Thirty-four years later, Mindy Sypher can speak calmly about the worst day of her life.
That’s in part because so much time has passed, but mostly because the man who raped her is finally behind bars.
“It’s come full circle, with an end date,” said Sypher, who was 20 when she was attacked inside her home off Carmel Road. “I know that this person is going to pay for his crimes. I’m just glad he’s going away.”
Last week, Jerry Lee Brooks, the so-called “ski-mask rapist” who attacked at least nine women in south and east Charlotte in 1979, pleaded guilty to three rapes and was sentenced to life in prison.
As part of the plea agreement, Brooks, 63, a former First Union banker, told investigators about five other rapes and one attempted rape from that year, including one on Sept. 21, in a condominium on Point Comfort Lane.
That’s where he attacked Sypher – whose last name was then Tyson – just after she arrived home about 3 p.m. She was working at the time with her future husband as a manufacturer’s representatives in the women’s apparel business.
As she drove into her complex, Sypher remembers noticing trash strewn across her backyard, as if a dog had gotten into the garbage can on her patio. When she got out of the car and entered her condo, her thoughts were about cleaning up the mess.
“I always shut and lock my door,” recalled Sypher, now 53. “This time I didn’t quite lock it.”
Today, sitting in the living room of her home near Mountain Island Lake, Sypher repeats the details clearly and without showing much emotion.
She remembers getting a garbage bag from her kitchen and going out to pick up the trash. When she returned, she noticed light shining through the front door, as if it was partly open. When she reached to shut it, a man grabbed her.
He wore a black ski mask, so she could see only his eyes and mouth. But she noticed several other things that would later match the descriptions from other victims. His fingernails were manicured, trimmed and “shiny.” He wore crisp white shorts and a white, collared shirt, as if he were going to play tennis.
“He was clean. He wasn’t scruffy,” she said. “He came across as somebody who took care of himself.”
But he was also scary. He demanded money, and she offered him some cash she had upstairs. But it was clear that wasn’t what he really wanted. She recalled his next words: “If you don’t do what I tell you to do, I have a knife and I’m gonna cut you.”
He pushed her head down and forced her to perform oral sex. Then he threw her on the floor, pulled off her dress and bra, pantyhose and underwear, and raped her.
In fear for her life, she said she prayed. “Just get me through this. That’s why you succumb. You do what they want and pray that they just walk out the door.”
The rape didn’t last long, “but it seemed like a year,” she said. He tied her hands behind her back with her pantyhose and her bra. Before he left, “he got right in my face and said, ‘If you call the police or you tell anyone, I will be back, and I will kill you.’”
Despite his warning, Sypher called her girlfriend, who called the police. The police took her to Presbyterian Hospital, where she was examined by doctors, nurses and counselors. “I must have been there for five or six hours,” she said. “I felt so disgusting and dirty.”
Within days, as police realized they were dealing with a serial rapist, they brought Sypher and several other victims together. Two women had been attacked in March, six months before Sypher. One of the attacks was on her street, although Sypher didn’t know that until recently. The women called each other by first names only and shared details about their attacker, his ski mask and manicured fingernails.
“It made me feel not so ashamed, because I wasn’t alone,” she said.
She came to believe her attacker had been following her and may have thrown the trash on her lawn as a distraction. Although she didn’t typically follow a set schedule, she had left work early three days in a row because her boyfriend was out of town and she wanted to get home before dark.
The attack changed her. “He invaded my home, and then invaded me,” she said. “It completely changes your outlook. I can’t say that you grow up, but you become different. I felt like I was in a shell for years.”
A 5-foot-tall blonde, she gained 40 pounds over the next year. “I didn’t want to be attractive.” When stopped at a traffic light, she avoided eye contact with other drivers.
Sept. 21 was always a hard day for the next 34 years, but her life went on. She married, had two children, divorced, then married again. “I’m not as afraid as I was then, but I’m much wiser,” she said. “I’m keeping my radar up at all times.”
After so much time passed, Sypher never thought her attacker would be found.
But then, in July 2012, she was watching WCNC news when she froze at the words “ski-mask rapist.” On the screen, she saw his picture for the first time.“It was his eyes,” she said. “It was him.”
Police had arrested Brooks at his home in Surfside Beach, S.C., after his name turned up in a federal database as part of a DNA search.
The ski-mask rapes had gone unsolved for decades as Brooks moved around the Carolinas, committing other crimes. He left Charlotte in 1980 and had lived in nearly a dozen other places, including Greensboro, Hickory and Myrtle Beach. In 1991, he was convicted of armed bank robbery. He was released from prison in 2005, but not before officials took a swab of DNA.
A year later, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department created a cold case sexual assault unit to look for new leads in old cases. In 2011, the unit began looking into the string of ski-mask rapes and entered DNA collected from crime scenes into the federal database. A year later, the search returned Brooks’ name in connection with three of the cases.
His trial was scheduled to start this week in Charlotte, but Brooks and prosecutors reached a plea agreement instead. Because he was sentenced under 1979 guidelines, he will be eligible for parole in 2023.
Police say Brooks may be responsible for more rapes and that they may never know how many he assaulted.
Investigators said they didn’t have enough evidence to charge Brooks with six of the attacks he admitted to, including the one involving Sypher. But she said she’s still thankful for “closure.”
“They have given me peace,” she said. “I feel empowered that I have a voice now. ... I’m at the end. I can close the book.”