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BLOOMINGTON - Four women - all single and in their early 20s - may have been raped by the same man who broke into their apartments during separate but similar attacks over the last three years, Bloomington police said Friday.

The announcement and public plea for help came about 10 months after police sought to dispel rumors of a serial rapist in the Twin Cities. Police officials now say they waited until there was more evidence that the crimes were related.

The sexual assaults each occurred in early morning hours and the suspect may have watched his victims on one or more occasions to find an opportunity to attack, Bloomington Police Lt. Tim Stanesa said, asking for the community's help to catch the potential serial rapist.

The Bloomington Police Department's public plea for information comes following an FBI report that concluded enough evidence and similarities exist among the four attacks to suggest the same person could be the culprit, Stanesa said.

"We've had a lot of leads, but a lot of the leads didn't pan out," Stanesa said, adding the department has had a detective working on the case full time since January. "We haven't come up with anyone we'd classify as a No. 1 suspect."

Investigators believe the attacker, who concealed his face when he sexually assaulted the four women, slipped into the apartments through unlocked doors and windows, surprising the victims, Stanesa said. None of the apartments showed any signs of being broken into, Stanesa said.

Police said the two most recent attacks occurred in January. The others took place in April 2003 and December 2002. Stanesa said Bloomington police didn't warn the public about a possible serial rapist earlier because they didn't want to threaten their ongoing investigations.

"The downside of going public is that we didn't want to get any false leads or any false information," Stanesa said. Detectives also were unsure whether the attacks were linked and noted that the FBI has only said they're possibly related.

In February, Bloomington police called a news conference to dispel talk around town about a serial rapist. "Rumors circulating throughout the community about a serial rapist have not been substantiated," the department said in a prepared statement.

Stanesa said Friday the department didn't have enough evidence at the time to conclude that any of the rapes were connected. After consulting with agents from the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit several months ago, detectives started to believe in the link between the four unsolved assaults.

The victims, who were all surprised by the suspect, were unable to give police anything other than a vague description. Police said the man apparently made statements during the attacks that suggest he knew personal information about some victims.

Others might come forward

With national statistics indicating that only one in seven sexual assaults is reported to police, investigators also believe there's a high probability that some women may come forward to talk about unreported attacks, Stanesa said.

Cari Sherman, medical legal advocate for Stepping Stones, a nonprofit program that offers services for victims of sexual assaults, urged women to use commonsense safety practices, such as locking their doors and windows seeking help when someone makes them uncomfortable.

"The victims often think it's their fault this happened to them," Sherman said. "They need to know it's not their fault."

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