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Prosecutor: DNA match leads to Florida ‘pillowcase rapist’

MIAMI (AP) — Prosecutors announced Thursday that a sophisticated DNA match has led to the cold case arrest of a Florida man believed to be the “pillowcase rapist” who terrorized greater Miami with a series of assaults on women in the 1980s.

Robert Koehler, 60, was arrested over the weekend and was being held without bond Thursday in a Miami jail. He faces charges in one assault though authorities said as many as 25 victims could be involved.

The “pillowcase rapist” was so named because he used a pillowcase or other fabric to cover the faces of his terrified victims, usually after he had broken into an apartment or town home, according to investigators. The assaults, often carried out at knifepoint, took place between 1981 and 1986 and had put South Florida on edge.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that the arrest will “hopefully bring some justice and some measure of peace” to the victims.

Rundle praised what she called the quick work of lab technicians — coupled with improvements in DNA technology — that broke open the case.

“They did a phenomenal job,” the prosecutor said. “It’s going to take some time. But we feel confident that there are a number of sufficient cases that we can prosecute. We want to ensure that this man is never, ever free again.”

According to an arrest warrant, investigators got their breakthrough after they obtained a DNA sample from Koehler’s son following an unrelated arrest. That sample was then linked to an assault in 1983, leading detectives to Brevard County where they followed Koehler to obtain DNA samples from objects he touched.

It was then, authorities said, that they had a match.

Rundle said it now will take time to locate victims, who could be anywhere in the country decades later. A hotline has been set up for victims to call and investigators are expected to begin determining if there is enough evidence to prosecute all of the suspected cases, officials said.

Koehler was taken into custody in Brevard County further up Florida’s Atlantic seaboard before being transferred to the Miami jail. Authorities said he had worked as an electrician while living in the community of Palm Bay.

In Brevard County, investigators found a pit of sorts had been dug under Koehler’s house, according to a search warrant. They also said they found several safes containing women’s jewelry and other items, including a nail file, that might be linked to some of the crimes.

The assault with which Koehler is charged happened in December 1983 and involved a 25-year-old woman, according to an arrest warrant. That woman was stabbed in the midsection with sharp object — the wound was not fatal, but more of a puncture wound — and then was raped with first a blanket over her head and then a pillow.

This was the same type of assault the “pillowcase rapist” carried out on numerous other occasions, investigators said.

A task force launched in the 1980s to search for the attacker was disbanded in 1987, but was recently revived by the Miami-Dade Police Department’s cold case squad.

The original task force had conducted numerous stakeouts, checked hundreds of leads, passed out fliers and even created a sculpture from one victim who saw his face, the Miami Herald reported.

Police at the time said the rapist was likely young, athletic and white and with no discernible accent. From lab tests, they concluded his blood type was O, but with a rare subgrouping characteristic found in 1% of the population. They also knew he wore a size 10 1/2 shoe, according to reporting by the Miami Herald.

Among his victims were a schoolteacher, nurse, airline flight attendant, artist, model, health spa instructor, insurance executive, publicist and student, the paper has reported. All but one lived in townhouses or apartments. The attacker usually entered the homes through unlocked sliding glass doors and open windows, threatening the victim with a knife, assaulting them quickly and sometimes stealing cash, investigators said.

When Koehler appeared in Brevard County court before his transfer to Miami, he blurted out that he was “not guilty” of the assaults. He was convicted in a 1990 rape in Palm Beach County and sentenced to probation, which he later violated and served 120 days in jail.

That case, however, was never linked to the series of assaults in Miami and elsewhere in South Florida. Rundle said that was mainly because DNA samples were not yet mandatory.

Alfredo Ramirez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said the renewed investigation was a massive one encompassing much of South Florida.

“A lot of sweat and tears was put into this case,” Ramirez said. “We’re going to make sure he stays in jail.”

Of the decades that had passed, the police director added, “No matter how long ago it happened, we will never forget.”

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Hamilton County’s ‘Wellness Unit’ part of nationwide effort to improve mental health among officers

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — An initiative to improve employee well-being at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is among a spate of efforts across the nation to address mental health concerns among officers.

Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush announced the department’s new “Wellness Unit”  — devoted to the physical, mental and spiritual health of its deputies, correctional officers and civilian employees — Friday in a Facebook post.

“Our guys really care about the public,” he said Monday in an interview with News 8. “When you see somebody who’s injured or victimized, it really impacts us… We’re only human.”

The Wellness Unit launched in January with funding approved by county council members and commissioners.

Appointments are held off-site at undisclosed locations to protect the privacy of employees. Supervisors are not briefed on which employees seek counseling or what they discuss during sessions.

Information gathered during counseling sessions will not be used to demote or discipline employees, and will only be disclosed if required by law, including when somebody poses an immediate danger to themselves or others.

The department’s entire staff will receive training related to suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, critical incidents, addiction, mindfulness and officer wellness, the sheriff said.

Nearly 1 in 4 police officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI); the suicide rate for police officers is four times higher than the rate for firefighters.

Years of daily exposure to stress, trauma and tragedy can have other devastating consequences if appropriate coping skills are not developed, according to Susan Sherer-Vincent, a licensed clinical social worker, certified alcoholism counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist involved in launching the Wellness Unit.

“Think of the hurricanes that come in, in Florida, and think of the palm trees where they bend,” she explained. “But then, what happens afterwards? They go back up. That’s called resilience. We want our officers to bend, not break.”

Until approximately 3 to 5 years ago, officers were often conditioned to “pull [themselves] up by the bootstraps and go to the next call” instead of addressing personal struggles, Sherer-Vincent said.

Cultivating resiliency can be difficult within a law enforcement culture that equates mental health challenges with “weakness,” she said.

“[Officers] are trained to have the warrior mentality,” Sherer-Vincent told News 8. “Truly, they would have been made fun of [in the past for seeking counseling].”

She compared strong, silent officers with underdeveloped coping skills to California’s famed redwood trees.

“They’re pretty sturdy. But what would happen if you took an ax and hit those every single day, day after day, for years? They would eventually fall,” she said.

Quakenbush credits his wife, church and non-law enforcement friends with providing “a really good support system.”

“But sometimes, you need a professional,” he said, urging employees to “talk through” negative emotions instead of turning to alcohol and other substances for temporary relief.

Several internal cases that resulted in disciplinary action during his year-long tenure as sheriff may have been prevented with wellness-focused intervention, Quakenbush said.

He was unable to comment on personnel matters. 

Sources within the department indicated some of the cases involved employees with substance abuse issues that had escalated over time, possibly as a result of work-related stress that had gone unaddressed. 

“I wouldn’t say that [disciplinary action] was happening often,” Quakenbush told News 8. “But seeing it happen and knowing that we probably could have done something about it made it impactful and something that we wanted to make a priority.”

Hamilton County announced its Wellness Unit days after New York City police officials revealed plans to hire a team of psychologists to combat a spike in officer suicides.

On Feb. 13, Indianapolis police officials said they planned to swear in the department’s first full-time therapy dog by the end of March.

  • FIND SUPPORT: Learn more about supporting law enforcement wellness on NAMI.org

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