Sitting on the porch steps outside his apartment, Gero Davis Mahto drank from his bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey.

The rage inside the 22-year-old burned deep as he waited in the early morning darkness for his live-in girlfriend to return home.

Their relationship, 7 months old at the time, had been strained with arguments, beatings and jealousy because Mahto suspected she had been cheating on him.

As Mahto's anger deepened, his attention turned to the loud music coming from the apartment building next door. Inside one of the Fargo units, through the open blinds, he spotted a 21-year-old woman.

Wearing a bright blue bandanna just below his eyes, Mahto went next door and kicked open her door before turning off a light inside.

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He smothered the woman's face with a pillow, threatened to kill her if she looked at him and punched her. Despite her efforts to fight him off, Mahto raped the woman and left.

It's a scenario Mahto repeated at least three more times during the first four months of 1992: scoping out victims in basement apartments near Fargo's Second Avenue South and University Drive and sexually assaulting strangers in the middle of the night.

Now, 14 years since police arrested him, officials wonder whether Mahto will try raping again.

It's a chance Cass County prosecutors don't want to take as Mahto's release nears. They're set to ask a judge to indefinitely commit Mahto to the State Hospital in Jamestown through a process known as civil commitment.

Until recently, Mahto was scheduled to leave prison next Thursday, but officials said the inmate's behavior prompted them to delay his release to Aug. 13.

Despite reforms spawned by the abduction of Dru Sjodin 2½ years ago - a case where twice-convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. faces a federal charge in her death - officials still struggle with how to best handle sex offenders.

Mahto's story raises questions about whether police could have prevented two of the rapes, the Parole Board's motive in shaving about four years off his prison sentence, and how the state evaluates the future dangers posed by sex offenders.

Some say committing them to the State Hospital is the only guarantee in protecting the public. Others claim that practice could unfairly keep reformed convicts locked up while driving others underground, making it impossible to monitor and track the most dangerous offenders.

"When one of these guys comes around, it raises the profile and scares the public," said Aaron Birst, the assistant Cass County prosecutor seeking Mahto's commitment. "I don't think the system has come to terms with how to handle these types of guys."

By the time police files on the Fargo rapes crossed Detective Jim LeDoux's desk, officers working the case were no closer to catching Mahto.

One woman - the second attacked by Mahto - told police that Mahto gave her his nickname, "JD," which might have given them information needed to arrest him.

The woman, who spoke to The Forum this week, said Mahto wasn't drunk at the time of her rape.

"He had his mouth over mine," she said. "There was no alcohol."

The Forum typically does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Police said part of the delay in catching Mahto can be attributed to another sex offender who lived in the area, raising officers' suspicions he was responsible. Victims' descriptions, including one woman who insisted her attacker was white, varied enough so police didn't know one man committed all the rapes.

Mahto, who grew up in West Fargo and Breckenridge, Minn., is American Indian.

The victims, women ages 19 to 23 at the time, all lived within blocks of Mahto's apartment and were alone when heattacked them during the early morning hours.

But when LeDoux began reading the reports after officers working the cases went on vacation, it became clear Mahto was a suspect.

LeDoux, who interviewed a man inquiring about being a police informant shortly after the first rape, instantly knew the nickname "JD." By the end of the day, police had Mahto in custody and a confession to four rapes.

But the victim who reported the attack said other officers didn't believe her and suspected her boyfriend at the time.

"What they needed to figure out - who it was - was in my statements," she said.

LeDoux said he now uses the case during speaking engagements to emphasis the importance of police sharing information.

The rapes' emotional toll on the women, evident in their written statements to the court, was compounded by the brutality of the attacks.

In the second assault, Mahto punched his victim numerous times in the face two weeks before her wedding, and tried strangling her.

"On that day my broken jaw was still not healed, my face was still very swollen and my bruises and eye had turned purple and yellow," she wrote of her wedding day in a letter to the judge a few months later. "Now when I look at my wedding pictures, all I see are bruises and I remember how they got there."

Another victim told police she was two months pregnant when attacked.

After Mahto's arrest, a fifth victim came forward, telling police Mahto assaulted her before the fourth rape. Unlike the others, she knew Mahto and his girlfriend.

The woman, who didn't press charges because she wanted to keep it from her boyfriend, was also pregnant.

Two days after the assault, she learned she had lost the baby. Her doctor told police the baby's heart stopped a few weeks before the assault.

During his confession, Mahto said he had fought with his girlfriend before each rape and visualized her during the attacks."I feel like they (the victims) have the right to kill me, or maybe I should be killed, I don't know," Mahto told police.

His girlfriend broke up with Mahto shortly after the confession and, in September 1992, he pleaded guilty to four sexual assaults. The judge sentenced him to 20 years in prison - based on two 10-year consecutive terms - 10 years of probation and the potential for early release on good behavior.

"He wasn't given enough time to begin with and now they can't even make him serve the full sentence," one victim said this week.

In 1998, the North Dakota Parole Board granted Mahto parole on his first 10-year sentence, a move that cut about four years from his total prison time.

No board records or minutes from the Feb. 2, 1998, meeting exist to explain the decision.

Pat Bohn, deputy clerk for the North Dakota Parole and Probation Board, said he could only speculate the board's decision was based on Mahto's good behavior in prison and he still had another 10-year sentence to serve.

Dickinson lawyer Mary Nordsven, board chairwoman at the time, said she had no recollection of the case. The board handled up to 50 requests each month.

"You could give me any name - I haven't been on the board for five years - and I wouldn't remember," Nordsven said.

"We never paroled sex offenders or violent criminals without a serious investigation," she said. "We just never took this sort of thing lightly."

But one victim said she didn't know about the board granting parole to Mahto until a reporter asked her about it in 2000 when he had another chance at parole.

Victims told parole board members about Mahto's brutality, she said.

"We made it very clear how violent this was," said one victim, who recalled Mahto choking her. "If a car hadn't drove up in the driveway to turn around ... I have no doubt I would have been murdered."

She was initially upset with how police and the state's victim liaisons handled the case.

"I was a victim that night and a victim several times since then," she said. "It's like a never-ending nightmare. Every time it comes up, we (the victims) get together and talk about it."

Before the board met, Fargo attorney Stephen Dawson, who prosecuted Mahto, wrote a letter to the Parole Board.

"Mahto hunted and targeted his victims, all of whom were strangers to him," wrote Dawson, who urged the board to reject another early parole or credit for good behavior. "They will never forget the fear and the violence he injected into their lives.

"No matter how long Mahto stays in prison, he will never repay the debt."

The board denied him parole in 2000 and again last September, in part citing the severity of his crimes.

Last August, the Parole Board notified Cass County prosecutors before considering early release for Mahto.

Birst, the prosecutor assigned to look at Mahto's case, informed Parole Board members he would pursue committing Mahto to the State Hospital.

"On guys like this, when our office puts them behind bars and we get an inkling they are going to be released, we have a duty to look at them (for civil commitment)," Birst said. "We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't."

After a battery of tests and evaluations last year, the North Dakota attorney general's task force overseeing sex offender risk assessments labeled Mahto a high risk to re-offend. In November, he appealed the label and convinced the task force he should be labeled as a moderate risk.

The assessment might have put prosecutors in the unique position of arguing for Mahto's commitment to the State Hospital despite psychologists saying he didn't pose a serious threat.

However, two months ago, prison officials terminated Mahto from chemical dependency treatment.

The move had severe consequences for Mahto and more than doubled his score on the state's sex offender screening test.

It also prompted a delay in his prison release by nearly four months, moving it from this coming Thursday to Aug. 13. This past week, the Attorney General's sex offender task force reviewed Mahto's case and changed his designation from a moderate- to high-level risk to re-offend.

Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers said termination from treatment played a large role in the change because Mahto reported being drunk at the time of the rapes. But prison staff also reported comments by Mahto that he wasn't truthful in his sex offender treatment.

Regardless of Mahto's risk level, Birst said he was surprised the Parole Board knocked about four years off of his original sentence. He wants a judge to order Mahto evaluated for civil commitment.

"The underlying facts of this case drove my decision independent of how well he was doing in treatment," Birst said.

Those who have evaluated Mahto's progress in prison sex offender and anger management programs say he's expressed remorse for his victims and has been a well-behaved inmate.

But Mahto's failure in chemical dependency treatment isn't the first time he's been bounced from a prison program.

He was kicked out of sex offender treatment four times before completing the course.

In three prison interviews with The Forum, including one recently by phone, Mahto said each time that he feels bad for his crimes.

Mahto, who would return to Fargo if released from prison, said he doesn't want his victims to fear him. He said he remembers little about them and couldn't identify them if they were sitting next to him.

He harbors some of his own fear, too, particularly about how much has changed since he went to prison. But he's not worried about re-offending.

"I see it as back then I was 22 and an immature punk," Mahto said. "My main concern is that I don't want people to physically attack me."

Now, Mahto said he plans to one day attend Trinity Bible School in Ellendale, N.D. Those plans likely won't come about if prosecutors successfully commit him to the State Hospital, where there are 37 sex offenders committed. No civilly committed sex offender has ever been released and 12 more are under consideration for placement there.

"If it happens, it happens," Mahto said of civil commitment. "I don't know what else to do about it."

Most of the civil commitment process is closed to public scrutiny, including a preliminary hearing that determines whether a person should be evaluated for placement at the State Hospital.

If a judge determines Mahto might be a sexually dangerous person, two independent evaluations would provide background for the final decision.

When those evaluations are completed, Mahto would be entitled to a public hearing, at which time his case also becomes open.

Mahto said recently he fears that people will liken him to Rodriguez or Joseph Edward Duncan III, a former Fargo man charged with murder and sexual assaults in Idaho.

The difference, Mahto said, is that he's completed sex offender treatment and considers himself a changed man.

"I do feel bad about what I did," he said. "I'm sorry and I hope the best for them and hope they moved on with their lives."

But Mahto's crimes and the timing of his release - which would come during Rodriguez's trial - couldn't be worse for him.

"With him, he's leaving prison in an era where there is a whole lot of public attention" on sex offenders, said Bohn, the Parole Board's deputy clerk. "He is the example of what people are fearful of."

The detective who solved the case isn't convinced Mahto should be freed from prison.

"The guy I saw in 1992 should never be released,' LeDoux said. "You just don't know what a guy is going to do when he gets out. What he did back in 1992 was a woman's worst nightmare."

One of the women who lived that nightmare said she wants Mahto locked up indefinitely.

"He's not admitting he was sober when he did it," she said. "He has no concept of what he has done.

"I looked into that man's eyes as he was choking me. We picked out his picture from a photo lineup. His next victim, and there will be more victims - is he going to take that chance?"

Readers can reach Forum reporter Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542