After the first rape last month, women in Philadelphia’s sex-work and strip-club industries were on edge for days, sharing physical descriptions of the attacker on Instagram and whispering to coworkers to drive home in pairs.

”This is just one of those stories that caught wind,” said a woman who performs under the name BammRose, and founded Stilettos Inc., a Philadelphia sex worker advocacy group. “But being stalked, harassed, and sexually assaulted? These are some of the things sex workers experience every day.”

Over four days in May, the same man stalked seven women and sexually assaulted three of them across the city and the suburbs. Police believed he took steps to evade detection, switching out guns and cars, and once posing as a utility worker to gain access to a North Philly apartment building where he robbed and sexually assaulted two women.

But there were mistakes. As investigators across multiple states shared notes about what looked to be a serial rapist and robber, they realized the man at times wore the same clothing: jeans covered in paint splotches, a Supreme branded mask, and a fire-engine red T-shirt with the words: “Legend in the making.”

And ultimately, they say, they were able to link him to the name an Indianapolis detective got in April after scanning fingerprints off a condom wrapper at a crime scene: Kevin Bennett, a 28-year-old who’d spent much of his adult life in jail.

The print wasn’t enough to charge him. And a month later, police say, Bennett was preying on women in Philadelphia.

Court records and interviews with investigators from Mississippi to Philadelphia detail an alleged crime spree staggering in scope, spanning eight states over 50 days, until Bennett was apprehended in late May. He’s a suspect in at least five rapes, three jewelry-store robberies, and a handful of stalking and assault incidents.

Bennett remains jailed in Indiana after pleading not guilty to drug and gun charges last month. Many more counts are expected, and the investigation is active. What’s not yet clear is what prompted the spree, and what drew him to Philadelphia.

A multistate investigation

Born in Indianapolis, Bennett dropped out of high school after 10th grade and spent most of his 20s incarcerated. After a robbery conviction in 2011, he spent time in disciplinary housing, once pleading guilty to battery after a corrections officer said Bennett threw a cup of urine on him and laughed.

He was released in 2019 and wrapped up in the system again within a year. In fall 2020, police in Indianapolis say he fled a traffic stop and crashed into a fence, then the next month was arrested for allegedly stealing designer merchandise from Macy’s. He posted a $250 cash bond and was released.

When asked during a court hearing after his arrest last month if he had any family he’d like to contact, Bennett was silent.

The FBI’s Nashville office is leading the investigation into the rapes and robberies, and it’s unclear when the probe began. The earliest incident disclosed so far was an April 2 rape in Indianapolis of a woman who worked at a strip club and said a gunman attacked her in her apartment building, dragging her down a flight of stairs and raping her in a bathroom.

Police spent the first critical days of the investigation looking into a man who was in the building after the assault and matched the description of the attacker, but who ultimately turned out to have a viable alibi. According to court records, surveillance reviewed 10 days after the assault showed the perpetrator left the building after the assault and never returned.

Meanwhile, police in the Deep South were tracking a pattern. On April 5, two men robbed a Kay Jewelers store inside a mall in Hattiesburg, Miss., a city of 45,000.

Police released images of the robbers and, thanks to “the power of social media,” according to Officer Ryan Moore, discovered one of them had swiped diamond jewelry from other Kay stores — one in Louisiana, one in Alabama — that same day. He had a distinct appearance: a stocky build, hair that fell to his chest, and a bright red T-shirt.

A day after those robberies, a woman in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., a Nashville suburb six hours from Hattiesburg, told police a man followed her from work at a strip club and raped her in her apartment.

Mt. Juliet Capt. Tyler Chandler said investigators used a network of cameras with license-plate recognition software to track the victim’s car that night. Then they identified the vehicle following hers: a red Cadillac CTS without a license plate.

The strip club had surveillance video of a man climbing into a red Cadillac; he too had chest-length hair and a red T-shirt.

Within three days, Mt. Juliet police and investigators probing the jewelry-store robberies knew they had the same suspect. But they had no idea who he was.

They alerted the FBI.

‘Extremely difficult to solve’

By mid-April, the detective working the April 2 rape case in Indianapolis got his break when the crime scene condom wrapper yielded a fingerprint that matched Bennett’s.

No charges were filed, but that’s not unusual. It’s nearly impossible to obtain an arrest warrant with just a fingerprint, according to Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“These things don’t work like on TV where you push the button and the DNA comes back within three commercials,” he said. “It can take weeks. Stranger rape cases are extremely difficult to solve.”

Nearly a month had passed when Special Victims Unit detectives in Philadelphia detected a jarring pattern: over four days beginning May 15, workers at four different strip clubs reported they were followed home by a man in a gray Dodge Charger with no license plate.

In one case, an employee from Cheerleaders in South Philadelphia said the man followed her home, then fled when she screamed. Later that morning, police say he returned to the same apartment, posing as a utility worker to gain access, and raped two other women — her roommates and coworkers — who were inside. The victims recognized him from Cheerleaders the night before.

Strippers in Philadelphia said they began to feel uneasy. They shared the man’s description with one another even before his picture was released by police, and they tapped out messages in group chats, reminding friends to carry a knife or offering rides to coworkers.

Joanne Archambault, a retired San Diego police sergeant and CEO of End Violence Against Women International, said serial rapists target victims they see as vulnerable. Sexual violence is about power and control, and offenders sometimes think sex workers won’t be believed.

A majority of sexual assault incidents — especially when the victims are members of marginalized communities — aren’t reported to police, Archambault said.

“It makes me wonder,” she said, “what else is out there?”

An arrest outside a restaurant

In Philadelphia, police worked with federal investigators and identified Bennett as their suspected rapist in less than a week. On May 20, five days after the first reported incident in the city, they publicized surveillance footage. The next day, they named Bennett as “wanted.”

According to court records, FBI agents the same day asked a group of Indianapolis police and federal agents to track down Bennett. The following afternoon, May 22, they apprehended him. He had just hopped in a silver Chrysler after picking up lunch at a Royal Fish and Chicken.

Police say they found guns, methamphetamine, and cash on him, and federal prosecutors filed drug trafficking charges. Indianapolis officials charged Bennett with rape in connection with the April 2 incident.

No one has been charged in connection with the alleged April 6 rape in Tennessee, but Chandler said: “We no longer think our suspect is at large.”

Warrants for Bennett’s arrest have been issued in jurisdictions from Alabama to Philadelphia, and more federal charges are expected. Authorities in Indianapolis have not said when — or if — they plan to extradite him.

Michael J. Donohoe, Bennett’s federal public defender, said only that his client has entered a not guilty plea “and right now he is standing on that.”

Last weekend, dozens of strippers and advocates gathered in a West Philadelphia park for a “Stripper Strike,” a protest for better working conditions and sex work decriminalization.

Several entertainers — who spoke to The Inquirer on condition they not be publicly identified due to safety concerns — said women in the industry often distrust police and prefer to protect one another through whisper networks and informal mentorship.

One erotic artist among the attendees said high-profile incidents of violence against sex workers is a reminder “people want to attack you for what you do.”

She tells younger entertainers that trust in the women dancing next to them is vital.

“The biggest thing is banding together,” she said. “Have respect, love, and loyalty for each other.”