A truck driver arrested last month and charged with sexually assaulting a Columbia woman has been linked to other attacks on women from Virginia to California, according to police.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Thursday that investigators have spoken to five women who reported being attacked by Cornelius Julian Howard Jr., a 35-year-old independent trucker from Virginia.
“He is a serial rapist based on the number,” Lott said.
The Richland County Sheriff’s Department began investigating Howard in January after a Columbia woman reported that he had broken into her home and sexually assaulted her twice after they had met through an online dating site.
Howard was arrested Jan. 24 on charges of criminal sexual conduct and burglary and released on bond from the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.
Authorities are not sure of his whereabouts, Lott said.
During the investigation, sheriff’s deputies began calling women whose numbers they retrieved from Howard’s cell phone, Lott said. They also got in touch with women who were friends with Howard on Facebook. The department has spoken to more than 100 women and even has received one international call about Howard, Lott said.
The five women said Howard had attacked them, police said. But the women have not pressed charges.
Howard is not the only truck driver to make headlines this month in rape investigations. .
Authorities in Connecticut have arrested Aaron H. Thomas, 39, and linked him to a series of rapes and other attacks on women during 13 years and across four states, according to multiple news reports. Thomas, who is described as a former truck driver, has been labeled the “East Coast Rapist.”
The five women told Richland investigators their situations were similar to the one reported in January in Columbia.
In that case, the woman told police she had met Howard through a dating website and agreed to meet him for lunch at a Columbia restaurant. After eating, the woman and Howard rented a movie and went to her apartment to watch it, police said.
There, Howard allegedly raped the woman as she repeatedly told him to stop and to leave. Howard left but returned and broke into the victim’s apartment and allegedly attack her again, police said.
The five additional women live in Virginia, Texas, California and in the Midwest, Lott said. The alleged attacks took place between June 2010 and January of this year, he said.
None of the five women lives in Richland County. Thus far, those women have not filed reports with their local police departments, Lott said.
Lott described the Columbia woman who reported her attack as brave. The State does not name victims of sexual assault.
Rape and other sexual assaults are the most underreported crimes in the country, said Vicki Bourus, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
That’s because of the embarrassment and fear women feel after an attack, Bourus said. And the process of going through a police investigation and criminal court proceedings is brutal, she said.
“This is a chronic and tragic dilemma,” Bourus said. “This really is a demonstration of how low the reporting of rapes and sexual assaults are.”
Bourus’ agency operates 16 sexual trauma centers in South Carolina. Last year, those centers received calls for help on more than 5,000 attacks, she said.
Bourus hopes the Columbia woman who reported the alleged assault by Howard will inspire other victims to report attacks.
“When one woman comes forward it does empower other women,” she said.