He is pudgy, the victims say. He's maybe 30 years old, a black male with an effeminate air. Sometimes he carries magazines and a small tote bag the size of a woman's purse. He's been spotted in laundry rooms and outside bedroom windows, at all hours and no matter the weather. More often than not, he is naked that is, except for a pair of his victim's underwear.
He is known to the Bridgeton Police Department as the Thong Bandit, and the cops are trying to catch him before charges of sexual misconduct and burglary are ratcheted up to acts of violence.
"He thinks he has relationships with the victims," explains Lance Harris, a crimes-against-persons detective who took the case in October 2005. "I'm afraid it's going to escalate into something much, much worse."
The thief strikes at the Cypress Village apartments, a sprawling collection of squat, two-story residences off Cypress Road near Lambert International Airport. Rent at the 330-unit complex ranges from $525 to $915.
The perpetrator has targeted at least five women and struck at least seven times during the past eighteen months.
"That's only what I know of," notes Harris. "Most incidents are probably going unreported." (The property manager declined to comment for this article.)
Police believe the suspect lives near Cypress Village and chooses his victims all attractive, twentysomething women after seeing them in common spaces such as the apartment's health club and pool. He probably observes the women for some time establishing "fantasy relationships" before zeroing in on their underwear, Harris says.
The first victim, 29, came home one steamy July day in 2005 and found a stack of pornographic DVDs left outside her door. The next afternoon, above the sounds of a rainstorm pounding the pavement outside her living room, she heard a man yelling, "Watch me stroke it! You want to stroke it! You want me to hit that pussy!"
The woman cut the lights, dropped to the floor and crawled to the window where she spied the buck-naked perpetrator, "penis in his hand stroking the member" in broad daylight, according to a police report.
The second victim woke up on her couch one morning three months later, only to discover distinct footprints across her bed's down comforter and a cache of personal items gone missing. The 30-year-old Barnes & Noble employee, who asked to be identified only by her first initial, S., says the man stole two "battery-operated boyfriends," ten pornographic DVDs, thirteen envelopes of vacation photos and dozens of her Victoria's Secret thongs.
"It creeped me out, but it pissed me off more than anything that he walked right across my bed," says S., describing what would have been an easy jump from her bedroom window to the floor. "If you're going to be a big man and steal somebody's panties, take the drop from the window, you stupid son-of-a-bitch."
Victim number three surprised the suspect masturbating over a sorting table in her basement laundry room one Sunday winter evening when she walked in to collect her belongings. According to a police report, he turned to look at her, but carried on with his business for a good 30 seconds.
Finally, the man pulled up his pants and said he was "sorry" before stealing away with some of her thongs.
Laina Ayala, 24, was the fourth woman to be stalked by the thong bandit. According to Detective Harris, Ayala was the most obsessively pursued. On several occasions last summer, the bartender and environmental biology major at Lindenwood University (who describes herself as a lingerie collector) found piles of pornographic films outside her door. She disregarded the deliveries as pranks.
At 2 a.m. one September night, Ayala went down to the basement to transfer her laundry into the dryer when she happened upon the thong bandit. He was reading a magazine and pleasuring himself over the laundry-folding table, she recalls. He was buck-naked but for her pink panties.
"Oh," recalls Ayala with a groan, "my thong was in pain."
After she rushed away to call police, the man hightailed it with several pairs of her underwear.
A month later Ayala was lying on the floor of her living room, studying chemistry, when she noticed the perp peeping through her sliding-glass door. Yet again, he eluded authorities.
Having resolved to move in with her boyfriend in downtown St. Louis, Ayala spent the next month transferring boxes to her new apartment. On November 29 she returned to Cypress Village and saw that someone had smashed in her glass door. The rock that the intruder presumably the thong bandit used for the task lay in plain sight, right next to the patio.
Inside, Ayala's computer and stereo and several televisions sat untouched. But an entire box of thongs had disappeared, along with several new Victoria's Secret lingerie sets that had been hanging in her closet. Ayala slipped her hand under her mattress in search of her vibrator snatched as well. "How embarrassing," she says.
"These are apparent attempts to elicit fear from the victims, not simply steal their property," says Harris. "He's pretty obsessed. But how does he determine that they own thongs? Is he rummaging through the laundry, and, if so, how does he determine where they live? That's the part that concerns me. If he was just going in to steal somebody's underwear just to whack off, that would be one thing, but this intent focus on these particular women bothers me."
Ayala would love compensation for her underclothes if Harris manages to catch the suspect. "I'm still working on replenishing the supply," she says.
S., too, has moved out of Cypress Village, and she was more rattled than Ayala by the thong bandit. Up until a week ago, S. couldn't sleep in the bed that he walked across, and she couldn't stop cringing at the thought of him eyeing her photographs, souvenirs from a family trip throughout the United Kingdom.
"If they do finally arrest him, chances are very good that he's kept all these things as souvenirs," says S. "No amount of Woolite in the world is ever going to make those panties clean again. But I sure as hell would like my vacation pictures back."
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