Case Files: Ether Man/Robert Howard Bruce

Robert Howard Bruce - The Norman Rapist - The Ether Man

  • Bruce, whom police describe as a cunning egomaniac who used brutality and his wits to evade custody for years. Bruce was known for using chemicals such as chloroform and mostly Ether to subdue dozens of rape victims in Colorado, New Mexico, OK and Texas.

  • His signature was to break into a woman’s home at night, hold a chemically soaked rag over her face and assault her, according to police, earning him the “Ether Man” nickname. He also used a stun gun, hand cuffs, glass cutters, and tried smothering with a pillow as well.

  • Police said he ran a food vending business that took him to college towns, where he found most of his targets — young and physically fit women, several of whom worked in the medical profession.

  • The attacks were just far enough apart that at first police weren't sure they were dealing with a serial rapist.

Eventually, details of the attacks became so eerily similar, police knew they were looking for one man who was committing multiple assaults.

NEW MEXICO May 15th, 1996: Shannon Ferris, 17, gets home from her waitress job where her dad was waiting up for her. She goes to bed and wakes up at some point during the night and feels like she was drunk and very disoriented. She also smells a chemical smell. Someone is on top of her and she fights him off by biting one of the fingers on the hand that is trying to hold a cloth to her face. He runs out of the home. Shannon gets her dad, but he had no idea any one was in the home. Shannon looks like she has blood on her face but on closer inspection it's red dye. It had actually come from the rag, which was makeshift and had come from outside the home. It's unsure how long he had been watching her. 1997: University of New Mexico - Trisha LaChance wakes in the middle of her night during her rape, but she is also disoriented and super groggy and can't physically fight back. Rich Lewis is the first detective on the case. There were no fingerprints, but there was DNA left at the scene. Lewis starts putting cases together in a string of serial rapes - at least 6 at this point - and all the women being attacked lived around the University. All with the same stories. No one can give a description. DNA doesn't ping in database. May 9th, 2000: Mandra Ryan, 20, student at University of New Mexico, had worked all day and was tired and didn't want to go out with friends that night. She's home alone and feels like she's being watched. She pulls back the blinds and there is a man standing in the window. She actually scared him when she pulled the window shades back and he falls backward onto the ground, finally gets up and takes off. She calls police and they find that he had hopped the fence and had unscrewed the back sensor lights and had set up a block in order to be able to stand on it and watch her through the window. Mandra didn't get a good look at his face. The next victim did. She put a composite sketch together, white male, 30s, no distinctive features. By 2000, there is 11 victims - all about to meet statute of limitations, which was 6 years in New Mexico.

Word that a serial rapist was loose in the community was kept quiet, Parks - another detective on the case - said, “because we didn't want to alarm people until we were sure, and because we thought it might be a member of the community who, if we made it public, would either leave the area or stop. And, what we really wanted was to catch him.”

  • The Ether Man was wanted on 44 counts of violent felonies in Albuquerque, including rape, kidnapping, aggravated battery and aggravated burglary. He lived in the New Mexico cities of Rio Rancho and Raton from 1988 to 2003, police said. The Albuquerque Journal reported that two of the sexual assaults occurred while Bruce was on probation for battery of a household member and interference with communications.

  • The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office in 2000 indicted a “John Doe” – later identified as Bruce -in nine rape cases, using a DNA profile. It was the first time in county history someone had been charged under a DNA profile and no name. District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said it was done to avoid running into a problem with the statute of limitations. This would allow them to "get him down the road." Brilliant.

  • Albuquerque police said Robert Howard Bruce probably moved to Pueblo shortly after 2000, about the time a New Mexico grand jury indicted the unidentified suspect based on a DNA profile.


  • Evidence links a Colorado inmate suspected of being the “Ether Man” serial rapist to a string of sexual assaults that roiled not only the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman from 1985 to 2005 but also several other states in the Southwest.

OKLAHOMA For years, beginning in 1985 and continuing through 2006, women in Norman were terrorized by an assailant who followed them home or hid inside their houses to attack and sexually assault them. For nearly 20 years, Bruce terrorized the University of Oklahoma campus, where he was a student. Later, he came back to Norman to again prey on young women, police said. Several assault reports included in the case, which was filed in Cleveland County District Court—describe Bruce as a man who used violence to get whatever he wanted from his victims. In March 1985, police allege that Bruce assaulted a woman in Norman while she was asleep. When she struggled, Bruce allegedly told her to “be quiet and you won’t get hurt.” She continued to fight him, so Bruce pinned and handcuffed her arms behind her then put a pillowcase over her head, according to court records. In one case, a woman awoke with handcuffs attached to a dog collar around her neck. In July 1985 in Norman, records show that Bruce allegedly entered a sleeping woman’s house through an open back window, got on top of her and warned her that he had a razor and would use it if she resisted. Police said Bruce escaped on foot.

In 1991, Bruce’s DNA matched a rape case in Albuquerque. Police said Bruce might be also responsible for more assaults in New Mexico’s largest city, as well as in two Texas cities: Austin and Lubbock.

It turns out, Bruce had been a student at the University of the Oklahoma in the early 1980s but had moved away. But he would fly to Dallas on business and rent a car to return frequently to Norman to stalk OU coeds and continue the sexual assaults until 2006, when the attacks finally stopped.

Terrell’s story begins in the summer of 1985. It was the summer after she graduated with her master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma and six days after she turned 23. Terrell was a very involved student, serving as president of the Women’s Studies Student Association and serving as a rape crisis counselor for the Women’s Resource Center. She also started the “Take Back the Night” marches in 1982 that still go on to this day. The night she became a victim of rape, Terrell said she had a paper about defensible space, written with two other people, sitting in her living room getting ready to go to the typist the next day. “I became a victim of the exact same demographics that were in my research paper,” she said. “I was a part of this world of helping women around the campus and then I became a victim.” Looking back on it, it’s ironic, Terrell said. She knew all of the stages of grief she would go through from helping other women, but the incident truly changed her life. “I call my life the ‘before’ and ‘after’ life. I have the life before, and then I was raped, and then the rest of my life is after because everything is different. There’s nothing that’s the same ever again,” she said. She used to wake up screaming, used to have nightmares and still does sometimes. “My children will tell you that I’m neurotic, adamant, demanding about closing the blinds at night,” Terrell said. “Because he stalked people. He did that, he watched them for hours through the window.” After a while, Terrell said, you kind of deal with it and while your life is never the same, at some point you have to kind of move on.

TEXAS DNA also links Bruce to the 2006 rape of a University of Texas student, Austin police said. Like many of the women police suspect Bruce attacked, the Austin victim lost consciousness after her assailant held a chemical-soaked rag against her face. She was then assaulted. The Austin sexual assault happened in May 2006 on 55½ Street, police said. Detectives said Bruce broke into the woman’s home late at night, rendered her unconscious with a chemical-soaked rag and then sexually assaulted her. A search of public records found that Bruce did not have a criminal history here. Stanfield said Bruce has not been linked yet to other Austin rapes but said he is a suspect in an attempted rape in March 2006. Bruce never lived in the Austin area and was probably just visiting, Stanfield said, adding that officers found records of him staying at a hotel near the home of the UT student he is accused of assaulting. He is still under investigation for rapes in Austin and Lubbock.

THE FIRST WIFE The wife said that he had three children by his first wife and that he was really involved in their lives, Terrell said. She tells the story about how he was like the Prince Charming to her. In the article, she says he got down on his knees with tears in his eyes and asked her to marry him.

HIS SECOND WIFE, JOY Joy Lynn Martinez first met Robert Howard Bruce, known as Howard, in a bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2001. Describing him to be almost like a “Ben Affleck look-alike,” she fell for his charm. As a single and struggling mother of two young boys, when Joy heard that Howard was also a single yet dedicated father of three kids, she was swept off her feet by the local businessman. Despite their 12-year age difference, Howard proposed nine months after they met, but they only married in the fall of 2003. Then, Joy moved to Pueblo, Colorado, to be with him. Their initial long-distance relationship never bothered Joy, but a year into their marriage, she realized that she didn’t know her husband because he was increasingly becoming “controlling—and cheap.” She has stated that he not only made insulting remarks about the way other women dressed, but he also refused to let her buy makeup or pursue her dream career. In 2006, things took a turn for the worst when Joy discovered that Howard had secretly recorded himself having sex with her while she was not just asleep but thoroughly unconscious. She didn't know if he had drugged her or not, only that she did not remember the encounter, and it was obvious in the video that she was 100% out. Joy packed up her belongings and left, having also previously found a list of girls’ names and addresses in his things, which she believed detailed his affairs. (It's unknown whether those names match affairs or names of the victims as this list was never released.) Yet, as he did after every argument, Howard came through and managed to woo her and reconcile. Their union started to seem normal as the years passed, but Joy still had her suspicions, especially as she often blacked out at the end of the night whenever they went out for dinner and drinks. Then, in September 2009, she saw a local headline about a serial rapist dubbed “Ether Man” that turned her world upside down. After skimming the report, Joy learned that Ether Man was Albuquerque’s most notorious serial rapist and had been terrorizing the local areas since the early 1990s. Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado were also places he had hit. Immediately, Joy started suspecting Howard. She knew that the idea was a little “insane,” but the timeline of the crimes fit his movements. She told detectives of all of this.

PEEPING BRUCE IN COLORADO Things began to catch up with Bruce in 2007, when he was arrested in Pueblo, Colo., on a peeping Tom complaint. Police Officer Nathan Pruce was schedule to testify against Bruce in court in 2009. He was the officer who arrested Bruce. Police said that Bruce was afraid he’d be convicted and have to submit his DNA to a national database that authorities use to track crimes, so he tried to blow up Pruce’s home using a 30-pound propane tank rigged to pump explosive gas into the garage. Pruce's family was home at the time, and he had to clear them as quickly as possible when he realized what it was. No explosion happened, but Bruce was arrested and convicted. His DNA sample matched him to sexual assaults in Albuquerque, and investigators started examining cases that could be linked to Bruce. Investigators from all four states got together to compare notes and found the MO to be the same. Norman Police Det. Jim Parks said he had already received calls from at least a half-dozen women who think they may have been Bruce’s victims. Parks said the case has “bothered” him for years and he is looking to help some victims find closure. “The way everything worked, Mr. Bruce was a high confidence-level, he has a big ego,” Parks said. “He was very boastful and he was proud that he had managed to not even worry about the police because he felt he was so good at what he did.” After nearly 10 years (in just OK) and failing to get the answers they needed, Parks and his then-partner Norman Police Det. Derrick Hopkins got the chance to sit face-to-face with Bruce and hear him confess to victimizing several Norman women. “The whole interview with Bruce was interesting,” Hopkins said.” He was very intelligent and always had a plan before he would commit the crimes. He thought things out really well, but unfortunately for him technology advanced so much.” In an effort to to figure out why Bruce did what he did, Hopkins said, “You’re obviously very smart and could do anything you wanted to do, why would you do something like this?” Bruce’s response was simply, “I did.” After Robert Howard Bruce was arrested and his submitted DNA came out to be a match with the Ether Man, Joy Martinez filed for divorce. She felt revolted that her husband could do such a thing, and having realized that he drugged and raped her every time she thought she blacked out, she testified at his trial. “In retrospect,” Joy said in 2012. “I feel like I was Howard’s ultimate victim: He chose me because I was naive…Most of the crimes he’s charged with happened before we met—or after our marriage started imploding. I feel guilty that his rage at me might have been directed at other women.” With that said, having found a good job, Joy still resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she appears to have created a stable life for herself and her now-adult sons. She prefers to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible, but every time the topic of domestic violence is raised, she is one of the first to lend her voice and share her story. Joy has moved on from the past to the best of her abilities and is now simply enjoying life. However, from her social media profiles, it doesn’t look like she’s found a long-term partner again since her marriage with Howard came to an end.


  • Bruce’s first reported rape was in 1983, while Oklahoma Supreme Court Network (OSCN) records only showed rapes from 1985 to 2006.

  • Prosecutors filed 19 felony charges this week against Robert Howard Bruce, who is serving a 64-year sentence in Colorado for attempting to blow up a police officer’s home.

  • He has been convicted of two assaults on women in Colorado.

  • OK: Records show Bruce pleaded guilty and/or no contest in 2013 to 19 felony counts including first-degree rape, sexual battery, forcible sodomy and first-degree burglary, crimes committed over a 15 year period. He pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree rape, 10 counts of first-degree burglary, two counts of sexual battery and one count of forcible sodomy. Prosecutors accused him of attacking people on the OU campus between 1985 and 2006. He is now serving his 177 years at an unknown federal facility.

  • NEW MEXICO: “Ether Man” serial rapist has been sentenced to 156 years in prison on rape charges in New Mexico. Robert Howard Bruce, 50, stoically responded “guilty” to eight counts of criminal sexual penetration, 11 counts of aggravated burglary and one charge of aggravated battery read by Judge Reed Sheppard. He pleaded no contest to a ninth rape charge from Aug. 5, 1994, saying “there was no sexual penetration” in that case.

  • TEXAS: He was never extradited to Texas. He remains under investigation for possible sexual assaults against women in Austin and Lubbock, Texas.

Dorothy Valdez confronted Bruce in court on behalf of her daughter, whom Bruce admitted raping in June 1997. Valdez asked him to look at her as she read a letter from her daughter.

Her voice quavering, Valdez recited her daughter’s words: “I went to bed one night a happy, confident 22-year-old, only to wake up terrified, paralyzed with fear. My whole world was turned upside down. What was for you just one night of sick and twisted rape, for me, and all the other women you attacked, marked the beginning of a long and painful journey toward healing and learning to trust the world again.”

Later, Valdez said her daughter, who was a student at the University of New Mexico at the time, had never met Bruce before he raped her. “We don’t know where he crawled out of,” she said.

“I don’t even know if I could compare him to an animal,” she said. “Because I don’t know if an animal would act like that.”

Her daughter could not be there, because she lives out of state, Valdez said.

Jeffrey Buckels, Bruce’s defense attorney, said Bruce agreed to plead guilty to put, “the New Mexico part of this whole history behind him.”

“Howard Bruce stepped up and did a solid for himself and a lot of other people today,” Buckels said. “I think he deserves credit for that.”

Linda Terrell sat in the courtroom May 1 to watch the perpetrator, 51-year-old Robert Howard Bruce, get sentenced to 177 years.

“I never thought after almost 28 years that I would have closure, I never did. And until last year when I got the call that they knew who he was, I really just thought I would be forever looking over my shoulder,” Terrell said. “Last year when I got the call, I was just freaked out, I mean I was just bawling my eyes out. I was like, ‘Oh my god’ ... and then to find out that he was on such a reign of terror across our United States, considered one of the most prolific rapists in the history of the United States. And that he would continue to travel back to Norman to continue to perpetrate.”

“It was really weird when I found out he was back in Norman. I felt like he was in my home, he was in my town. Ugh,” she said with a shake of disgust. “It was powerful for me to actually see my name on the screen and that he was going to be tried for my rape. I couldn’t believe it was really happening after all this time.”

Terrell was asked to write a victim impact statement, which is used during prosecution to help make a decision, but after learning that Bruce could read the court records and have access to what she wrote, she decided against it.

“My words are not for him. My words are for victims and advocates and law enforcement and prosecutors and the general public to educate. That’s who my words are for,” she said.

Robert Howard Bruce said one of the victims from those cases “slew the dragon” when she testified against him.

Bruce was awaiting sentencing in the Pueblo County jail, where deputies intercepted the letter. It is not known whether the woman received the letter.

“I had no idea what you looked like or even who you are,” Bruce wrote. “You were only a name associated with a foggy nightmare from long ago. When you walked into the courtroom with your shoulders back and your head held high you slew the dragon with your mere presence. I was so proud of you!”

The woman told the jury in the attempted murder trial that she was assaulted in a similar manner in June 1993 and tried to fight her assailant before giving up and eventually falling unconscious.

The victim said she had no memory of what her attacker looked like, but did remember the chemical smell and waking to find cuts to her nightgown and underwear.

The Pueblo rape case had similar facts.

Before Bruce made an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to attempted sexual assault and first-degree burglary in the Pueblo case, the district attorney’s office was prepared to use his letter as evidence during the trial.

Prosecutors see the letter as an admission of guilt and it comes close to an admission to the other rapes.

“I realize that it might be hard to fathom or comprehend, but I have also suffered from this horrible act that I committed,” Bruce wrote. “I don’t fully understand why I did what I did to you. I don’t know if it was for the adrenaline rush, power or control or exactly what the driver was. I only know that I was addicted to doing it and could not stop. The remorse and guilt were always with me, but would diminish over time to a level where I would do it again. I battled with it all my adult life.”

Bruce’s letter also apologized to the victim, begging for her forgiveness and also to her husband, noting that he must suffer through the fallout of the rape, as well.

He told her that her testimony helped exorcise some of his own demons and told her he has “relived that demonic act thousands of times” in his head, but that he never viewed her as a person before her testimony.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have that nightmare again. I feel that I can beat it now and I thank you for having the strength to come and face me,” Bruce wrote. “I actually felt light-headed during your testimony. You had a profound effect on me. Be proud of who you are, you have the strength of a lioness.”

*Raven Vomits*

Bruce will serve this 156-year sentence concurrently with a 64-year sentence he is already serving in federal prison. In Colorado, he was sentenced to concurrent terms of six years for sexual assault; 24 years for burglary and 64 years for trying to kill a Pueblo, Colo., police officer.

In total, Howard’s sentence for his sex crimes is 333 years. Thus, he is currently behind bars in federal prison, where he is expected to remain for the rest of his natural life.











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