Remembering the terror in College Terrace
Publication Date: Wednesday May 4, 1994

Remembering the terror in College Terrace

How one man held a Palo Alto neighborhood in fear for nine years--and how the community fought back

by Elizabeth Howton

Fifteen years after she was raped at knifepoint by Melvin Alfred "Mac" Carter Jr., Susan was finally able to put into words and images how it felt. In a creative writing class, she wrote an 11-page story about her rape and its aftermath. She felt good about the story--until the day in March when she heard that Carter was being released. Now she's not so sure. "Maybe it hasn't ended," she said recently.

For Susan and the other survivors of Carter's Palo Alto attacks, for the College Terrace residents who organized the neighborhood against him and for the police officers and attorneys who caught and convicted him, Carter's release on parole after just 12 years in prison has brought back memories of a terrifying time.

(Susan asked that her last name not be used because she fears Carter might try to track her down.)

Carter stalked Palo Alto's 24-block College Terrace neighborhood from 1971 to 1980, sexually assaulting 11 women who reported the incidents to police and untold others who may not have. At the same time, he also was attacking women in Berkeley, Davis, San Francisco and other California cities. But because he was first identified as a serial rapist in Palo Alto and ultimately caught by Palo Alto police, he became known as the "College Terrace rapist."

For Palo Alto, the Carter case is a story not only of one of the most brutal criminals to invade this city's streets, but also of this community's organized response to that menace and of a determined team's efforts that would lead to his arrest.

"A woman's screams frightened off a would-be rapist who had slashed the telephone cord in her Palo Alto residence . . . The intended victim, a 22-year-old resident of College Terrace, was cut on the right arm . . . the man entered the residence through an unlocked window. The woman was asleep when she suddenly felt a hand clamped across her mouth. When the man released his hold, she screamed and he fled. She tried to call the operator, but the telephone was dead." In hindsight, this short news item in the Palo Alto Times on Jan. 21, 1974, bore all the hallmarks of Melvin Carter's attacks: the College Terrace location, the use of a knife, the age of the victim, the entry through an unlocked window at night while the victim slept. But at the time, no one had yet picked up on the pattern.

The rapes and attempted rapes bearing those hallmarks happened about once a year from 1971 to 1976, and then four times in 1979. But it took police and residents until July 1979, after the second rape that year, to realize that the same person was committing them.

One reason for this is that in Palo Alto, officers work three-year shifts in the investigations division and then rotate out, possibly diminishing their ability to perceive long-term patterns. Another reason was simply the volume of rapes in the 1970s. In 1978, there were 25 rapes reported in Palo Alto; there were another 25 in the first seven months of 1979 alone, according to published reports at the time. (By comparison, there were 10 rapes reported in the city in 1991, nine in 1992 and 11 in 1993.)

In 1976, police actually stopped, photographed, fingerprinted and released Carter in connection with a burglary in the neighborhood. They did not connect him to the rapes.

But in 1979, the grisly trend became clear to some longtime College Terrace residents.

"We knew as soon as the rapes started happening (in 1979) that this was serious, that it was someone who was doing it on a serial basis," said Ulla Mick, who has lived in College Terrace since 1969 and, with her husband, Colin, led the neighborhood campaign against the rapist.

"When the attacks did start up again, one of (the victims) was someone who lived right on our street and another several blocks away," Colin Mick said. "Ulla and I were somewhat concerned about this and decided that the best way to deal with this was to aggressively try to catch this guy."

About the same time, Palo Alto police detective Brian Vierra, a 13-year veteran of the department, was coming to the same conclusion. After the second 1979 attack, on July 4, he recalled, "I went back as many years as I could and found seven more."

The perpetrator usually wore a jumpsuit with pockets, disconnected the phone and power lines and superficially cut the victim on the neck or arm with a curved knife. He was described as a white man in his late 20s or early 30s, clean-shaven, about 5 feet 8, weighing 150 pounds, with short brown hair brown eyes. The other common thread was the victims: All were single women in their 20s and 30s who lived alone, most in the small cottages that characterize the neighborhood. He apparently stalked his victims for some time before attacking, learning their habits.

Once police and neighbors realized there was a pattern, an all-out effort to catch him began. A police task force set up its nighttime command center in a Harvard Street cottage volunteered by its owner, a single woman.

Over on Dartmouth Street near one of the neighborhood's three parks, a female police officer actually took up residence in a rented cottage, with instructions to leave her curtains and windows open at night in hopes of drawing the rapist out.

Plainclothes officers patrolled the neighborhood every night, "trying to look nonchalant, walking around, freezing," Colin Mick remembered.

At one point, another neighborhood prowler was even asked to help look for the rapist.

"I arrested this prowler--a nice prowler," Vierra said. "Prowlers know other prowlers. We kind of enlisted him and had him call us whenever he saw anything. We tried everything we could.

"We plastered the composite on literally every telephone pole in College Terrace," said Vierra, who is now a private investigator in San Jose. "We had an obligation to notify the community."

Although College Terrace is a small neighborhood, it contains an estimated 900 to 1,000 households, many of them small cottages that are clustered together or tucked behind larger houses. Out of those dwelling units, police identified "maybe 30 to 40 single girls living alone in those little tiny cottages he always hit," Vierra said.

For those women, "we even went to the extent of getting the phone company involved," he said. Alarms were installed that would go off at the command center if the phone lines were cut.

"What was nice about it was that Palo Alto has some resources," Vierra said. "They let me know I could have whatever I needed. . . . it was really expensive: the manpower, the decoy house."

All the police activity resulted in more than 300 men being stopped and questioned by police, Vierra remembered. Because the rapist struck so often in College Terrace and seemed to know the neighborhood so well, police assumed he lived in it, or nearby.

"I had officers stop literally everybody walking in College Terrace. They took pictures, explained what we were doing and checked all of them out," Vierra said.

But none of these investigations turned up any solid leads.

Colin and Ulla Mick and the College Terrace Residents Association were on the same track. Together with police, they called a series of neighborhood meetings to put neighbors on the alert. The Micks were no strangers to neighborhood organizing. Along with their neighbor James Culpepper and others, they had just spent three years campaigning for traffic barriers to prevent College Terrace from being used as a shortcut from Page Mill Road to Stanford.

"We were fortunate to have an ongoing organization," said Culpepper. "We had organized to get traffic barriers installed in the neighborhood, and that had been a very long political process, and so we knew who was willing to post leaflets and so on." The fliers told people to lock up--the rapist always entered through an unlocked door or window.

In addition to the community meetings and fliers, Colin Mick designed "a little alarm that people could build for about $10 or $12 that would sound a very loud alarm when the power was disconnected."

The 5-year-old Midpeninsula Rape Crisis Center offered battery-powered lights that would go on when the power was cut.

A $500 reward was raised from pledges for information leading to the rapist's arrest.

And in an effort to help police identify cars that did not belong in the neighborhood, the Micks distributed colored stickers for people to put on their vehicles.

The problem, Colin Mick recalled, was that "College Terrace is a real cool neighborhood. It was pretty unthinkable to stop a stranger and say, 'What are you doing and why are you here?' We had students wandering around at all hours of the night, people out walking all day. For better or worse, we had to change that (attitude)."

Over and over again, in neighborhood meetings and newspaper articles, Vierra and Colin Mick would urge residents to report to police any suspicious person or incident, no matter how trivial it might seem. (Ulla Mick was never quoted in the newspapers because it was feared that she might become a target for the rapist.)

Ultimately, two residents' heightened vigilance as a result of all the public education efforts would lead to Carter's capture.

But part of the point, Colin Mick said, was to assuage the fears of female residents, "to try to get people to feel more secure."

"We were trying to find things to do that were positive instead of sitting around waiting to be a victim."

On the day before the rape, Sept. 14, 1979, Susan had found one of the College Terrace Residents Association leaflets on her doorstep. "Part of me noticed it and part of me didn't really believe it had anything to do with me," she said.

She had noticed her cat acting strangely, "sitting on the window sill looking outside, as if there was something out there to watch."

She was 32, a lawyer who had owned her College Terrace cottage since 1971. She had just passed the bar exam and was working long hours at her first job at a law firm.

"When I woke up, it was really dark and I thought I was having a nightmare. And the way I wake up from a nightmare is I scream in the dream. But he didn't go away.

"It takes a while to wake up. I noticed that I wasn't dreaming and that screaming seemed to be causing chaos. I felt that he had something against my neck. I figured that if I didn't want to die I'd better calm down. He wasn't going to go away. Maybe I would drive him into a frenzy by screaming. So I just shut my mouth."

She noticed that he had a knife, and he cut her, just as he had most of his other victims.

"I felt like I'd rather not die. I needed to come out of it alive. I wasn't really sure if he was a killer. I decided that these might be my last moments alive. I decided there was a certain way I wanted to live in those moments. I decided to be very calm and centered.

"I said, 'I know who you are, I know what you want, and I would like you to get it over with.' I thought, well, that's a small price to pay to live.

"The sexual aspect of it was very tiny, insignificant. It was the control, degradation, violation, intrusion: entering my sleep space. It's so creepy that a guy would want that.

"I had this in my head, that he would take me to the hell where he lived and I would die. I didn't want to be in that hell with him, I wanted to be in my own soul. I wanted to control what was happening, at least on the human level. I remember getting this impression like a black hole. His eyes went to nowhere. He was totally unattached to anything. I felt like I really had to remain grounded.

"I think that I was thinking of him as a human being, trying to see him, trying to see what there was in there and relate to it, connect to that on my inside, and I think I did. I saw him as a human being. It sounds obvious, but I saw beyond what he was doing. And I felt like that would protect me. At least if I died I would die in a human moment and not in a monster hell. I can't let his reality be the reality that I live and die.

"He had these rubber gloves on and he got up and pulled up his pants. He pulled off one of the gloves and held out his hand to me. It was kind of shocking--I felt like, I'm going to shake his hand? I shook his cold little dead hand and he left and that was it."

The ritualistic cutting of each victim, the meticulous planning and stalking that went into each attack and the similarity of each rape drew police to the same conclusion Susan reached--that they were dealing with a psychopath. They called in a Palo Alto psychologist who had been working with the department training sexual assault investigators for several years, Diana Sullivan Everstine. "That case--we lived with it, ate it, slept it, drank it," Everstine remembered. "The pressure on all of us was enormous."

She read all the cases and interviewed many of the victims to construct a profile of the attacker that police could use to help find him.

The profile Everstine and her husband, Louis, also a psychologist, developed was a key factor in helping police catch Carter, Vierra said. "It was very helpful."

"One of the things we did was tell the police where not to look," Everstine recalled. Because he wore rubber surgical gloves during every attack, "They thought he was a doctor," she said. "I said, no. This man is someone who doesn't touch, who is detached, cold. He always wore gloves to avoid physical contact."

Everstine predicted that the rapist would be "college-educated, in a technical career--something that kept him away from people. He was a loner by day.

"These were sex/power/revenge rapes," Everstine said. "His rapes were a classic escalating pattern of peeper-prowler who becomes a rapist. A large number don't, but a percentage of them do go on to actual assault.

"He chose women who were not promiscuous, who dated one man at a time, who lived alone--nice professional women. They were just terrorized, just devastated. He was disconnected from any feeling of harm.

"He was in a fantasy world. He initiated as many entries with no rapes. He also got satisfaction out of entering the home. Several victims said they felt the rape for him was not the main event," she said. Most reported that the actual sexual contact lasted less than five minute and that Carter seemed inexperienced at sex.

With some of his victims, "He exhibited submissive, almost polite behavior," Everstine said. For example, the intended victim in the July 4, 1979 rape escaped after asking Carter if she could put in her diaphragm. He allowed her to go into the bathroom by herself and shut the door. She waited as long as she could, and when she came out he had gone.

She predicted that he would be cooperative if stopped away from a crime scene at that he would confess if he was arrested.

"But I was uncomfortable with some of the stuff that was reported by the press," Everstine said. "He was portrayed as this passive, wimpy guy--he's not. He's very dangerous."

John Costa was 22 years old, six months out of the police academy, "a brand-new cop" working the midnight shift in Palo Alto on Saturday, Aug. 10, 1980. Since Nov. 1, 1979, there had been no more rapes in College Terrace. Police theorized that the rapist preferred warmer weather, and waited watchfully until the spring, when they renewed their public education efforts with more meetings and newspaper articles. But spring and summer had passed without incident.

That night, Costa got a call from College Terrace about a suspicious person: "They saw somebody walking around who didn't look right. He wasn't on anyone's property, just didn't look right," Costa said.

"We get calls like that all the time. . . . We know we're going to have to filter through more information when we're asking the community to be more aware of what's going on."

The callers, a couple, had said that the suspicious man had arrived in a pickup truck. Costa went to the neighborhood, found the truck and ran the license plate number, which showed it was registered in the East Bay. He couldn't find the person, but thought it probably was somebody going to a party that was happening a few blocks away on College Avenue.

It was a busy night at minimal staffing, and Costa was soon diverted to handle other calls. But a little later, a second call came in from the same College Terrace couple, reporting that dogs were barking up and down the street.

Costa went back but still couldn't find the man. "That bothered me a little. If there wasn't anything to it, I would have been able to find the guy."

Again he was distracted by other calls.

"When the third call came in, it really started to bother me. But I'm still not thinking College Terrace rapist.

"Like with any other huge case, you never really expect to fall into it. You never really think you're going to get involved in it because it's so big," he said. "Here you are, a brand-new officer working midnight shift and you have all these remarkable people spending thousands of hours trying to catch this guy."

Costa continued looking for the suspicious man, at one point going so far as to climb a tree to get a better vantage point.

"I'm thinking, maybe this guy's hiding every time I drive in looking for him."

So he tried a different strategy. He drove down College Avenue out of the neighborhood with his amber lights flashing, hoping to give the person a signal that he was going someplace important and would be gone for a while. He pulled out on El Camino Real, made a U-turn and waited with all his car's lights turned off.

A few minutes later, out of the neighborhood came the pickup truck. Costa stopped it a few blocks away on El Camino Real. Behind the wheel, alone in the truck, was Melvin Carter.

"He didn't match the sketches," that police had made based on interviews with the victims, Costa said. "He had a beard and didn't resemble the sketches at all."

As Everstine had predicted in the profile, Carter was extremely cooperative. When Costa asked him what he had been doing, Carter promptly admitted he had been prowling.

"I'll never forget the quote," Costa said. "He said, 'I have a bit of the voyeur instinct in me tonight.'"

According to the police report Costa filed at the time, Carter also said, "I know a lot of women here, not on a personal basis, but I was just coming back to visit."

Costa was taken aback. "It caught me by surprise, someone so willing to admit what they were doing, especially when it was illegal," he said.

Even with such incriminating statements, Costa did not have enough cause to arrest Carter. A police officer cannot arrest someone for a misdemeanor--such as prowling--unless it was committed in his presence or there has been a citizen's arrest made.

Costa filled out a field interview report, photographed Carter and his truck, and let him go. The next thing he heard of the case was two or three days later, when Mike Meloy, the sergeant who was supervising the investigating unit, said to him, "That was a great FI (field interview) you wrote." There was still no mention that Carter might be the man they had been looking for.

Despite all the security measures and patrols, despite checking out more than 300 suspects and searching the records of other California cities, there had been no leads in the case College Terrace rapist case. Vierra told a reporter in November 1979 that he was feeling tired and frustrated. The only break had come in April 1980, when Berkeley police had sent out a teletype describing several rapes there that matched the College Terrace attacker's modus operandi.

But Vierra got interested when he saw the field interview notes on Carter. Although Carter did not match the description, mainly because of his beard, the attacks in Berkeley had been committed by a man with a beard.

The information from Costa's report showed Carter, 35, lived and worked in Pleasanton, not far from Berkeley. He was making $36,000 as a metallurgical engineer--a technical profession, as Everstine's psychological profile had predicted. Police called his boss at Kaiser Aluminum and found out that he had grown the beard only recently, that he was considered brilliant, and that he had previously lived in Colorado.

"I ran his record (in Colorado) and that was what convinced me," Vierra said. "They didn't classify them as sexual assaults, but he had grabbed eight or nine women near college campuses and tried to chloroform them. It didn't work--it's not like the movies where you can just chloroform someone. I figured he'd progressed one more level (of violence)." Carter had served a few months in county jail for the assaults.

There were other bits of evidence pointing to Carter. His boss gave Vierra the days Carter had been on vacation during the past few years, and none of the attacks had occurred when he was out of town. He had received a traffic citation between Pleasanton and Berkeley on the day of one of the attacks in Berkeley.

Most of all, the psychological profile "fit him like a glove," Everstine said. There were a few minor inconsistencies. "We said he would not have been in prison--he had done small time in jail. We said he was an only child, and he was a late-in-life child."

It wasn't really enough for an arrest warrant or a search warrant. There was no direct physical evidence, no blood or fingerprints. But Vierra hoped that if he talked to Carter, he would be able to elicit enough evidence to have probable cause to arrest him.

Police felt a sense of urgency. Because they had photographed Carter on Aug. 10, spoken to his boss and left several messages with his answering service, they were worried that if they delayed, he would realize he was a suspect and destroy evidence related to the case. Even worse, there had been an attempted attack in Berkeley a few days earlier, and they were afraid he would strike again soon.

On Sept. 5, 1980, Vierra drove to Pleasanton with Berkeley officer Frank Reynolds. They met with Carter's supervisor in a conference room at Kaiser Aluminum and called Carter in. He was shocked to see them, but remained calm and cooperative. Vierra read him his rights very carefully and told him, "I've been looking forward to meeting you for a long time."

Carter didn't confess right away, but he didn't deny anything either. He led the officers to his office and consented to a search. Reynolds opened a backpack hanging on the door and Carter commented, "Eureka!" Inside were 44 surgical gloves, some of them bloody.

"Once we saw that, we pretty much knew we had him," Vierra said.

Behind a bookcase was the distinctive curved linoleum knife many of the victims had described. At Carter's house, police found the jumpsuit in Carter's dryer, numerous tools that he took with him on his prowling expeditions, and lists of names and addresses from the Question Man column in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Stanford student directory.

While they were searching the house, Palo Alto police detective Fred Porras arrived, along with Costa and another Berkeley officer. After a few hours, the Palo Alto police asked Carter if he would be willing to go back to Palo Alto with them, and he said yes.

While they drove, Vierra asked Carter if he was the College Terrace rapist.

"Yes, Brian, I am," he replied, according to the police report.

He told police that he was responsible for about 70 rapes in the Bay Area since 1970, 20 to 25 of them in College Terrace.

Back in College Terrace, the officers drove slowly around the neighborhood, block by block, and asked Carter to stop wherever he could remember committing an attack. He identified the 11 houses for which police had cases, as well as two more attempts for which they did not.

He remembered details about each of the attacks, such as having to move a glass chess set from in front of one window in order to enter.

He also said he had been planning to make an attack on the night Costa stopped him, but that he gave up and went home after being photographed. He said he had several other victims in mind in College Terrace, and that he had indeed been planning to destroy the evidence.

"There were two Melvins--the stalker in his fantasy world and the everyday Melvin," said Everstine. "Nobody (at his workplace) could believe it was him--such a quiet, shy person--innocuous and polite."

Police booked Carter into the North County jail--just a few blocks from College Terrace--that night on $350,000 bail, later increased to $1.1 million. The next morning, they continued to drive him through the neighborhood; in the next few days, police in Berkeley and San Francisco did the same thing, with similar results.

"It's solid," boasted Capt. Frank Acosta, who headed the Palo Alto detective team, in the Peninsula Times Tribune on Sept. 9, 1980. "Our case will withstand every test."

But not without a fight. Carter was defended by Palo Alto attorneys Tom Nolan and Charles Constantinides. Everstine, who testified at Carter's preliminary hearing, said Nolan was "a very competent, skilled attorney who would do anything to get his client off."

(Both Nolan and Constantinides declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The defense strategy was to argue that the police had not had sufficient probable cause to arrest Carter, and that therefore certain pieces of evidence, such as his confession, should not be allowed.

"The only issue at the preliminary (hearing) was whether or not there was probable cause to arrest Carter based on the (psychological) profile and what other little evidence we had," said Randy Hey, the deputy district attorney who handled the preliminary hearing. "Tom Nolan and I litigated that for some period of time."

In Santa Clara County on Sept. 11, 1980, Carter was charged only with the three rapes and one attempted rape that occurred in 1979, along with a burglary count associated with each attack. He could not be charged with the other seven attacks because the statute of limitations, three years, had run out.

(One change in the law as a direct result of this case was that the statute of limitations in rape cases was doubled, from three to six years. Assemblyman Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, wrote the bill--his first in the Legislature--enacting the change. But it could not be applied retroactively to Carter's earlier attacks.)

In Alameda County a few days later, Carter was charged with 24 counts covering 13 separate incidents. Although Carter was investigated in connection with rapes in four other counties, the only other charge filed against him was one count of rape in Yolo County.

Vierra, Costa, Susan and three other survivors testified at a heated preliminary hearing for Carter. After months of wrangling over gag orders, pretrial motions began in both Santa Clara and Alameda counties in June 1981. Al Bender was the Santa Clara County prosecutor for this part, and again the issue was the admissibility of the confession.

"After it was all over, he pled to the sheet," Bender said, meaning that Carter pleaded no contest to all counts, the equivalent of a guilty plea. On Dec. 21, 1981, Judge John R. Kennedy sentenced him to the maximum term at the time his crimes were committed, 15 years.

(By that time, the laws on sentencing serial sexual offenders had changed enough that Carter would have gotten twice as much time if he had committed his crimes after 1981.)

Kennedy denied Nolan's request for a mental examination and sentencing to a mental institution instead of prison, saying he did not think Carter was mentally ill. He called the rapist "a persistent danger to society," according to newspaper reports at the time.

If the Alameda County judge, Martin Pulich, had had the same opinion of Carter, the rapist would still be in jail.

In the East Bay, where he also pleaded no contest to all charges, Carter faced a maximum sentence of 35 years. On March 18, 1982, Pulich sentenced him to just 10 (plus the 15 from Santa Clara County), saying he chose the lesser term "because Carter's frank admission allowed police all over Northern California to close the books on rapes since 1968," according to newspaper reports.

Melvin Carter was a model prisoner, and under California law, model inmates are automatically paroled when they have served half their sentences. Carter served 12 1/2 years, including the time he spent in the North County Jail. He was released from Soledad Prison in March of this year, despite a last-minute effort to argue that Pulich made a technical error and Carter's sentence should have been four years longer. Carter is now living in rural Modoc County and will remain on parole under strict conditions for three years. After that, he will be a free man.

Everyone involved in the Carter case say they are outraged by the length of his sentence and by Carter's release. Susan also seems somewhat shaken.

"Until he got let go I thought it was a very powerful experience to testify," she said. "He deserved it. I didn't feel sorry for him. It was an empowering experience. But now--15 years--so what? Now what? People will just forget about him. I don't think he should be out on the street. Behaving well in prison doesn't mean he's not going to rape anybody again. God knows what he's stored up."

Nolan has a different view of his client. "He is very remorseful," he said in his only statement about the case. "He is very concerned that people fear him. He's a very sensitive, intelligent and caring person."

But Everstine isn't buying it. "Melvin Carter was an upstanding rapist--who probably will do it again," she said.

Ulla Mick kept up with the Carter case, calling once every six months to see if he was getting out. When she heard he had, she helped organize rallies and letter-writing to prevent Carter from being released in Hayward. Although she knows that plenty of people in College Terrace have gone back to leaving doors and windows unlocked, her experience with the case has strengthened her belief in getting involved.

"We have to look out for each other, we have to care about the other person because that person could be you," she said.

"Helplessness goes away . . . when you do something. To have any change in our society we've got to always be on our toes."

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