Nathan Ford likes to wrap his hands around women’s throats — and squeeze.
For years, the 51-year-old rapist hunted strangers, investigators say, on the streets of Akron, on the campus at Cleveland State University and inside homes, attacking at least one woman while her mother and children slept upstairs.
Ford’s attacks often began with a smile or a kind word before turning violent, when he forced women to have sex, sometimes choking them unconscious or threatening to kill them if they screamed, records show.
Other times, Ford, who once worked as a probation officer in Lake County, crept up out of nowhere, appearing in a doorway or a house, his face covered with a mask and condoms in his pockets — actions that might have prevented him from leaving behind any traces of DNA.
If that was Ford’s strategy, it apparently failed.
Investigators now say he left enough DNA evidence to tie him to at least 18 rapes — three in Akron and 15 in Cleveland. He's already been serving prison time for several of the rapes and will soon stand trial on other rape charges.
Yet it would take more than a decade for the full pattern of Ford’s crimes to emerge because his DNA sat in some of the thousands of rape kits — evidence gathered after a sex assault — that languished untested in Akron and Cleveland, like untested rape kits taken by police in scores of cities and towns across Ohio and the country.
Nationwide, about 65,000 old rape kits have been submitted for testing and yielded about 15,000 DNA profiles that have been entered into an FBI tracking system.
How many serial predators are out there?
In Akron, the DNA tests revealed that as many as 30 serial rapists — defined by Akron as someone with three or more victims — have preyed on women over the past 20 years.
In Cleveland, about one in four rape kits that yielded DNA were connected to multiple cases, officials have said.
Investigators assigned to individual rape cases over the years often didn’t recognize the patterns of crime because they spanned years or crossed jurisdictional boundaries. Sometimes, they didn’t believe the victims’ stories.
Akron police are four months into a new project that seeks justice for victims and makes amends for past investigators’ mistakes by reinvestigating every old rape kit over the past 20 years that contained DNA evidence.
Three veteran Akron detectives — working alongside the Victim Assistance Program of Summit County, the Rape Crisis Center of Medina and Summit Counties and a Summit County assistant prosecutor — make up the core of the Akron Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (ASAKI).
They also get part-time help from Detective Bertina King, a major crimes detective who for a couple of years spearheaded the effort alone, including tracking down the victims in the Nathan Ford case. She and a grant writer landed a three-year, $1 million award from the U.S. Justice Department to pay for the ASAKI unit, which has boxes filled with 1,000 old cases where DNA evidence was collected, but never tested.
Since its launch, the ASAKI team has reinvestigated 41 sexual assaults, many of which happened in 1999 — the year President Bill Clinton was impeached, “SpongeBob SquarePants” debuted on television and America witnessed the Columbine High School murders.
They picked that year because Ohio law prevents prosecutions of rape after 20 years have passed, a limitation former state attorneys general and many sex assault advocates are pushing to overturn.
“Our main objective was to make sure nothing died on the vine,” Detective Paul Siegferth Jr. said.
Reinvestigating each case usually starts the same way: By pulling the original Akron police file.
Siegferth and Detective Paul Armstead said some of the files are better than others, but all provide an address or scrap of information for them to find the victim in the old case.
If the victims are in Northeast Ohio, the officers often make a discreet visit to their homes. But Armstead, who colleagues say is particularly good at online sleuthing, has also tracked Akron victims to their new homes as far as Washington state and Virginia.
Reactions vary, the detectives said.
“There’s some anger about the way things happened 19 years ago [with the way Akron police investigated],” Sieferth said. “But they are also relieved to see new eyes looking at the case.”
Siegferth said police — who always keep victims advocates at their side for on-the-spot advice and guidance — “apologize for any way they were treated 19 years ago and run with it from there.”
Of the 41 Akron cases reopened, detectives continue to work on 19, two have been referred to prosecutors and the rest are closed, often because the victim or suspect died or because the victims don’t want to reopen a painful chapter in their lives.
Kevin McClellan, 49, of Bedford, was indicted in May on rape and sexual battery charges from a single 1999 attack in Akron. Court records show McClellan has no prior history of felony charges in Summit or Cuyahoga counties. He pleaded not guilty this month to the rape charge. No trial date has been set.
Prentice L. Smith, 43, of Akron, was indicted in May on rape, kidnapping and gun charges connected to four rapes between 2011 and Christmas Day 2018. In this case, detectives said they had DNA matches from the three oldest rapes, but didn’t know who they belonged to until a break in the Christmas rape led to Smith. Until now, Smith’s only other felony charges in Summit County were for failing to pay child support in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty to all the recent charges against him.
Because those cases have not yet gone to trial, there is little information publicly available.
But Nathan Ford — who is scheduled to stand trial in Summit County in September on rape charges from Akron from 2003 — has a long paper trail stretching over more than 15 years.
In 2006, he pleaded no contest in Cuyahoga County to multiple felonies involving the rapes of at least eight women and girls who ranged in age from 13 to 55 years old.
At the time, no one realized there were other cases in Akron and Cleveland.
Ford’s lawyers in 2006 tried to say Ford didn’t know what he was doing because of dementia.
A judge didn’t buy it.
Now court records in Summit County show that Ford, while incarcerated, has visited Summa Health’s cancer center in Akron. Records don’t show whether Ford is ill.
But neither cancer nor the outcome of the upcoming trial in Summit County will likely change his fate.
Ford’s future was sealed in 2006 when he began serving a 113-year prison sentence.
The predator who roamed free terrorizing women — while some victims' rape kits went untested for decades — will almost certainly die caged.
Amanda Garrett can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettabj.