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Victims relieved ‘Ether Man’ may be in custody

Pamela Fowler will never forget the nightmare of being sexually assaulted by the brutal and elusive “Ether Man” — but she takes heart in knowing police may finally have him in custody after an 18-year crime spree in which he preyed on attractive, athletic college girls.Police in Pueblo, Colo., arrested 47-year-old Robert Howard Bruce after he allegedly planted a gas bomb in the yard of a loc
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Pamela Fowler will never forget the nightmare of being sexually assaulted by the brutal and elusive “Ether Man” — but she takes heart in knowing police may finally have him in custody after an 18-year crime spree in which he preyed on attractive, athletic college girls.

Police in Pueblo, Colo., arrested 47-year-old Robert Howard Bruce after he allegedly planted a gas bomb in the yard of a local police officer set to testify against him in a Peeping Tom case. Following his arrest, police tracked his DNA and found it matched at least seven unsolved rape cases in Albuquerque, N.M., where Bruce lived for nine years, and also matched DNA collected in the sexual assault of Fowler in Austin, Texas, in 2006.

Appearing live on TODAY Thursday along with a New Mexico victim, Mandra Ryan, Fowler told Meredith Vieira, “It’s great to have him off the streets.

“I live nervously,” she said. “It’s definitely nerve-racking, and I think it’s been a big eye-opener for me and the people who know me, to know this kind of thing really happens when you don’t think it’s going to happen to you.”

Crime spree

The capture and arrest of Bruce has authorities in at least four states combing through their cold case files to see if DNA collected in unsolved rape cases matches that of the now-incarcerated Bruce. The crime spree of the so-called “Ether Man,” named for the chemical-soaked rags he used to incapacitate his victims, reportedly began in Albuquerque.

Ryan — who was not raped, but was the victim of a Peeping Tom — told TODAY she got a look at her stalker when she spotted him peering into her window while she was a student at the University of Mexico. And although it’s been more than a decade since the experience, Ryan told Vieira she is convinced it is the same man who authorities now believe is the “Ether Man.”

“The resemblance is just astounding,” Ryan said.

Vieira questioned why police in New Mexico were unable to make an arrest in Ryan’s Peeping Tom case, potentially preventing the multiple assaults that took place in Albuquerque; Fort Collins and Pueblo, Colo.; Lubbock and Austin, Texas, and Lawrence, Kansas, that various police departments believe are linked to Bruce.

Lucky accident

That the suspected “Ether Man” Bruce is now behind bars is something of a fortunate accident for police trying to solve old rape and assault cases in the four-state area. Bruce was arrested two years ago on a Peeping Tom charge in Pueblo, but his trial date had just come up on Oct. 6. That day, a Pueblo police officer who was the sole witness set to testify against Bruce found a 30-pound propane tank outside his home, with a hose running into his garage and filling his house with dangerous gas. Bruce didn’t show up for court, and police nabbed him on a failure to appear warrant.

While charging Bruce with three counts of attempted first-degree murder (for the officer, his wife and child), intimidation of a witness, possession of an incendiary device and criminal trespass, police also checked Bruce’s DNA and his background. They learned that he had not only lived in Albuquerque during the time of the rape spree that chilled the community in the 1990s, but that his DNA also matched many of the samples taken during those crime investigations.

The Denver Post reported that in a new arrest warrant served on Bruce on Nov. 2, he is being investigated for 13 counts of rape, nine counts of kidnapping, nine counts of aggravated burglary and eight counts of aggravated battery.

Albuquerque police spokesman John Walsh told NBC that Bruce’s capture may prove to be a boon to local detectives seeking to find justice in old cases they were previously at a loss to solve.

“The detectives in this case, all the way from the beginning to now, over two decades, are ecstatic,” Walsh said. “The long arm of the law reached back through the use of technology and brought this individual to justice.”