Orlando rape victim fights to keep suspect behind bars

Orlando Sentinel (Florida) FINAL, A SECTION; FLORIDA
BYLINE: Bianca Prieto, Orlando Sentinel

Orlando, FL

For nearly two decades, Mary lived with an overwhelming fear that the man who raped her at knifepoint would attack again.

Some nights, she slept in a bedroom closet. Other times, she sat up in bed, gripping a gun, with the rapist's threat echoing through her sleepless mind.

"If you call the police, I will come back to kill you."

But she did call police -- year after year -- and every time, the answer filled her with dread. No arrests. No suspects.

But advanced DNA testing recently revealed a suspect: George W. Girtman, a violent felon already behind bars after being convicted of a series of rapes that frightened Orlando in the 1980s and 1990s.

Now the clock is ticking.

Authorities want to charge and convict Girtman with another rape -- of Mary and three other women -- before he is released from prison in less than two years.

If they succeed, Girtman, now 56, could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. If they fail, Girtman will be released in September 2011.

Mary -- her real name is not being used because she is a rape victim -- is determined to keep him behind bars, even if it means testifying against him and reliving the horror of that Easter weekend almost 20 years ago.

100 rapes in 6 years

The rapist began terrorizing women -- sometimes children -- in Orlando in the summer of 1985.

A 12-year-old girl was pulled from her bed and attacked in her backyard. A woman was raped in front of her daughter. Those attacks and others frustrated investigators and terrified the then-Malibu Homes subdivision west of Ivey Lane and south of Old Winter Garden Road.

As many as 100 rapes in about six years were linked to the attacker, who earned a nickname: the Malibu Rapist.

Police urged residents to secure their homes and report suspicious behavior. Single women in their late 20s or early 30s who lived alone or with small children were targeted, police said.

Mary, who lived alone and was in her 30s at the time, had heard the warnings but never thought it would happen to her, she recently told an Orlando Sentinel reporter.

It was about 3 a.m. Easter weekend in 1990, and she was just drifting off to sleep when she was startled by a loud noise.

"Johnny?" she called out, thinking her brother had arrived for the holiday. She turned to her bedroom door.

"Something came down on my face, and a knife [came] to my throat," she said. He tied her up with a scarf and raped her.

After the attack, he walked to the dresser, stole some money and threatened to kill her if she told police.

'Hit in the gut'

By the time Mary called for help, frustrated detectives had already spent thousands of hours trying to stop the Malibu Rapist. They developed task forces, examined DNA and warned residents. But they couldn't stop him. Frustrated investigators came to dread late-night and early-morning emergency calls. They feared each call was from a rape victim. Many were.

"It was like you were hit in the gut" every time the phone rang, said former Orlando police Sgt. Bob Beal.

Mary's life fell apart as her case grew colder.

Her fiancé left after learning about the rape. She became a workaholic and an overeater, going from a size 7 to a size 18. Friends and family ostracized her.

She found solace in a bedroom closet, too afraid to be elsewhere in her home. Later, she would sit up in bed with a gun in her hand, waiting for the rapist's return.

"I could never let my guard down," she said. "I always needed full control of my faculties."

Still denies rapes

Today, convicted rapist Girtman is gaunt and bald and spends his days at the Polk City Correctional Institution playing in the prison band and studying the Bible.

He speaks softly when he recalls his childhood in Apopka and the family he has disgraced by his crimes.

Girtman admits being a burglar and a thief -- not a rapist.

He was first convicted of rape when he was 23.

A jury said he broke into an apartment in 1976 and attacked a 29-year-old secretary as she held her screaming 2-year-old son.

He was sentenced to 45 years in prison but released after seven. A parole board -- a panel that no longer exists in Florida -- reduced his sentence.

The Malibu attacks started a year after his release. Authorities noticed patterns: the types of households he targeted and how and when he got in.

Orlando rape victim fights to keep suspect behind bars Orlando Sentinel (Florida) March 7, 2010 Sunday He pried open locks or slipped inside unlocked doors between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. while residents slept.

He covered the victim's face or his own, threatened them with a knife and then attacked them. The rapes went on for years.

Police caught a break Jan. 9, 1991, when Girtman was arrested for breaking into a woman's home on Pleasant Valley Court. Girtman admits he was attempting to burglarize the home, but wouldn't go into detail.

"It was about money," he said. He said he gave up on the break-in after having a change of heart.

At about that time, dispatchers received a 911 call from a woman who saw a man prying open the side door of her neighbor's house. The neighbor was a single woman with three young children.

Girtman poked his head out of the door just as officers arrived. He took off running but was eventually caught.

While running, Girtman threw a large knife to the ground. Rape investigators, including Deborah Beavers Driscoll, interviewed him at the Orange County Jail and later obtained a court order for his DNA.

Driscoll had studied every rape -- memorizing names and addresses of victims and the circumstances of each attack.

"I was angry we couldn't stop this." Driscoll said. "I really wanted to catch this guy."

The DNA test confirmed her suspicions about Girtman. His profile matched all 13 cases that were tested. In 1994, he pleaded no contest to six counts of sexual battery.

He maintains his innocence, saying he accepted the state's plea deal because he "started to get the feeling that my attorney didn't want to fight for me anymore."

He was sentenced to 45 years in prison. But at the time, lengthy sentences were automatically cut in half, the Department of Corrections said, and inmates also sliced more time away with good behavior.

Girtman must serve only 17 years, putting his release 18 months away.

Peace, strength

If authorities convict Girtman for raping Mary, or any of the other three recently solved cold cases, he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

There is no statute of limitation on what he is suspected of doing to the four women: armed sexual battery, which is punishable by a life sentence.

Mary is ready to help make that happen. She is prepared to go to court to testify about the worst moment in her life.

After all, the recent DNA test that linked her attack to Girtman was a breakthrough after years of disappointments and restless nights.

Orlando police Detective Michael Moreschi, who heads the cold-case unit, had the DNA from Mary's case retested last year. He told her about the match just before Thanksgiving.

Knowing there is finally a suspect has given her strength. It has provided some peace. The fear hasn't vanished, but it doesn't seem as overwhelming anymore.

"I don't care if the Good Master decides to tap me on the shoulder and says, '[Mary,] it's time for you to go home'; Orlando rape victim fights to keep suspect behind bars Orlando Sentinel (Florida) March 7, 2010 Sunday I'd go willingly," she said. "Everything I've prayed for throughout the years has been answered."

CONTACT: Bianca Prieto can be reached at or 407-420-5620.

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