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Little Cabin Of Horrors

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the girls of the Brearley tennis team called their coach Grampa Gary. He was a lanky guy with curly hair-goodlooking in spite of a what-me-worry gap in his front teeth. It was sort of weird the way he phoned them all the time, sent them birthday cakes, mailed them moony valentines. But no one suspected the truth. At home, Gary Wilensky kept lists. One of them said, "Go to the ammo store, get heavy tape, get rope, get chains, get long knives, get security system, get sexy nightwear." His cabin in upstate New York was furnished like a fantasy from the Marquis de Sade, all whips and handcuffs for bric-abrac. He had a porn flick called "Jennifer's Nightmares," a study in bondage-and he was obsessed with a 17-year-old named Jennifer Rhodes, a student at another school whom he'd coached for 18 months.

Three months ago Jennifer's parents fired Wilensky when they became disturbed by the gifts and cards he kept sending their daughter. On April 23, after a tennis match near Albany, N.Y., Jennifer and her mother pulled into the parking lot of a motel. Suddenly a bulky figure in a long hooded sweat shirt wrapped with a scarf and waving a cattle prod loomed up out of the dark. Fighting back, Mrs. Rhodes pushed the attacker away from Jennifer, who yelled for someone to call the police. The attacker pulled a 9-mm semiautomatic assault rifle, then jumped into a white Lincoln and sped off. Two hours later Investigator Owen Burns of the Colonie Police Department spotted the suspect in his Lincoln. Owen cornered the car behind the Calico Corners fabric store. There was a shot. The driver's head snapped back. When the cops peered in, they found Grampa Gary. "Jeez," said one cop. "He shot himself."

The authorities later found a cabin in the woods two hours north that Wilensky had stocked with enough sex and bondage gear to fill a porn shop. Wilensky had paid nearly $10,000 in advance to lease his little cabin of horrors for one year starting April 1. Among his props, police found receipts for everything he had bought, including night-vision glasses, surveillance equipment and a bank of TV monitors, which he installed so he could scan all four directions. He had bought wigs for himself and gone to Kmart to buy clothes for Jennifer. He sealed the cabin like a tomb, boarding the windows so no one outside could detect his plot.

The bizarre case leaves unanswered a disturbing question: why no one-the police, prosecutors or health workers who had bumped into Wilensky over the years-had been able to stop him before he finally disconnected himself. Stalking is a crime in 37 states, including New York, but the laws are ineffective. "It's scary that he got to age 56 without ever being called to account," says George Lardner Jr. of The Washington Post. Lardner won a Pulitzer Prize last month for a story about the murder of his daughter Kristin by a stalker. Now he says, "It's discouraging to see incidents coming up again and again involving the same offender."

The Manhattan district attorney's office confirmed that in 1987, Wilensky had stalked at least three youngsters in New York City. "This is a guy who was running around the street in an S&M mask, videotaping kids and nothing happened to him," observes Andrew Vachss, a New York lawyer and expert on predatory psychopaths. After the parents of one boy reported Wilensky to the police, he was charged with a misdemeanor, then released when he agreed to seek psychiatric help. Just two weeks before he attacked Jennifer Rhodes, Wilensky told his therapist that he had everything under control.

According to Vachss, it is not uncommon for parents to come to him with suspicions about authority types like karate teachers, voice coaches, child photographers. Obviously only one in a million may be dangerous. But what should parents look for in trying to spot a predator posing as a teacher or coach? Vachss says the clues are hyper-control, obsession, speaking to a child as an object of affection or romance, personal notes, letters, presents. "The bottom line is, if we can't rely on conventional authorities to make a record and let that record be available to us, we're really rolling dice." In a letter written before the disaster, Wilensky called himself "a lonely man," and said, "maybe I'll be someday forgiven at the end of the movie." It wasn't that easy. Life isn't a movie, and psychopaths aren't nice guys. Jennifer, said Lt. Steven Heider of the Colonie Police Department, was a very, very lucky girl.