Crime

Rape suspect found after 13 years

The crime that police believe Danny Chavis committed 13 years ago caught up with him when he stepped out of his house in Richmond, Va., one August morning last year.

That's when he encountered a team of police surrounding his home on a tree-lined street. They took Chavis, who had lived for 13 years as Robert Jones, and brought him back to Raleigh to face criminal charges filed in the aftermath of a Jan. 4, 1994, rape.

In the early-morning hours that day, two men robbed a couple walking back from a New Bern Avenue convenience store. They took cash from the man and dragged the woman behind some houses. Both men raped her. Raleigh police think the robbers were Chavis, then 31, and Christopher McClam, 25 at the time.

McClam was arrested a week after the crime and is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for the rape and robbery. Chavis, who has pleaded not guilty, fled Raleigh and made a new life for himself in Virginia.

Except for a Raleigh police sergeant leafing through old cases, Chavis might have stayed there.

Sgt. J.J. Matthews, then the head of the police department's fugitive task force and now in charge of its major crimes unit, went over to a file cabinet one day last summer where old fugitive warrants were stored.

He knew most of the leads in the homicide cases had been exhausted but was curious to see what he could do to find suspects of other violent crimes. In a year's time in 2006, the task force had found 322 people who were wanted on outstanding arrest warrants.

Matthews opened the cabinet and began sorting through the alphabetically-organized fugitive cases. He stopped at C, under the Chavis file.

Here was a man who left Raleigh more than a dozen years earlier and was wanted on charges of first-degree rape, first-degree sex offense, first-degree kidnapping and two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Matthews' interest was piqued.

"You can get a feel for what you're looking at, if it's a no-lead type of situation," Matthews said.

He wasn't getting that feeling about Chavis.

So Matthews pulled a criminal history on Chavis' set of fingerprints and saw that a man using the name Robert Jones had been arrested shortly after the 1994 rape in Richmond on robbery charges with a matching set of fingerprints. The charges were apparently dismissed, and the man known as Jones released from custody, Matthews said.

Jones -- or Chavis?

A subsequent search of Virginia driver's licenses under the name Robert Jones turned up a man still living in the Richmond area, Matthews said. It could be Danny Chavis, living as Jones, or it could be the real Robert Jones.

"Is someone in Virginia using that alias?" Matthews recalled thinking. "Is it our Danny Chavis? Or is it just someone else?"

He looked at the pictures of the Robert Jones in the Virginia database of driver's license and compared it with a 1993 mug shot of Chavis. There was some resemblance, but not enough to be certain.

He called his counterparts at the Virginia State Police, who were able to conclude that the man living at 6553 Hagueman Drive in Richmond was actually Chavis.

Neighbor Nancy Nelson said Chavis rented the home for a couple of years. He was friendly, would wave and took good care of his yard, she said.

On Aug. 25, Richmond police, along with state troopers, went to the Hagueman Drive house and apprehended Chavis as he left for work, said Karla Peters, a spokeswoman for the Richmond Police Department.

Sgt. Matthews' hunch was right.

" 'I'm Danny Chavis,' " Matthews said the man said as he was arrested.

He'll plead not guilty

Within a month, in September, Chavis was back in Raleigh at the Wake County jail awaiting a trial.

Police and prosecutors don't know what he was doing in Virginia, and his attorney, Dewey O'Kelley, declined to comment. Several family members also turned down requests to speak about Chavis.

Chavis hasn't been tried on the 1994 charges. On Thursday, he told O'Kelley that he wanted to go to trial and will plead not guilty to the charges.

Jeff Cruden, the Wake County assistant district attorney handling the case, said McClam, who has been imprisoned for 13 years, is willing to testify against Chavis, his co-defendant.

"He's been waiting for this day for a long time," Cruden said.

The victim, who now lives out of state, will come back to Wake County to give her account of the rape.

(News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)

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