Man Is Arrested in Torture of Student at Columbia
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By ANDY NEWMAN
Published: April 21, 2007
A 30-year-old ex-convict was charged yesterday in the rape and torture of a Columbia University journalism school graduate student last week.
The man, Robert A. Williams, who once served eight years for attempted murder, was arrested on Thursday night at the scene of an unrelated burglary in Hollis, Queens, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said. He had been identified by the police as the suspect earlier in the day, and a police photograph of him circulated widely.
Mr. Williams is charged with kidnapping, arson, attempted murder, rape, robbery and sex abuse in the attack on the 23-year-old student in Hamilton Heights in Manhattan, the police said.
The woman was returning to her apartment on Hamilton Terrace near West 141st Street on April 13 at 9:30 p.m. when a man who had gotten into the lobby entered the elevator with her and forced his way into her apartment, Mr. Kelly said.
Over the next 19 hours, Mr. Kelly said, the man tied the woman to her bed with computer cables and taped her mouth closed, raped and sodomized her repeatedly, burned her with hot water and bleach, slit her eyelids with scissors, and force-fed her an overdose of ibuprofen or a similar pain reliever.
At one point last Saturday afternoon, Mr. Kelly said, the assailant took the woman’s A.T.M. card, withdrew $200 at a bodega on West 141st Street and returned to her apartment. A few hours later, he set fire to the woman’s futon and left her, unconscious, to die, Mr. Kelly said. She woke up to the smell of smoke, used the flames to melt the cable that bound her to the bed frame, and escaped, Mr. Kelly said.
The student remained hospitalized in stable condition yesterday with chemical burns on her face and torso, heat burns on her hands, liver damage from the pain pills, and cuts, Mr. Kelly said. Neither her name nor that of the hospital has been released.
The attack set off a citywide manhunt, and the police released a sketch of the attacker based on the bodega security video and descriptions by the victim and by people who had seen the man in the lobby.
Mr. Kelly said that the police received a tip that the man in the sketch resembled someone who used the street name Pooh. Checking “Pooh” in the department’s nickname database, Mr. Kelly said, investigators found Mr. Williams, who fit the description of the attacker. The police initially released the identity of the suspect as William Roberts, one of the aliases that Mr. Williams has used.
On Thursday around 5:40 p.m., the police were called to 190-25 Woodhull Avenue in Queens on a report of a burglary, Mr. Kelly said. A woman there told officers that she had seen a man leaving a vacant apartment next door to hers as she returned home, then noticed that her own apartment had been burglarized.
Officers saw Mr. Williams leaving the building, questioned him and found his story wanting, Mr. Kelly said, noting that the man was carrying a screwdriver and a hammer. He was arrested without incident, Mr. Kelly said.
At the 103rd Precinct station house, Mr. Kelly said, officers checked Mr. Williams to see if he had scars on his abdomen like those of the rapist. “The scars matched the description,” Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Williams, who is homeless, has a lengthy police record dating to his childhood, the authorities said. He was charged in a murder as a juvenile, though the outcome of that case is sealed, a law enforcement official said.
In 1996, Mr. Williams was convicted of attempted murder and served the maximum eight-year sentence, in part because he was found guilty of 28 disciplinary violations in prison, said Linda Foglia, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Correctional Services. The infractions included assaulting prisoners and staff members, harassment, lewd conduct and throwing bodily secretions.
On the Columbia campus yesterday, Jenna Komerin, a master’s student in arts administration, said that the attack had changed her behavior.
“I’ve never been worried about walking home by myself at night,” she said, “but last night I walked back from class with another girl.”
Concerning Mr. Williams’s arrest, Ms. Komerin said, “I feel relief, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t some other psycho out there.”