RACINE — Two attempted rapes in Racine almost two decades ago share a host of striking similarities.
Each occurred at about 5 a.m. They happened five weeks apart. The attacks occurred about six blocks from each other, and the victims were single white women. Each woman awoke to find an attacker straddling her in her bed.
The similarities don’t end there. In both attacks, the man wore some sort of mask in addition to a nylon jacket or sweatshirt being draped around his head to hide his face, police and court records show. He entered through an elevated window and was armed with a knife.
Police and prosecutors contend the similarities end there, and that a different man committed each crime.
But the man convicted in the first attack, Racine resident Daniel Scheidell, and supporters working to clear his name dispute that. They believe the two attempted rapes were committed by the same man, Joseph M. Stephen, 44, and hope new DNA evidence, and the similarities between those two crimes, will gain a new trial for Scheidell in Racine County.
“That’s not common. Rapes don’t happen this way very often,” said Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director Carrie Sperling, who is fighting for a new trial for Scheidell. “To have two of them together is just bizarre.”
Scheidell, now 65, is serving 25 years behind bars for the attack on May 20, 1995, which occurred about five weeks earlier than the June 27 assault that Stephen now stands accused of committing.
In a Nov. 20, 1995, letter from Scheidell’s trial attorney, Debra Patterson, she stated a probation agent revealed that the Racine Police Department had circulated a memo to the Probation and Parole Office “that there may be a serial rapist in the Racine area” at about the time of the first attack.
Sperling believes Stephen committed both attacks.
And a DNA match last year between Stephen and the second attempted rape plays a large role in Sperling’s belief, and her hope it will prompt a new trial for Scheidell.
In Sperling’s motion for Scheidell to receive a new trial, she writes that the “newly discovered evidence that Stephen assaulted (the second woman) in a strikingly similar manner to (the woman Scheidell was convicted of attacking) is critical to a full trial on the key issue of identity.”
That evidence, Sperling writes, presents an alternative perpetrator in Scheidell’s case, and Scheidell’s jury never heard that evidence — because it only was discovered last year.
Sperling said now she has to prove to a Racine County judge that “there’s a reasonable probability” that evidence linking Stephen to the “eerily similar crime” would have caused jurors in Scheidell’s trial “to have a reasonable doubt. We do have a very strong belief that (the jury’s verdict) would be different.”
Stephen, a convicted sex offender, was charged last month in the second attack – which occurred while Scheidell was in jail for the first rape attempt. In the case of the second attack, evidence was stored in a rape kit, untested for years, Sperling said.
Racine County District Attorney Rich Chiapete disputes Sperling’s characterization.
“First of all, the assertion that the state somehow sat on evidence is untrue. These two cases are mutually exclusive and in our view have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There is no DNA evidence in the case in which Mr. (Scheidell) was convicted,” Chiapete stated in an email. “Further, Mr. (Scheidell) was convicted after a jury trial. During that trial, his victim testified that she knew Mr. (Scheidell) and that he was her attacker.”
Chiapete wasn’t available for further comment.
It was after members of the Wisconsin Innocence Project began investigating Scheidell’s case that the rape kit from the June attack was submitted to the State Crime Lab for testing, court records show. On July 23, 2013, the DNA match came back to Stephen, according to his criminal complaint.
Sperling said crime lab officials notified their office of that match on July 29, 2013. The clock then began ticking – giving prosecutors one year to charge Stephen in the second attempted rape, Sperling explained.
Scheidell “has been eligible for release for … maybe five years now, but he won’t be released because he won’t admit guilt and go into treatment. He’s been up (for parole) several times,” Sperling said.
Scheidell’s sister, Kathy Heisler of Racine, said she feels optimistic that her brother will receive a new trial, and he does, too.
“We finally feel that this is such a good chance,” said Heisler, who is retired. “He’s never really been excited about something happening before now.”
She said she firmly believes that her brother has spent almost 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. While imprisoned, he developed and was treated for colon cancer and bowel obstructions.
“I want him to have a chance to enjoy life again,” Heisler said.