Son. A Psychopath and His Victims.”
Coe, who called the book a farce, fingered the files documenting his latest legal challenge as if they were more precious than his freedom.
“Olsen refused to see any of our evidence,” Coe said. “Now, if we had all of this and I had been able to show Olsen … he would have written a completely different book. I guarantee you. He might have ended up winning awards for exposing a horrible injustice.
“And yet, the Spokane media handles this as if … the fact pattern was nothing like this. You’d think that what happened was that I matched the description to a T in every count, there was physical evidence, everything was copacetic, that it was a perfect slam dunk and how outrageous of me to even fight.”
Coe pointed out that the rape victims gave varying accounts of what their attacker looked like. In the single rape charge that withstood his appeals, the victim described the rapist as someone with dark features who looked like former television star Erik Estrada, who starred as Ponch on the police show “CHiPS.”
“It doesn’t match me,” Coe said. “If it hadn’t been for the incredible over-publicity of the case, it would have been won on evidence alone.”
But that victim also picked Coe out of a lineup, and all of the rapes followed a similar pattern of details that were enough to convince two juries of his guilt. Coe also acknowledged in a session with a defense psychiatrist that he had raped one of his accusers.
During the investigation, detectives obtained sperm samples from two victims. But Prosecutor Don Brockett inadvertently gave evidence handlers orders to destroy the samples after Coe’s first trial, making future DNA testing impossible. It’s something both Coe and Brockett regret.
“Of course, we didn’t have any idea back then that anything like (DNA testing) was going to be coming down the road,” Brockett said.
Coe claims Brockett destroyed the kits on purpose because Coe was the only person who stood to lose by their destruction.
“If this exact same fact pattern occurred now… I would immediately demand a DNA test, and that would be the end of the case,” Coe said. “I’m stuck with this one count, and I’ve been stuck with it since 1988 after all the others were gone.”
Coe tried to keep last week’s entire 2½ hour interview focused solely on his latest quest for yet another legal appeal. Inquiries that drifted too far from that topic were deemed off-limits by Coe.
But he made an exception to answer whether he will move back to Spokane if released.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “Let me just make it very clear. Once it is legal for me to leave this state, I’m gone and out of here and never to return here unless there was some legal reason.”
Despite no stated desire to return, Coe still reads his hometown newspaper every day. His sister, Kathleen, also pays his subscriptions to USA Today and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which is published in the Nevada city where Coe once lived.
Coe, who pays particular interest to anything written about him but has no access to the Internet, received from his sister copies of blog entries responding to a Spokesman-Review video journal documenting the history of the case.
“Wow. Your bloggers, there are some vicious ones on there,” Coe said, referring to one who threatened his life.
He volunteered a defense against another blog entry suggesting that all he does in prison is watch KHQ anchorwoman Shelly Monahan on his TV.
“First of all … we don’t even get Spokane TV stations [in Walla Walla] and we haven’t for a number of years,” Coe said. “As far as Shelly Monahan goes, I wouldn’t even know what this woman looked like except that she appeared on an A&E City Confidential thing back in 2002.”
Coe, who claims to have been in Las Vegas when Monahan was raped, was able to recite almost every move the 47-year-old TV journalist has made in her 30-year career. He then asked his interviewer, “Do you know her?”
Informed of Coe’s inquiry last week, Monahan described it as chilling.
Monahan recounted the September night in 1979 when she was raped outside KJRB radio station on the South Hill, where she had worked as a disc jockey.Although he was never charged with her rape, Monahan remains convinced Coe was her attacker based on a letter she received before the rape and a threatening call she received from the state prison after Coe’s conviction.
“I’ll never forget how it felt like having the bones in my face crushed from being hit repeatedly from a man’s fist,” Monahan said. “After he was done beating me up and raping me, I was lying face-down in the dirt. I was bleeding from my face and choking on my own blood.
“And whoever had done this to me said that he had been in radio. I just could not believe that he wanted to carry on a conversation after the fact.”
At that time, Secret Witness offered cash rewards for tips that would lead to the arrest of the South Hill rapist. Tipsters were asked to call a phone number which funneled their information to the office of Gordon Coe, the Chronicle’s managing editor who also directed coverage of the sexual attacks.
Eventually, the investigation led to Kevin Coe and he was charged with six different rapes. Coe’s mother, Ruth Coe, provided him alibis for every charge at his first trial, but the jury convicted him of four sexual assaults.
Ruth Coe was later convicted of trying to hire a hitman to kill Brockett and Superior Court Judge George Shields, who presided over her son’s first trial.
She was captured on tape instructing the would-be hitman, who actually was an undercover police officer, to kill the prosecutor or preferably wound him so severely he would be rendered a “vegetable,” needing diapers for the rest of his life.
As for her son, all four rape convictions were later overturned on appeal because investigators used hypnosis during interviews with the witnesses. Brockett refiled the charges, and a second jury convicted Coe of three rape counts in 1985.
The state Supreme Court then overturned two of those three convictions in 1988, again based on the hypnosis issue.
Roy Allen, the retired detective, didn’t hide his disdain for how the entire case against Coe was whittled down to just a single conviction.
“The senile old boneheads on the appellate courts bent over backwards for (Coe) and let him go on a bunch of them,” Allen said. “He’s still in 100 percent denial, and I’m sure he will re-offend.”
Coe, then and now, claims that he was simply trying to help police nab the real South Hill rapist by following bus routes as part of a civic promotion business he created with his father called Spokane Metro Growth.
“If I hadn’t been a pro-growth activist, I would have never shown an interest in the South Hill rapist case, I would not have followed any buses,” Coe said. That’s when Spokane police officials “decided to frame, smear and railroad an innocent man.”
Allen, however, notes that a curious thing happened after Coe was arrested and put behind bars: The string of violent South Hill rapes ceased.
“What I would like to know is what all he has done,” Allen said of Coe. “God, wouldn’t that be a book. It just makes you want to shudder.”
Monahan chose to return to Spokane six years ago to raise her children and be near family, even though the smell of turning leaves and the pungent scent of her attacker’s soap always bring back the fear of that night.
“I encourage victims to not let one night … ruin their life,” she said. “But still, with all of this looming over the community, this still brings up a lot of fear and a lot of hurt that I don’t think any of us want to relive. It was devastating.”