Suspect freed on bail in attacks on women

Thomas Michael Powell appeared in Berkeley County bond court Tuesday night. He was denied bail on a charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and kidnapping.

As Summerville police kept secret the details of two brutal assaults and refused to publicly identify a man they said could be a serial rapist, the suspect posted a low bail on four felony charges and walked free last week.

Thomas Michael Powell, 28, of Thomaston Avenue in Summerville faces a kidnapping charge in each of the two attacks against women he met online. He also was jailed on counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and assault with intent to commit the same crime. All told, the charges carry up to 120 years in prison.

The police said Powell held one woman at knifepoint in mid-January before she screamed and got away with a slashed hand. A short time later, the authorities said, he raped another woman and left her bleeding from knife wounds.

A day after Powell’s arrest late last week, a judge set bail at $5,000 on each of his charges, and he was released within hours. But all of this happened beyond the view of most members of the public as the Summerville Police Department declined to say anything about the case.

For nearly five days, Powell roamed freely until Berkeley County deputies on Tuesday afternoon arrested him in a third attack in their jurisdiction. That attack preceded the Summerville ones, according to affidavits.

Powell was denied bail Tuesday night on charges of kidnapping and first-degree criminal sexual conduct. At that proceeding, Berkeley County sheriff’s detective M. R. Cortte II described Powell as a “violent, serial rapist,” who showed an escalation pattern in his behavior.

Jay Bender, an open-government advocate and attorney for The Post and Courier, said Tuesday that Summerville’s handling of the case “strikes me as a third-world country approach to law enforcement.”

“You typically have a right to bail,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you have a right to bail anonymously. The fact that this person was charged with these serious physical crimes should be motivation for the police to let the public know he is out of jail just from a personal safety perspective.”

The police had withheld incident reports about the crimes, a spokesman said, because investigators wanted a chance to track down other people who might have been targeted by Powell in the past 18 months. The detectives didn’t want the public to know his name or what he looks like so they could determine whether he played a role in the other assaults, police Capt. Jon Rogers said.

Rogers urged the newspaper to take the town to court in a S.C. Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

On Tuesday, police announced Powell’s Feb. 3 arrest after investigators managed to locate “some folks” in connection with the broader probe, Rogers said. “So at this point,” he said, “releasing (the reports) won’t harm the investigation.”

The Summerville investigation linked Powell to an assault in the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction and led to his second arrest Tuesday, Chief Deputy Mike Cochran said.

An attempt to contact the suspect while he was still free was not successful. No attorney is listed in his arrest documents.

His only prior arrest in South Carolina was for a charge on a car insurance violation in July. Still, Rogers said Tuesday that police officers had asked a judge to deny him bail during last week’s hearing in Summerville Municipal Court.

“I’ve never been accused or in trouble like this before. ... I’m just not this kind of person. I’ve never had a history of doing this,” Powell said during the hearing, according to a video provided Tuesday by the court.

Associate Municipal Judge Gregory Hyland set the $20,000 bail that Powell posted Thursday, county online court records showed. The filings say he must get permission to leave the state and cannot have contact with the victims or their families. The bail conditions say nothing about a banishment from Internet use.

Such charges in other local cases typically bring high bails or none at all. A man’s second-degree charge stemming from an assault last month at a Charleston house party resulted in $100,000 bail. A schoolteacher and part-time Uber driver accused of kidnapping and raping a passenger in August was denied bail.

Hyland, a part-time judge, could not be reached for comment at his court office or at his law firm. Town Council unanimously appointed him as one of four municipal judges in August. He focuses on family law in his private practice.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said his office was not informed of Powell’s arrest, though that’s not unusual. He said police departments ask prosecutors in some cases to appear during bond hearings, but the task of arguing about bail is typically left to detectives.

Pascoe is among three area solicitors, including Scarlett Wilson in Charleston and Duffie Stone in Beaufort, who have asked state legislators for funding to assign prosecutors to the hearings “so we don’t have bonds like this.”

“The bond (is) certainly something I need to and will look into,” he said. “On its face, it seems extremely low.”

At Tuesday’s bond hearing, Cortte asked that Powell not be granted bail and said he was a menace to society and potential flight risk. Judge Otis C. Prioleau denied bail.

Powell also spoke at that hearing and said he wasn’t a flight risk and had turned himself in at the request of authorities.

“I feel that I’m innocent of this,” he said.

The sexual assault in Berkeley County occurred sometime the week before Christmas at the Days Inn on Gateway Drive in Ladson, according to affidavits released Tuesday night.

The 26-year-old victim filed a report Saturday and identified Powell from a photo lineup, the affidavits state. She told detectives that Powell, after first meeting her on backpage.com, raped her while choking her neck with his hands and forearm, causing her to nearly lose consciousness.

During the attack, he threatened to “snap the victim’s neck if she made a sound,” the affidavit states. He then left with the woman’s cellphone and purse.

On Jan. 9, the two Summerville attacks happened within an hour of each other.

The incident reports contain the victims’ accounts. The town court on Tuesday also released arrest affidavits after initially refusing to do so without first receiving a written request under the Freedom of Information Act. Together, the public documents lay out a timeline of events.

The police first learned of the problem early that January morning when an injured woman walked into a Trolley Road gas station and happened upon an officer. She said a man had gotten her cellphone number from her Instagram profile and summoned her to a backyard on Wainwright Manor.

A friend gave her a ride. There, she grew uneasy and called the friend, but the man came at her with a knife. She screamed and grabbed the blade, which cut her hand.

Her friend, who had caught a glimpse of the attacker earlier, gave the woman a ride to the gas station, the report stated. Her hand was later stitched up at a hospital.

Weeks passed before the police learned what happened next.

As the first Summerville victim talked with the police around 5 a.m., a second woman was targeted in the same Wainwright Manor community not far from the first attack.

That woman had advertised herself as an escort on backpage.com, a website that carries hundreds of ads for sexual services.

After talking to a man who responded to the ad using the name Steve, the woman went to the neighborhood minutes before 5 a.m. and shook a man’s hand.

The man said they couldn’t go through the home’s front door, so he trailed behind her to the backyard. Like the first woman, she got a bad feeling. She turned around and saw the bearded man pull a knife from his sweatshirt.

He told her not to scream or he’d slit her throat. She screamed anyway but fell to her knees. He pinned her to the ground and choked her until she lost consciousness.

“Welcome back,” she heard when she woke up, still in the backyard.

The man, who was wearing a condom, raped her as he held the knife to her throat. The blade cut her lip and she started bleeding. He raped her again. And again. She vomited. At one point, she saw a police cruiser through the fence and screamed, but the car passed.

She told him at least 10 times to stop, but for 30 minutes he kept on. They soon walked over to her car, where she handed him some money.

“I am going to give you your life,” he said, according to the documents. “Don’t move until I get out of the car. ... Drive straight home.”

She obliged and didn’t tell anyone until six days later. When she went to the police station Jan. 15, officers noticed cuts still on her hands, her lip and her neck. She was upset.

By then, someone had matched the attacker’s phone number with Powell’s Facebook page, the report stated. The police also took her clothes, which she said she had not cleaned.

People in the community described it as a normally quiet “house on the prairie”-type street. It’s not uncommon, though, for the nearby Sawmill Branch trail to bring “unsavory” characters, leading to thefts and vandalism, they said.

Beth Tew, a mother who lives close to the site of the second attack, said her family didn’t hear the woman’s screams or see anyone lurking nearby. She learned of both attacks when the police later showed up at her door. Tew was relieved that someone had been arrested, she said Tuesday.

“I figured he would get bail,” she said before Powell’s second arrest in Berkeley County. “Do I like it? That’s not for me to say until he’s convicted.”

Dave Munday contributed to this report.