High-Tech Hell

Cops and courts cleared Richard King 25 years ago. But databases don't care.

Richard Duckett King recently started job hunting, determined to put to use his freshly awarded Ph.D. in psychology. But when potential employers in his home state of Pennsylvania ran a standard criminal background check, King's Houston nightmare came back to haunt him after 25 years.

King, now 43, was fresh out of high school in 1975. The slight blond youth from Pittsburgh was like many other grads, working at a Houston construction job to raise money for college and the future, his lawyers say.

At about that same time, Houston police had their own work at hand: trying to catch a serial rapist. And they thought they had got their rapist, in what was billed as one of the more bizarre crime sprees in the Houston of that era.

Officers arrested King for the rape of a 27-year-old Houston secretary who lived in his apartment complex. He was also charged with the unrelated rape and robbery of another woman. On the day of King's arrest the secretary identified him in a lineup.

Based on descriptions of other victims of a serial rapist, police boldly proclaimed that they had nabbed a notorious "commuter rapist" -- that King had somehow managed to take airliners from Pittsburgh to Houston, assault women and fly back. This commuter rapist was suspected of committing as many as 20 rapes.

That police theory crumbled when murder defendant Edward Clarence Gipson, who bore a striking resemblance to King, confessed to several rapes, including those for which King was charged. And King's mother had gathered affidavits from other students who swore that King was in college in Pennsylvania when one of the rapes occurred.

Gipson, then 31, was an ex-convict with a distinctive modus operandi. He said that after his attacks he would become suffused with deep concern for his victims and assure them he was disease-free. He then would warn them to keep their windows locked. Gipson told prosecutors he had raped about 25 women.

Prosecutor L.H. "Stu" Stewart arranged a meeting between Gipson and the secretary, in which he told of assaulting her. Even after the surprise confession, the secretary remained convinced that King was her attacker. She noted that the rapist ate a slice of pumpkin pie from her refrigerator. Gipson did not remember that, although he said he had been high on alcohol and marijuana during that crime.

Ultimately the secretary signed an affidavit asking for the case to be dismissed because she had married, moved and got a new job. "It is my sincere belief that for me to be a witness at this time would be detrimental to my well-being, my health and my marital situation," she wrote.

With the blessing of the various law enforcement agents who worked on the case, Stewart moved for dismissal of the cases against King. Stewart, now in private practice, says evidence in the case appeared to exonerate King.

"She was convinced that he raped her. Other evidence seemed to indicate it was a case of mistaken identity and it was proper to have the court dismiss it," Stewart says.

The case finally was tossed out in 1977, but under terms that did not provide for the purging of the records. That was largely a moot point in the 1970s, says Eric Morehead, one of King's lawyers, since at that time there were no widely accessible national crime information networks.

Now, King finds himself in a high-tech hell as databases deliver details of an arrest long ago.

"There are ramifications that neither he nor his lawyer could have foreseen," Morehead says. "Richard King finds himself in the nexus of technological and sociological change. Twenty-five years ago he wouldn't have to worry about someone in Pennsylvania finding out about an arrest in Texas."

Morehead and attorney Mike Hinton are petitioning state district court to expunge King's arrest record. They don't expect law enforcement officials to oppose their effort, since investigators agreed to dismiss the case in 1977. But the case still could prove difficult because expunction hinges not so much on whether a person is innocent but on whether police had probable cause when they arrested him. That could prove a daunting hurdle given the victim's insistence that King was her attacker, Morehead says.

"It's not a slam dunk," he says. "There's potential the county could oppose it."

King declined interview requests. "This Š thing is haunting him. It's keeping him from getting gainful employment. Even though the case was dismissed, he's still got a police record," Hinton says. "ŠSometimes people get wrongly accused, and this guy was wrongly accused," he says. "It's truly scary."

E-mail John Suval at john.suval@houstonpress.com.

 
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