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Laura Neuman sought justice and found a mission

The Baltimore Sun

When she learned that police were finally about to arrest the man who years before had slipped into her bedroom, held a gun to her temple and raped her, Laura Neuman made a pact.

If this works out, she prayed, I will find a way to make a difference and help other people.

As it turned out, Neuman's persistence over 19 years in pressing to have her rape case solved has had a surprisingly sweeping effect.

Five years after a Baltimore man named Alphonso W. Hill pleaded guilty to raping Neuman in 1983, police charged him last week with six more sexual assaults and suspect he might be responsible for more than two dozen others in Baltimore County. The key to cracking the six new cases, police say, was a detective's recollection of a news segment about Neuman.

"I was just on a mission - for me personally - and I was just determined that my case was going to be at least reopened, if not solved," said Neuman, who went on to form a foundation that helps rape victims.

"I thought I was doing something just to make my life better," she said of pushing for her case to be solved, "and now it's helped so many other women as well. It's amazing."

As is the case for many rape victims, the trauma of the attack did not fade with time.

For nearly two decades, Neuman struggled to form close relationships. She dived into a career as a hard-charging manager of technology companies. She refused to live alone. And she routinely checked the closets and corners of her home each night - sometimes holding the butcher knife she kept under her pillow.

But much has changed for the Annapolis woman since she walked into a Baltimore courtroom Sept. 30, 2002, to confront the man who attacked her when she was 18. There, Hill pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Now, at age 42, Neuman is married and has two young children. She met her husband, Paul Volkman, through friends the night after Hill was first brought to court to hear the charges against him. She no longer works full time. She accepts many speaking engagements about rape and its lasting impact. And through her nonprofit Laura Neuman Foundation, she has helped rape victims across the country fight for cold cases to be reopened.

"I would say that my rape case being solved was one of the most significant events in my life," Neuman said - topped only by getting married and giving birth to her children, 3-year-old Alex and 17-month-old Avery. "It was a life-changing event."

But as quickly as her life changed after Hill's arrest, it was painfully slow getting to that point.

From the night Neuman was raped, police seemed not to believe her account, she says. Her periodic calls to police over the years to check on her case went largely unanswered. Even after seeing a segment on the television news magazine 20/20 about Baltimore's efforts to solve old rape cases with DNA evidence, it took Neuman two more months of calls before she reached a detective who took up her case.

The date was April 8, 2002.

Within three days, Bernard Holthaus and Chester Norton - then detectives assigned to the city's newly created sex crimes cold-case unit - had matched fingerprints lifted from the windowsill of Neuman's apartment the night she was raped. They belonged to Hill, a graduate of Edmondson High School who had been in and out of jail for most of his life.

Hill confessed later to the rape. But he was adamant that it had been the only time he had attacked a woman.

Neuman wasn't so certain.

"I was sure that there were others," she said. "He just seemed to know what he was doing."

Since 2003, Baltimore County police have systematically examined unsolved sex crimes that might have evidence worth testing for DNA.

In June, county detectives began looking for an unidentified suspect in six unsolved rapes in the county and one in Baltimore. DNA analysis had revealed that one man was the source of physical evidence in the attacks. But the genetic profile did not match any of the DNA samples in the state's database of convicted felons, police said.

One detective working on the cases received a tip while discussing the six unsolved rapes over dinner with her husband, a Baltimore police detective. He mentioned a 48 Hours news segment about Neuman's case that was shown during his police academy training.

The county police detective watched the tape and "felt strongly that Alphonso Hill could be a suspect because of the similarities to the cases she had been looking at," said Cpl. Michael Hill, a county police spokesman. She then checked whether Alphonso Hill's DNA had been entered into the state database. It had not.

On Aug. 13, two other county detectives went to the Cumberland prison where Hill is serving a 15-year sentence for raping Neuman and swabbed the inside of the inmate's cheek for DNA. The sample matched the DNA evidence from six unsolved county rape cases, police said.

Hill, 55, was charged Aug. 28 with 30 counts, including rape, kidnapping and other offenses, in those attacks, which occurred between 1978 and 2000 in the Towson area, primarily along the Loch Raven Boulevard corridor.

A Baltimore police spokesman said detectives are investigating the city rape in which Hill's DNA also matched physical evidence submitted for analysis.

Before the announcement of Hill's recent arrest, county police had collected evidence in another 20 unsolved rapes from the same area and time period in which the convicted rapist is now a suspect. As additional rape victims have called police, that list has grown to include sexual assaults from the 1970s and 1980s that investigators had not considered during their review, the county police spokesman said.

Susan H. Hazlett, a Baltimore County prosecutor assigned to the sex-crimes unit, said she has never in her career seen so many rapes attributed to one man - even if no more than the current six are prosecuted.

"It's remarkable," she said. "It's a real credit to the police anytime they're able to devote the resources to take apart cold cases like this."

For Neuman, the fact that her persistence and her willingness to speak openly about her attack has led to an arrest in cases that have undoubtedly traumatized other women is a pleasant surprise.

"I didn't fully grasp that at first, but the reality of it is starting to set in," she said. "I could never have imagined that. It is a gift."

She said she received a call Thursday from one of the women whom Hill was charged last week with raping, and detectives have told her that some of the other victims have expressed interest in speaking with her as well.

Neuman said she hopes Hill's arrest will bring to their lives the resolution - not closure, she emphasized, but resolution - that she experienced.

"I just keep going back to the feeling that I had when a name and a face was put to this person," she said. "Until a name and a face is attached to that person, anyone could be that person. It could be the person walking down the street, passing you on the sidewalk.

"Once you know who they are and once you know they have been charged and sentenced, the rape can have a different role in your life," she added. "You don't get over it. But you can move on."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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