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Spokane's South Hill Rapist: the Kevin Coe Case

HistoryLink.org Essay 9484 : Printer-Friendly Format

From 1978 to 1981, a rapist who committed as many as 37 brutal assaults kept the city of Spokane terrified. Police scoured the city for the "South Hill rapist" so-named because many of the rapes took place in the city's upscale South Hill neighborhood. In 1981, Frederick Harlan "Kevin" Coe (b. 1947) was arrested in connection with several of those rapes. The arrest was particularly sensational since Coe was from a prominent family, the son of the managing editor of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. In a dramatic 1981 trial, Kevin Coe was convicted on four of six rape counts. In a sensational twist, his mother, Ruth Coe, was arrested months later for trying to arrange a "hit" on the judge and prosecutor. She was caught on tape asking an undercover officer to turn the prosecutor into "an addle-pated vegetable." In 1982, she was tried and convicted of solicitation to commit first-degree murder, but received a surprisingly light sentence. Kevin Coe's four convictions were overturned by the Washington Supreme Court in 1984 because some of the victims had been hypnotized by police in hopes they would remember more details. In a second trial in 1985, Kevin Coe was found guilty of three of the four counts of first-degree rape. Two of those convictions were overturned in 1988, again because of the hypnosis issue. Yet the third conviction was upheld and Coe went on to serve all 25 years of his sentence at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Before he could walk free, however, a civil jury declared Coe to be a sexually violent predator in 2008, and he was sent to a Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island. He remained there as of 2010.

The Terror Begins

In 1978, a 19-year-old Spokane woman was walking home late at night when a man wearing jogging clothes popped out from behind a parked car, grabbed her, dragged her into the nearby bushes and raped her. He repeatedly jammed his fist into her mouth to prevent her from screaming. Police could locate no suspects.

Over the next two years, Spokane police noticed a baffling increase in the number of brutal rapes in the city. In 1978 there had been 49; in 1980 there were 127. Many of these rapes had a few traits in common. The women reported that the rapist jammed a fist -- often covered with a glove or an oven mitt -- into their mouths. He also talked to them during the rape, asking them questions about themselves. He also said that if they told anybody, especially the police, he would find them and kill them. He said he knew where they lived.

Police Suspect a Serial Rapist

Many of the victims had just gotten off a bus or had been out jogging. The rapist himself was usually described as wearing a tracksuit or jogging sweats (Spokane was already becoming famous as jogging city since the advent of the massive Bloomsday race in 1977). The Spokane police began to suspect that they had a serial rapist at work. They formed a task force in 1980, but quietly. They didn't want the city to go into a panic. Yet panic was already beginning to take hold, especially on Spokane's upper-middle-class South Hill, where many of the rapes had taken place. People were beginning to talk about a rampage by the mysterious "South Hill rapist."

Chris Peck, a metro columnist for The Spokesman-Review, one of the city's two dailies, wrote a column about one traumatized victim in March 1980. The number of rapes kept escalating, and on September 7, 1980, he wrote a column that "hit the prosaic old town like a bomb," in the words of author Jack Olsen, from his definitive account of the case, Son: A Psychopath and His Victims (Olsen, p. 138). Peck wrote:

"A horrible specter is back on the South Hill. In jogging clothes, threatening with a knife, it has begun again to strike at women in one of Spokane's classiest neighborhoods. ... Women on the South Hill, be furious together. Look for clues, find the courage to open your eyes, press charges if you can. Otherwise, creeps will prevail" (Peck, "Specter").

Then in January 1981, the Spokesman-Review published a map showing the rape locations and their correlation with the bus routes, along with a story titled “How the South Hill Rapists Work.” Police theorized at the time that there might have been three or four different rapists committing as many as 37 different rapes.

By then, the city was in a full-blown state of alarm. The only voice of calm seemed to come from the city's other daily, the Spokane Daily Chronicle, whose managing editor wrote an editorial that said, "It is hoped that every man out jogging is not hounded off the streets because some rape reports have said the attacker wore jogging clothes” (Olsen). That managing editor’s name was Gordon Coe (1916-1999).

A Suspect and an Arrest

Yet rapes were being committed more frequently than ever, including two in February 1981. One of those -- the rape of a 51-year-old woman jogging at Hart Field, near Sacajawea Junior High School -- would prove to be crucial to breaking the case. A janitor at the school reported seeing a silver Chevy Citation parked there that morning with unusual license plates. The plates were yellow, like the state's personalized plates at the time, but without personalized numbers or letters. The car was registered to Gordon Coe, yet it was being used by his 34-year-old son, Frederick Harlan Coe, who liked to call himself "Kevin" for reasons known only to himself (in 1982 he would officially change his name to Kevin).

On February 25, 1981, police begin watching Kevin Coe, who was working, with a conspicuous lack of success, as a real-estate agent. They discovered that his car had yellow cellophane over regular license plates. Police then showed a picture of Coe to the Hart Field victim, who immediately said, "That's him!" (Olsen, p. 234). It was the break Spokane police were waiting for. Yet they didn't feel they had enough solid evidence to make an arrest. Police and prosecutors decided to try to nab him in the act, so they put him under surveillance. They discovered he often cruised High Drive on the South Hill -- where several rapes had occurred -- and he often followed bus routes.

Coe eluded his watchers numerous times and in one case exposed himself to a woman, so police eventually decided it was unsafe to wait any longer. On March 10, 1981, police went to Kevin Coe's real-estate office and arrested him for the Hart Field rape. Later that evening, a steady stream of rape victims were brought down to the police headquarters to view police lineups. Several of them picked Coe out the group.

Family Secrets

The arrest caused a sensation in Spokane, including, of course, at the Chronicle. Gordon Coe was soon forced to take a leave of absence -- he would formally retire in October 1981.

Reporters for the Spokesman-Review soon dug up details about Kevin Coe's life, and the picture that emerged was bizarre. He fancied himself as a radio DJ, news editor, a "media man," a champion boxer, and an author. His magnum opus was a self-published book titled, "Sex in the White House," with the subtitle "Cuz After All, Politics is Dirty Bizness." It was written by, in Kevin's own words, "one of our country's great new satirists." He came off as cocky, self-confident and prone to grandiose statements about his physical and sexual prowess. Yet he was actually an unmotivated real-estate agent, living off his parents. He had an extremely close, to say the least, relationship with his mother, Ruth Coe (1921-1996). It was often described as more like boyfriend-girlfriend.

After other victims identified him, Coe was charged with five more counts of rape, and he pled innocent on all counts in March 1981. He was released on $35,000 bond.

The First Trial and Sentencing

The evidence against Coe was voluminous, if mostly circumstantial. Police and prosecutors believed he was responsible for as many as 20 or 30 other rapes. Coe’s defense, orchestrated by Kevin himself, was one of flat denial. He insisted that it was all just a massive case of mistaken identity. He chose to accept a public defender as his lawyer, probably because he felt that he would be able to direct his own defense more easily. When his lawyers suggested that he plea-bargain for hospitalization instead of prison, he rejected the notion by saying, "I'm not a sexual psychopath and I'm not guilty" (Olsen, p. 314).

The trial was delayed several times, but finally began on July 20, 1981. Impartial jurors were tough to find in Spokane -- the populace was immersed in every detail of the biggest scandal in the city's history -- so a jury was impaneled in Seattle and brought to Spokane for the trial before Judge George Shields (1928-2006).

Both of Coe’s parents took the stand in his behalf. Ruth provided her son with an alibi for every rape; she said he was often at home with them. Ruth, 60, was a well-dressed, flamboyant woman who wore a jet-black wig. She testified that she and "Son," as she called him, had actually attempted a kind of citizen’s arrest of the South Hill rapist. The two of them, she said, had actually gone out several times on their own surveillance excursions.  "Son would jog, and I would follow in the car at a very slow place," she testified. "[We were] very unsuccessful, so we did give up" (Olsen, p. 350). That would explain, she said, why he and his car had been seen so often near the bus routes and near the scenes of the crimes. His former girlfriend, however, took the stand for the prosecution and told about his suspicious behavior, the mysterious cuts he would receive and the fact that she once found him washing an oven mitt at 7 a.m.

Coe took the stand on his own behalf. In between telling virtually his entire life story -- large segments of which were absurdly exaggerated -- he adamantly denied ever owning gloves, ever owning oven mitts, ever owning a stocking cap and, of course, ever raping anyone. “His mother, seated in the back of the tiny courtroom, smiled and nodded as he made his points and occasionally emitted a loud sigh or muffled comment when the prosecutor [Donald Brockett] registered objections,” wrote Olsen (Olsen, p. 354). The jury bought little of it. On July 29, 1981, Kevin Coe was convicted of four counts of first-degree rape.

Yet the story was far from over. Coe’s mother was angry and defiant. Ruth told Spokesman-Review columnist Chris Peck that she believed that Judge Shields had not played fair. She said that, in hindsight, she would "never try to play fair again, because the law doesn’t play fair" (Peck, "Ruth").

Sentencing

At this point, Kevin and his parents were terrified that he would be sent to the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, where they were convinced the other inmates would declare open season on the famous "rapo" (they were eventually proven right, when in 1994 Coe was slashed across the throat with a homemade knife at Walla Walla). Prosecutor Brockett had raised an even more alarming sentencing option; he pointed out that state law still allowed convicted rapists to be castrated. So the Coes grasped at one final straw -- that Judge Shields would sentence him as a sexual psychopath, meaning he would be sent to a state mental hospital, not a prison.

For the sentencing phase, the Coes hired Carl Maxey (1924-1997), a well-known and controversial Spokane civil rights lawyer. Maxey, a family acquaintance, had heard the judge raise the possibility of sexual psychopathy at one of the early sentencing hearings, and believed he could nudge the judge toward a sexual psychopath ruling. The strategy was risky. The judge had earlier said that he couldn’t recommend the sexual psychopath option because Coe’s flat-out denials indicated that he would not be amenable to treatment.

So Maxey arranged for Dr. Robert A. Wetzler, a well-known psychiatrist in the field of sexual psychopathy, to interview Coe one more time. This time Coe told Wetzler that he had committed one of the rapes and would be willing to accept treatment for his sexual problems. Even then, Coe was coy about his admission. He told the psychiatrist he was "jealous of the South Hill rapist" and had committed a "copycat rape." Still, when Maxey put Wetzler on the stand during the sentencing hearing, Wetzler dropped the bombshell: Coe had confessed and was begging for treatment.

It didn’t work. On August 17, 1981, in a proceeding broadcast on live TV, Judge Shields announced his sentence: a prison term of 20 years, a second term of 25 years, a third term of 30 years and a fourth term of life, all to be served consecutively. Within two months, Coe was sent to the Corrections Center at Shelton and then on to Walla Walla.

Coe later reasserted his innocence and said his confession had been a ruse. "As a strictly legal ploy, it makes good sense, but it didn’t work," Coe told The Seattle Times. "The judge, in fact, tricked us" (Olsen, p. 380). Ruth Coe reserved all of her scorn for Brockett and Shields.

Ruth Coe's Druthers

In a discussion with a stranger a few months later, Ruth Coe said these words: "I want the prosecutor out and I want the judge out" ("The Coe Tapes"). This conversation was captured on tape because the stranger was actually an undercover police officer. He was posing as a hit man after police had received a tip that Ruth Coe wanted to take out a contract on Brockett and Shields. The conversation continued:

Undercover officer: "We are talking about the same thing; you want those people ..."

Ruth Coe: "Gone."

Officer: "Dead?"

Ruth Coe: "Dead. Right. If I had my druthers, I’d have that prosecutor just made a complete vegetable so that he could never, ever be anything but a vegetable, so that they had to care for him forever, and he lived on and on that way. And the judge ..."

Officer: "Just tell me what you want."

Ruth Coe: "Well, uh, and that judge, I’d like him gone -- dead -- and I’d like both of ‘em dead, really, except that with Brockett, I felt that -- he’s a man about 46 or 47 and he has been so filthy, and my feeling for him is that I would love to see him just an addle-pated vegetable that had to be cared for -- that his family had to take care of the rest of his life. I mean diapers and all the rest of it. He wanted 42 years of my son’s life gone. I’d like to see him sit 42 years in ... umm, as a baby. But, um, to have him gone would be great, too. I mean, you can never be sure, I suppose, how you clobber them, that could be the way it’d come out. So dead is great. But I do think he should suffer ..." ("The Coe Tapes").

Ruth Coe was arrested the next day, on November 20, when she handed the officer a $500 down payment. When the officers approached her in the parking lot and arrested her on charges of soliciting first-degree murder, she muttered disgustedly, “I thought so. I thought so. That’s right, I really did think so" (Olsen, p. 399).

"A Greek Tragedy"

Ruth’s arrest made national and international news; the London Daily Mirror ran a headline that read “Sex Shame of Town’s Top Family.” The Spokane Chronicle ran the story on the front page as well, with the headline, “Coe’s mother faces death plot counts.”

The non-jury trial, in front of Judge Robert Bibb, began on May 17, 1982. “It was just like watching a play,” said reporter Rick Bonino, who covered the trial for the Spokesman-Review. “It wasn’t like any other trial -- it was just like entertainment. There were all these unexpected twists and turns” (Kershner, p. 215). For one thing, Maxey’s defense was based on portraying Ruth as crazy (or at least “diminished”), which didn’t prove difficult in the least. One psychiatrist testified that Ruth saw “horns growing out of the head" of Judge Shields when he pronounced sentence. Her husband took the stand and testified that she had for years abused a variety of prescription drugs -- "an absolutely appalling jumble of chemicals" -- and that after Kevin’s verdict, suicide had seemed to loom on the horizon” (Olsen, p. 412). Meanwhile, the prosecution’s case was straightforward enough: Forget about all of that psychiatric mumbo-jumbo -- Ruth was motivated strictly by old-fashioned revenge and hate.

At one point, the trial had to be delayed when the hysterical Ruth Coe was put on suicide watch at a local hospital. Yet the trial soon resumed, and within days Judge Bibb announced that he had reached a verdict. He said the entire case reminded him of a

"Greek tragedy by Euripides or Sophocles -- a symbiotic family relationship, catastrophe caused by man or the gods, avengement and the judging of the avenger again by the gods or fate or by men" (Olsen, p. 424).

He pronounced Ruth Coe guilty as charged. Yet the judge was moved to pity. His sentence was virtually the lightest possible one: 20 years in prison, suspended; one year in the county jail of her choosing; and 10 years of probation. The whole thing amounted to one year of easy time, with the possibility of work release.

"In essence, the judge bought the diminished capacity defense," a satisfied Maxey later told the American Lawyer magazine (Bruck). Brockett later called it "a sentence of the heart and not the head" (Bruck).

Meanwhile, in the prison at Walla Walla, Kevin Coe told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he couldn’t understand why the defense hadn’t utilized every weapon at its disposal, namely, himself. He bragged that he would have made an excellent witness.

Reversal and Second Trial for "Son" 

Yet the Coe story was still far from over. In 1984, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned all four of Kevin Coe’s convictions, on the grounds that a number of witnesses and victims had undergone hypnosis to "assist" them in recovering memories. A new trial was ordered, this time in Seattle. The victims were brought back to the stand to relive their horror again. On February 12, 1985, Kevin Coe was re-convicted on three of the rape counts and sentenced to life plus 55 years.

However, the hypnosis issue still tainted the case, and on January 29, 1988, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed two of the convictions again. The third conviction was upheld; it carried a 25-year sentence. Theoretically, Coe could have been released in four years. But it didn't turn out that way, at least in part because Coe refused to attend any of his parole hearings.

Coe's Indefinite Incarceration 

By 2006, Coe had served his full 25-year term. He had spent nearly his entire sentence researching the case in what he called an attempt to find the real rapist. "That's all I do," he told a reporter during a prison interview in 2006. "I'm probably the world's leading expert on this case" (Clouse). Coe's release was blocked when the state attorney general filed a petition to have him civilly committed under the state's Sexually Violent Predator Act.

The civil trial was delayed until 2008. During the month-long trial, new evidence emerged, including DNA evidence linking him to one of the rapes. A jury declared Coe to be a sexually violent predator, a designation that gives the government the power to hold him indefinitely at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. As of July 2010, Coe remained at McNeil Island, where he continued to churn out letters and legal challenges from his cell.

Olsen's best-selling book chronicled the case in 1984 and spawned a made-for-TV movie in 1991, "The Sins of the Mother," starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Ruth Coe and Dale Midkiff as Kevin Coe.

And Spokane's wave of brutal rapes? From virtually the moment that Coe was arrested, it subsided, never to return.

Sources:
Jack Olsen, Son: A Psychopath and His Victims (New York: Atheneum, 1984); Connie Bruck, "Will a Prosecutor’s Missteps Free the South Hill Rapist?" The American Lawyer, December 1982; Jim Kershner, Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2008); "The Coe Tapes," (transcription of the undercover Ruth Coe tapes), Spokesman-Review, May 19, 1982, p. 11; Chris Peck, "Trying to Forget a Face That Won't Go Away," Spokesman-Review, March 16, 1980, p. B-1; "Rapes Spotlight Police," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 14, 1981, p. 4; Chris Peck, "A Horrible Specter Rises Again on the South Hill," Spokesman-Review, September 7, 1980, p. A-16; Chris Peck, "Ruth Coe: Profile of a Mournful Mother," Spokesman-Review, November 24, 1981, p. 6; Shaun Higgins and Rita Hibbard, "How the South Hill Rapists Work," Spokesman-Review, January 11, 1981, p. A-1; Dave Reagan, "Sex Assaults Alert Police," Spokesman-Review, January 6, 1980. p. B-1; John Harris and Rita Hibbard, "Spokane Man, 34, Held in Rape on South Side," Spokesman-Review, March 11, 1981, p. A-1; Tim Hanson and John Webster, "Bond Raises to $100,000 for Rape Suspect," Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 11, 1981, p. 1; Rita Hibbard, "One Man, One Charge and Many Questions," Spokesman-Review, March 15, 1981, p. A-1. Tom Clouse, "The Case Has Consumed Me," Spokesman-Review, May 21, 2006, p. A-1.


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