He crept up behind her in the dark, and covered her mouth with his hand. "Scream, and I'll kill you," he whispered. Grace Leung was 27, a scientist, walking to her boyfriend's Wellington home at 9.45pm on a Tuesday.

She was wearing leggings and a hooded jacket, carrying a cake in a casserole dish. Her attacker had picked his spot half-way along an unlit shortcut through the Massey University campus. He grabbed her, then dragged her towards a derelict pre-fab building at the edge of the narrow, tree-lined path.

Leung doesn't remember how she felt in that moment. In fact, she doesn't think she felt anything at all. "I just remember realising, 'this is going to be a sexual assault'... and then my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in."

READ MORE: Exclusive: Suspected serial sex attacker stalking Wellington streets

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As they neared the building's verandah, Leung slipped her mouth free of her captor's hand and screamed. They scuffled, and she found herself, somehow, looking down at him. "You are not going to do this," she said. And then she punched him in the face.

Leung, now 33, is still proud she managed to fight her attacker off. She weighs 45kg and stands just five foot high. He was taller, of medium build, not big but much bigger than her. "I suppose he thought I would be an easy target. I remember the fear and shock in his eyes when I hit him," she says.

After her punch, the man tried to run, but in his haste he tripped. As he got up, Leung was briefly able to see his face. She thought he was European, aged around 30. Light hair in a grown-out crew cut. But before she could get a better look, he ran off, heading uphill through the campus grounds.

Leung ran downhill to Tasman St. She called her boyfriend, and then the police. She gave a statement, and was swabbed for DNA. Pictures from the night show her wide-eyed, her dark hair falling over her right eye, her puffer jacket slightly askew. When officers found her, she still had hold of her cake in its ceramic dish.

Grace Leung at the derelict building on Massey University's Wellington campus, where she was attacked in 2011. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Grace Leung at the derelict building on Massey University's Wellington campus, where she was attacked in 2011. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Police never caught her assailant. Nine months later, detectives believe he struck again, attacking a 19-year-old woman in the same area. And then, possibly, again, and again, up to 12 times in eight years around central Wellington. Police recently told Leung that - if all the crimes are linked to the same offender - he is unusual, in that he is frequently scared off by his victims. However, the assaults have sexual intent. In at least one of the incidents, police said, an attack ended in rape.

Detectives did not want to talk about this case, for the public to know they were investigating the possibility there was a serial stalker and rapist at large. But Leung, both a scientist whose background in weta entomology gave her an insight into DNA technology; and an amateur stand-up comedian whose sets rail against rape culture, was the wrong victim to expect to keep quiet.

She first approached the Herald after reading recent reporting on the high number of unresolved sexual assaults, including some which were miscoded as "no crime" prior to 2013. Police had offered to review files where victims thought they were treated poorly, and Leung thought her case might fit that description - not because the initial investigation was flawed, but because she believed police later missed an opportunity to potentially catch her attacker.

For Leung, being able to challenge the police, and to speak out was a privilege, she said. "Other women who do not have this luxury continue to live in shame and silence and perhaps wonder if if was their fault all along."

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"An all too familiar face"

It was April 2014 when Leung saw the sketch in the newspaper. There had been two sexual assaults on consecutive days on a path near Victoria University's Boyd Wilson field - a walkway now known as "rape alley". Police had commissioned an identikit photo of the offender, which ran alongside the article. "It was an all-too-familiar face," says Leung.

Grace Leung has gone public with the story of her attack in order to support other women who are unable to tell theirs. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Grace Leung has gone public with the story of her attack in order to support other women who are unable to tell theirs. Photo / Mark Mitchell

She tried, repeatedly, to phone police, to say she recognised the perpetrator. She left messages for the detective who worked her case, and even tried what she called the "choose-your-own-adventure" that is the crime reporting hotline. She says it took two weeks for police to phone her back, and when they did, the phone call lasted just 15 seconds.

Leung resolved, once more, to put the incident behind her. "I was miffed but I'd already moved on with my life," she says. However, four years later, after the Herald's story ran, Leung felt sad, and angry, and tired, all over again.

She decided to request her file. As suspected, her 2014 phone call had not been recorded. Worse, the notes on the file showed her assault was linked to another similar case - meaning, if it was the same man, it wasn't just her attack police had missed a chance with when they failed to follow up.

"Very similar MO to [NAME] sexual attack," the file note said. "This is also the same opinion from Profiling Unit." It went on to say, that unlike Leung's case, which only had a partial DNA sample, the second case had a full profile. The author said there was a "likelihood" both offences were committed by the same person, and therefore the files would be "associated".

Concerned, Leung immediately sought a meeting with police. She met Detective Sergeant Ben Quinn on July 5 this year. With her excellent understanding of DNA science, she wanted to inquire whether new tests could be done. She also wanted to know about the second victim, and to get a firm answer on why no one had recorded her 2014 call or re-opened her file at that time.

Quinn, the head of Wellington's Adult Sexual Assault team, answered her questions and apologised for the failure to properly investigate her call. He told her some information about the DNA on her file. And then he told her there were possibly 10, and up to 12, other attacks by an offender with a similar modus operandi - including the Boyd Wilson assaults from 2014. However, there was not strong enough forensic evidence to be sure.

Leung was shocked. "It's crazy," she says. "But I guess it's the horrible but realistic way we have to look at it though - there's a lot that needs police attention and they probably don't have the resource."

Police say the cases are currently under active investigation. Inspector Warwick McKee, the officer in charge of the Wellington criminal investigation bureau, says any information made public could jeopardise their work. He refused to provide details on the suspected offender, his behaviour, or what the current investigation entailed. He asked the Herald not to publish what it knew. The Herald decided, however, that the public interest was too high to keep the investigation a secret.

"No one should have to feel lucky they only got threatened with murder"

Leung's file holds scant information about who the attacker might be. There's her description - but a medium-sized white male with light-coloured hair isn't much to go on. It also didn't match the physical description on the second file, where the victim described the attacker as Maori or Asian, although it did match the 2014 identikit photo.

There's also his clothing - dark jacket, dark pants. A partial DNA profile. A shoe print left at the scene. Leung told police the attacker didn't seem very fit or strong. He puffed as he ran.

The unlit path winds through Massey University's Wellington campus, from Rugby Street through to Tasman Street.
The unlit path winds through Massey University's Wellington campus, from Rugby Street through to Tasman Street.

The only witness to Leung's case was the Massey University caretaker, whom the Herald has chosen not to name. The woman, who lived on-site, said she was outside eating a yoghurt around 9.45pm when she saw a woman who looked like Leung walk past. She then saw a man walking up the pathway.

Asked to describe him, the caretaker said he was "scruffy looking", with "dark, greasy, unkempt scruffy shoulder-length hair sitting loosely. Quite lean and twiggy." She thought he was late 30s, and quite tall. European, with a long face.

In her statement, the caretaker said she had just gone to bed and put earplugs in when she heard a "high-pitched squeal" from outside her window. She heard footsteps running down the pathway, and briefly wondered whether someone was in trouble. But then, she dismissed it as "silly girls screaming" - a common occurence, she said - and went back to sleep, until she was woken by police torchlights later that night.

Leung's police file runs to 119 pages. It has hand-written witness statements and transcripts. There are photos of her, of the scene, of the shoe print. There are copious reports about the small amount of DNA obtained from her fist where it hit the attacker's face. Right at the beginning, there is a note from the officer who created the file, to anyone else working the case.

"PLEASE NOTE," it says. "The area where the assault took place is poorly lit and surrounded by derelict buildings on one side and rough vegetation on the other, in other words it presents an ideal location for an offence such as this to take place."

He says Leung is small and slight, a target who would be easily overpowered.

"These factors in tandem raise the possibility that this incident was not opportunistic and suggests the offender may have been lying in wait for a suitable victim to pass."

To Leung, reading that and looking back, she thinks she was lucky. "But how f****d up is that? No one should have to feel lucky they only got threatened with murder."

Grace Leung managed to escape a man now suspected to be a serial attacker. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Grace Leung managed to escape a man now suspected to be a serial attacker. Photo/Mark Mitchell

She has returned to the path, walked it again. She has told her story to friends, and used it in her stand-up comedy routine. Sometimes, she forgets that it truly was a traumatic experience, until she hears the pregnant silence after she repeats his words: "Scream and I'll kill you."

She has also dealt with victim-blaming - those saying she shouldn't have been walking alone at night, for example.

"I've had conversations with friends and been disappointed that they don't understand. I mean, I was walking home. Women should be able to walk home," she says.

That night changed her, she says. Some of the outcomes are positive, such as her ongoing activism against rape culture. Others maybe not. She has less trust in people now. She is less tolerant of strangers in bars. If she doesn't want to be so polite, she isn't.

The fact her attacker hasn't been caught, she says, feels like a black hole.

"I try not to fill in any gaps." she says. "There's so much I don't know. But the fact that he got away with it...it's just like why do we live in a society that's like that?"

SEXUAL ABUSE OR ASSAULTS - WHERE TO GET HELP:

The Safe to talk sexual harm helpline is available free 24/7:

• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email support@safetotalk.nz
• Resources, info and webchat atwww.safetotalk.nz

If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

You can also visit the police website for information about reporting sexual crime. http://www.police.govt.nz/advice/victims/victims-rape-or-sexual-assault