Sharing story emboldens survivor
Rapist left trail of victims
CAMBRIDGE — On a clear October evening in 1973, Jessica Stern and her younger sister were alone at the Concord home of a relative, doing their homework and waiting for their baby sitter to come pick them up.
The door of the house was unlocked, allowing a tall, thin man with blue eyes and overpowering cologne to walk in. Holding a gun, he calmly ordered the girls upstairs, commanded them to take off their clothes and raped them.
When he was done, he told the girls the gun was fake, then sped away.
Stern, who was 15, and her 14-year-old sister immediately reported the rape.
But it would take three decades for them to learn they were among the last victims of a horrifying crime spree. At least 44 girls and young women were raped by the same man between 1970 and 1973. During his spree, the rapist broke into boarding schools and homes, attacking girls and women between 9 and 19 years old.
Stern, now a 52-year-old terrorism expert, is drawing new attention to the serial rapist and the way local police handled the crimes, with a book and a string of public appearances in which she describes how, after years of traveling the world to interview dangerous men associated with terror, she decided to research her own unsolved rape.
She said the attack caused her to feel numb, even fearless, traits that helped her interview terrorists, but kept her from fully connecting in her personal life.
“The terror can haunt you forever,’’ Stern said during an interview at her home, where she lives with her husband and son. “In my case, I wasn’t aware of how it was haunting me.’’
In her new book, “Denial: A Memoir of Terror,’’ she describes how police, who did not believe a stranger committed the rape, failed to warn the public about the rapist.
Stern prompted the reopening of the investigation when she asked Concord police for a copy of her file. A helpful Concord police lieutenant, Paul Macone, became interested in the case, and linked the rape of the Stern sisters to a pattern seen in 20 rapes and attempted rapes during the same time period at Radcliffe and other Cambridge sites.
Concord Police Chief Barry Neal, who took over the department earlier this year, said that Macone identified Dennis W. Meggs, an Oxford man who was convicted of rape and assault stemming from other attacks in the early 1970s, as a “person of interest.’’ Meggs served 18 years in prison and was released in 1992. He died in 2003 at age 56.
Macone and Stern concluded the same rapist was responsible for attacks in Natick, Provincetown, and other communities, as well as at schools including the Dana Hall School in Wellesley.
“Those are the ones we can put our fingers on; there could be more,’’ said Macone, who retired in February as Concord’s deputy police chief. “It’s scary. If you believe the statistic that one out of six [rapes] is reported, that math is scary.’’
Stern does not name Meggs in her book, but instead refers to her alleged rapist by the pseudonym Brian X. Beat. She said she did so to protect the people who knew him and confided intimate details about him to her.
“How can I be certain that he was the perpetrator?’’ she said. “He certainly had this distinctive MO. Intellectually, I guess I’m persuaded, but a part of me thinks. ‘well maybe it wasn’t him, and maybe the guy is going to come get me.’ ’’
But Macone said there is “no question’’ about the rapist’s identity, pointing to the distinctive crime pattern: how he often attacked women in pairs, how he apologized after each assault, how he would confess that his weapon was a cap gun, and the victims’ consistent description.
Stern said she found another victim after she took out an ad on Craigslist a few years ago, looking for other women who might have been attacked by the same man. One person responded, Stern said, and was terrified.
“She thought it was the rapist looking for her and that he was going to kill her,’’ Stern recalled. She quickly took the ad down, fearing it might retraumatize other victims.
“I decided I don’t want to do this,’’ she said. “I don’t want to hurt someone.’’
But another victim recently came forward with her story. In 1971, Amy Vorenberg was 13 when she was raped in her Cambridge home.
At the time, she did not know there was a rapist in her city. A few months before, there had been a short story in the Harvard Crimson about an assault, but reports of other rapes around campus were waved off as rumors by Radcliffe officials.
“I had no idea at the time that I was raped that I was one of so many,’’ said Vorenberg, now a professor at the Franklin Pierce Law Center. “I just think people would have taken simple precautions. It’s quite possible, given how bold the guy got, he probably would have been caught. It makes me very angry.’’
Vorenberg, who was the daughter of James Vorenberg, former dean of Harvard Law School, said she tried to get the file about her case, but both Harvard and Cambridge police told her they could not find it.
Harvard police referred questions about the file to Cambridge police. Dan Riviello, a Cambridge police spokesman, said investigators searched extensively for the file but were unable to find it.
Riviello said that around the time Vorenberg was raped, police agencies in general kept such reports internal.
“We’re much, much more transparent today and realize we need to communicate these things because citizens need to be informed,’’ he said.
Learning her rapist was dead, Vorenberg said, was a relief.
Stern said she still struggles with going public about her story. “If I talk about it for too many days in a row, I have nightmares,’’ she said.
But the decision to come forward has opened the door for other women to confront what happened to them.
Since Vorenberg and Stern went public with their story, half a dozen other victims have e-mailed them, wanting to share what happened to them.
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.