Survivor yearns to learn fate of Duluth's 'Hillside Rapist'
Nearly 50 years after her sexual assault, a Duluth native confronts the past and wonders if she'll ever learn the truth.
DULUTH, Minn. — The date, and the sexual assault that took place Feb. 23, 1972, still haunt Debra Snow almost 50 years later.
It's when police suspect a man known as the "Hillside Rapist" started a spree of 22 reported sexual assaults spanning the rest of the decade, beginning in Snow’s third-floor apartment bedroom in Duluth's East Hillside neighborhood.
“It’s been in the background, haunting me,” Snow said earlier this month. “Who was this person who was such a big part of my life? It’s like there’s a puzzle with a big piece missing. Who was he?”
Snow never saw his face. And despite intensive efforts to bring a culprit to justice, the case was never solved.
Instead, Snow has been left to consider what she describes as the embers of a slow-burning mystery.
“He’s just a big, black shadow,” Snow said.
Newspaper reports from the time described the man as a white male, under 5 feet, 10 inches tall. He was most active early on, committing 11 assaults between 1972 and 1973. All of his victims lived in apartments between Mesaba Avenue and 21st Avenue East.
Snow lived with a friend across Ninth Avenue East from St. Luke’s hospital. They were both 19 years old and graduates of Duluth Central High School determined to take on the world together.
Snow, now 69, was working as a secretary in the chemistry department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. On the night of her attack, she had gone to bed early alone in the apartment. She was awakened by a 10 p.m. curfew alarm, and then the sound of whistling in the bathroom on the other side of her bedroom wall.
“Two times in my life since then I’ve heard the tune and freaked out,” she said. “But I can’t tell you what the tune was that he was whistling.”
She froze with fear as the man lit matches in the dark to get a layout of her bedroom, before telling her to face the wall as he moved to sit down on her bed.
“All these years I’ve thought I’ll never be one of those heroes, because I freeze,” Snow said.
He held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her, and then forced her to give him oral sex.
“It was dark in the room and I just did everything he said,” Snow said.
Eventually, she passed out. Her roommate, now a 69-year-old woman living in Hermantown who asked not to be identified for this story, spoke with the News Tribune to confirm the events of Feb. 23, 1972.
The roommate had returned to the apartment in the moments after the assault, and that’s when she and her boyfriend heard Snow finally let out a scream.
“I thought it was him still in the apartment,” Snow said.
Retired Duluth Police Chief Scott Lyons started on the force in 1976. Lyons recalled the considerable efforts police made to capture the Hillside Rapist. He remembered it as a time of public fear and even outrage.
“We had a lot of suspects,” Lyons said. “We were working our butts off, working straight nights. We were stopping people left and right trying to identify who was out at 2 or 3 in the morning.”
The cops created a task force to hunt for the rapist, started a 24-hour tip hotline, and developed a database of suspects and people of interest.
“It wasn’t for lack of trying,” Lyons said of the cold case, describing many search warrants, overtime and hunting for a criminal who was good at not leaving physical evidence at the crime scenes.
"I remember being out on surveillance, roaring from one spot to another," Lyons added. "It was not an easy time."
The police didn’t have the ability to test for human DNA at the time, and Snow recalled getting a letter from the police asking her to pick up her property, including her bed sheets, first taken as evidence, or it would be destroyed.
Snow’s assault appeared in the Duluth Herald the next evening — three paragraphs detailing how a 19-year-old woman first pretended to sleep as the knife-wielding assailant approached and assaulted her.
Further reports from the decade noted how the assailant used minimal force to enter his victims' apartments. Snow and her roommate suspected her rapist used his knife to get past their meager lock. Late in the decade, in 1979, the Duluth City Council, responding to both the rapist and a rash of burglaries, passed an ordinance requiring deadbolts and window locks in rented properties.
But even as Snow returned to work and her normal life in the days following the assault, her assailant stayed with her. He would call the apartment, and wonder aloud if she enjoyed their time together.
At one point, Duluth police installed a tracer on her phone. One threatening call was traced to the UMD switchboard.
“Not long after that, the police came and had me walk around a classroom to see if there was anyone in there I recognized,” Snow said. “They asked me to look at photo albums, too, but it was frustrating because I didn’t see the guy’s face.”
As his crimes built, patterns emerged. He covered victims’ faces, and stories from the day note how he was described as using a strong, possibly fake, Southern accent.
Snow didn’t quite recall it that way. Instead, she recalled an altered voice and said she felt he had an aura of intellectual disability.
During the hunt for the man, the Federal Bureau of Investigation compiled a psychological profile of the "Hillside Rapist." It confirmed a white male in his 20s, and described him as likely passive and quiet and someone who might consider themselves inferior.
“He attacks women in an attempt to prove to himself he’s not a ‘loser,’” said a May 16, 1979, newspaper account.
The FBI profile suggested he lived within walking distance of his attacks, and likely worked in an “unskilled or menial” occupation.
If the attack didn’t dissuade Snow from living her life, the subsequent phone calls and stalking did.
She developed paranoia and began to worry if her assailant was riding the same bus, or sitting at the same countertop at the drugstore cafe where Snow liked to eat breakfast downtown. To escape the stalking, she retreated to Minneapolis for a year.
Lonely, Snow returned to Duluth and a job at the UMD medical school. As soon as she did, the man who assaulted her called her at her mother’s house. He later called her one morning at her new apartment. The calls finally stopped after she moved to the countryside with a boyfriend, got married and changed her name.
Snow is hoping the assailant, if he’s still alive, or other survivors of the "Hillside Rapist," will reach out to her at an email she’s established for this story using her maiden name: firstname.lastname@example.org .
“I’m interested in filling out that picture, because he was so intense in my life for a year,” she said. “How did somebody have such a twisted interest in me, was so close to me, and I was so unaware?”
Pressed further on why she would want to learn more about the man who victimized her, she said she wants to make a two-dimensional picture into three.
“I would have the whole story,” she said. “That’s it. Plain and simple. It would be complete. I don’t want revenge. It’s not about me. I wonder who he is, who he was. Was he the 'Hillside Rapist?' Did he end up drinking himself into (Alcoholics Anonymous), and come out looking for people to make amends to? Just how did it go?”
Snow left Duluth in 1976, spending most of her adult life on the East Coast before returning to where she lives now in the Twin Cities area. She's preparing to work her 12th tax season for H&R Block. She’s lived a full life with marriages and divorces, the tragic loss of a twin son, and even volunteer and part-time work with both sexual assault victims and offenders.
“I put it all behind me and it’s only been in the background, in the periphery of my mind,” Snow said of her assault. “So I’ve never processed it, and now is the moment.”