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Thursday, August 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State is fighting to keep infamous rapist locked up

Seattle Times staff reporter

Predator criteria


Kevin Coe will be in Spokane County Superior Court on Sept. 6 for a first hearing on a civil commitment as a sexually violent predator. To commit him as a predator, the attorney general must prove Coe meets these criteria:

• He was charged or convicted of a sexually violent offense.

• He currently suffers from a "mental abnormality" or personality disorder.

• The mental abnormality or personality disorder causes him serious difficulty controlling his sexually dangerous behavior and makes him "more likely than not" to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence.

Source: Office of Attorney General

Kevin Coe's rape trial in Seattle in 1985 was surrounded with grim tabloid drama. His mother, convicted of hiring a hit man to kill a judge. His father, a prominent newspaper editor. And Coe, facing a second trial as the notorious South Hill rapist of Spokane.

The odd and sad case re-emerged Wednesday when Attorney General Rob McKenna filed a petition to commit Coe, scheduled for release Sept. 8, to Washington's sex-predator treatment institution on McNeil Island.

Coe would be by far the most high-profile resident there.

The filing in Spokane Superior Court means Coe will likely face another trial in the city where dozens of rapes of female joggers and walkers between 1978 and 1981 instilled a panic that is still a stark memory.

After two trials and two Supreme Court rulings, Coe was convicted of a single rape. He was sentenced to 25 years but continues to profess his innocence.

Coe, now 59, said in an interview from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla that McKenna's decision was "just awful news."

"Isn't this like throwing Christians to the lions?" Coe said of facing a new jury in Spokane. "It's an extreme, extreme injustice, an absolute extreme injustice. It's bad enough that I've done 25 years for a crime I didn't do, and all the evidence says so."

McKenna said at a news conference in Spokane that his staff reviewed 67,000 pages of Coe's court, medical and police records and his own writings before deciding to file the petition.

The filing is supported by a 98-page psychological evaluation done this year that recites, in graphic detail, dozens of uncharged crimes linked to Coe, including rape, child molestation and flashing. The state's sex-predator law allows prosecutors to tell jurors about uncharged crimes to support a diagnosis of mental illness, and to show potential risk if a defendant is released.

Coe, who has refused sex-offender treatment in prison, did not meet with the evaluator, a forensic psychologist in California. But the evaluator reviewed Coe's history and correspondence, including a tape sent to a pen pal from prison, and concluded he was a sexual sadist, an exhibitionist, obsessed with feces, and possibly a pedophile.

"The decision was not difficult," McKenna said. "We believe the evidence is overwhelming in showing that Mr. Coe is a sexually violent predator and should be committed."

Washington's sexually violent predator laws allow the state to hold high-risk sex offenders for treatment after they finish their prison term. Washington, the first state to pass such a law in 1990, holds 243 people at an institution on McNeil Island in Puget Sound.

Coe, a former radio disc jockey and real-estate agent, was arrested March 10, 1981, after two weeks of police surveillance. Spokane police at the time were under pressure to solve a string of violent rapes in which the attacker thrust his gloved hand down victims' throats to silence them.

"It was a frightening time," said Patricia Thompson, a former Spokane County deputy prosecutor who tried Coe. "We had rapes going on for a number of years and the police weren't able to find who this person was. Women were afraid to go out and jog and be out at night, never knowing when they would be attacked."

At least six victims identified Coe by voice or face, but detectives undermined their case by hypnotizing several of the women. The single conviction that withstood Coe's appeals involved a 27-year-old woman who was not hypnotized.

That woman, Julie Harmia, described being ambushed as she got off a bus at dusk, dragged to a vacant lot, beaten until she saw "stars" and brutally raped. The attacker's gloved hand, encrusted with dirt and grass, was thrust down her throat so far that she had trouble swallowing for days because of her injuries.

"I haven't slept for 25 years," Harmia said Wednesday.

She said the attorney general's filing is a relief, but it does not dispel the anxiety that grew this summer as Coe's potential release date neared.

"I'm a lot more nervous and very stressed," said Harmia, now a 53-year-old teacher. "I've been looking over my shoulder a lot. ... Not that I ever thought he would hunt me down, but it's just that every woman in the state or wherever he would locate would be in jeopardy. That's just the facts."

She is preparing to testify a third time if needed. She said she is strengthened by the fact that she is the victim who got the clearest look at Coe's face.

"It's my duty. I don't represent just me, I represent all of his victims. I wouldn't want to let any of them down," she said.

For Coe's first trial in 1981, media coverage was so intense that jurors were brought to Spokane from King County. Coe was convicted of four counts of rape and acquitted on two.

His father, Gordon Coe, managing editor of the Spokane Daily Chronicle, strongly backed his son, as did his mother, Ruth Coe. She provided alibis for some attacks but was convicted in 1982 of trying to hire a hit man — an undercover police officer — to kill or turn into a "vegetable" the prosecutor and judge. Coe's parents died in the 1990s.

The state Supreme Court in 1984 tossed out the convictions, objecting to the hypnosis. In Coe's second trial, a King County jury convicted him on three of the four charges. But the Supreme Court again objected to the use of hypnosis and overturned two of the three convictions.

Shortly after sentencing in Coe's first trial, the Spokane County Prosecutor's office destroyed rape kits containing semen evidence. That eliminated the potential for Coe's lawyers to get DNA testing and, according to Coe, exonerate him.

Coe is pressing the state appeals court for a different type of test, to compare his sperm "motility," or swimming speed, against the motility from a destroyed rape kit. The motility was recorded before the kit was destroyed. He says that is real science as opposed to the "junk science" of his psychological evaluation.

With five of his six convictions tossed out, Coe said, the attorney general would not be pushing to commit him if he weren't so notorious.

"There are real nut cases out there they need to be going after," Coe said.

Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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