May 26, 1997 12:00 PM

VINSON CHAMP WAS LEARNING FAST that comedy could be more work than fun. Despite a few breaks—he was a $100,000 winner on TV’s Star Search—Champ, 35, had been earning a living in recent years working one-night stands on the small-college comedy circuit, where he had to play by other people’s rules, like it or not. “He assured me he’d support school policy and didn’t use inappropriate behavior in his act,” says Archie Graham, director of student life at Milwaukee Area Technical College, where Champ performed his mild-mannered routine on campus last Feb. 11. “He said, ‘I don’t do the [dirty] language stuff.’ ”

What Champ allegedly did offstage was quite another matter. For months police in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa had been searching for the link connecting a series of apparently related rapes and assaults against women on small midwestern campuses. There were chilling similarities between the attacks: The rapist reportedly wore a ski mask, quizzed his victims about their sex lives and then asked them to pray for him. “We thought the rapist could be a food server, a professor traveling around or maybe an athlete going from school to school,” says Capt. James Van Fossen of the Davenport, Iowa, police, who are investigating the Feb. 16 rape of a student working alone in a computer lab at St. Ambrose University.

Nobody, though, suspected a traveling comedian—that is, until Champ was reportedly spotted fleeing the scene of an attempted rape at Pasadena (Calif.) City College on May 6 and was arrested the following day in his Hollywood apartment. Released on bail, Champ headed off to the Caribbean, but he was arrested again at Newark International Airport on May 13 after investigators in Omaha, alerted to the Pasadena case by campus police, became convinced that he was connected to the rape of Heidi Hess, 31, a former part-time communications instructor at the University of Nebraska. “He talked to me the entire time he raped me,” says Hess of her assailant, who overpowered her from behind as she worked alone in a computer lab on the evening of March 5. “He was asking me a lot of questions about my past sexual experiences. He seemed rather calm and oddly concerned that I was crying.”

At that point authorities elsewhere quickly began looking into whether Champ could be implicated in the other assaults. The first occurred last Feb. 6, when a student practicing the piano in a music room at tiny Union College in Lincoln, Neb., was raped by a masked man. The following week—and just one day before Champ’s performance in Milwaukee—a second woman was raped while practicing the piano at Carthage College in nearby Kenosha, Wis. Then, in a pair of attacks the following weekend, a female professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., was assaulted but managed to scream loudly enough to attract the attention of a male professor in a nearby office. Her would-be rapist fled the scene.

Five hours later, however, the student at St. Ambrose was raped in Davenport, just across the Mississippi River from Rock Island. According to Captain Van Fossen, the assailant “placed a ski mask on her…and grabbed the mask off her when he left”—another similarity that, along with matching DNA samples from three of the crimes, leads investigators to believe that all the attacks were carried out by the same person. According to Phil Mullendore, chief of campus police at Pasadena City College, investigators have recovered an appointment book belonging to Champ (who is expected to be extradited soon to Nebraska) that places him within driving distance of several separate attacks in the Midwest. “He’s a very well-educated, articulate individual,” says Mullendore. “But he’s bad news.”

Although friends and colleagues have expressed shock at Champ’s arrest—”He’s great looking, very nice,” says his Los Angeles agent Nancy Chaidez—court documents in L.A. show a criminal record, including convictions for prostitution and physically attacking his 17-year-old former girlfriend in 1996. To obtain rape convictions, however, prosecutors will face a difficult task that depends, in large part, on the full cooperation of often-wary victims. “Rape doesn’t happen to nameless, faceless people—to other people—it happens to people we know,” says Heidi Hess, who has already decided to go public, in part to encourage openness from other women in her situation. “I’m not going to be fearful, I’m not going to be a victim. I’m getting on with my life.”

PATRICK ROGERS

BARBARA SANDLER and CINDY DAMPIER in Chicago and JEFF SCIINAUFER and JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles

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