Quentin Crommelin Jr. didn't lurk in dark alleys with a knife. He didn't have to. His charm and status were all that the influential Senate staffer needed to waylay vulnerable young women.

Last month Crommelin, 42, pleaded guilty in Arlington, Va., circuit court to a charge of aggravated sexual battery. For assaulting and sodomizing his 20-year-old secretary, he faced up to 20 years in prison. He got a 10 year suspended sentence and five years' probation, during which he must undergo psychosexual therapy.

Despite Crommelin's prestigious position as minority counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his conviction did not come as much of a shock on Capitol Hill, where stories about his abuse of women have circulated for years. But the allegations did not prevent his political mentor, Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C), from appointing Crommelin to a high-level post.

In 1983, after a 17-year-old legislative intern charged that he had raped her, Crommelin was investigated by a grand jury. The complaint was dropped after the young woman stopped cooperating with authorities, but the accusation cost Crommelin his job as an aide to then Sen. John East, who died in 1986. It did not, however, keep him from landing a job at the National Congressional Club, Senator Helms's political organization in North Carolina. For if his behavior was suspect, his expertise on technical military matters was useful, and his pedigree beyond reproach. A decorated Vietnam veteran, he is the scion of a wealthy Alabama family that boasts a string of military heroes back to the Revolutionary War.

In July 1987, Helms brought Crommelin back to Washington to work on the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator East had told Helms in 1983 that there had been some trouble with Crommelin—but only that he had "pulled a dumb thing and dated an intern," Helms recalls. Helms did not investigate the matter further. Nor was he alarmed when then Assistant Secretary of Defense Margo Carlisle complained to Helms that Crommelin had assaulted a young man he saw in her daughter's company because her daughter had stopped dating Crommelin. That time, "I decided to see whether charges would be brought," Helms said.

In May of 1988, "Elizabeth" (not her real name), a tall, blond, 20-year-old student from a college in Massachusetts, came to work as an intern for Crommelin. Some committee staffers immediately warned her about him, but she shrugged this off as mean-spirited gossip put out by his political enemies. "Quentin was well respected," she recalls. "We would walk down the hall, and Senators Quayle and Heflin would greet him." When, in July '88, Crommelin returned to private law practice and asked Elizabeth to come along as his secretary, she extended her college internship. "I was crazy about Washington and I liked working for him," she recalls. "I thought of him as a father figure."

The paternal image began to erode when he repeatedly made passes at her, undeterred by her insistent reminders that theirs was a professional relationship. Elizabeth could not believe that Crommelin would ever actually harm her but recalls one incident that might have awakened her to his true nature. On a business trip to Montgomery, Ala., they stayed with his family in nearby Wetumpka. Crommelin took her horseback riding, and she fell. When his parents later saw her bruises, they "were furious with him," she recalls. "They were always asking me how Quentin treated me. It gives me an eerie feeling now, wondering how much they knew about his problems."

The severity of Crommelin's problems became all too apparent on Oct. 30, 1988. Dismayed by his relentless advances, Elizabeth had decided to quit her job and agreed to meet him to discuss it. He took her to dine at a rural inn in Virginia, where he began drinking heavily and talking crudely about sex.

As they drove back toward Washington, he suddenly pulled off on a side road into the woods. "I pleaded and cried and begged him to take me home," she says, but he just laughed at her as he forced her to perform oral sex. "It was absolutely the most terrifying thing I have ever gone through," she says. "This man I had completely trusted turned into a complete maniac."

Crommelin left town after the incident, but when an arrest warrant was issued several months later, he surrendered to authorities and ultimately pleaded guilty. Elizabeth was in court to watch, and she was accompanied by another young woman—call her "Margaret"—who shared a critical interest in Crommelin's fate.

It was Margaret who had alleged that Crommelin raped her back in 1983. Then a student at the exclusive Madeira School in McLean, Va., she worked as an intern in Senator East's office. Crommelin invited her to his house, ostensibly to introduce her to a friend. Once there, she says, he tore her clothes off" and raped her—then acted as though they'd shared an enjoyable date, even driving her to her car. Margaret went to a hospital where tests confirmed she had had intercourse, and she filed a complaint. But as the investigation proceeded, she says, "the police told me I'd have to go in front of a jury and describe everything and that the chances of a jail sentence were not good. It seemed to me at the time easier to try and forget it and go on with my life." But she never has been able to forget it.

Even after his conviction, Crommelin—who refuses to speak to the press—is not without his defenders. His friend Ken Bergquist, who is now an Assistant Secretary of the Navy, dismisses the 1987 attack on Elizabeth because "they acted like a couple dating." That presumption—that dating and rape are mutually exclusive—may help explain how Crommelin could get away with so much for so long. For only now that he has finally been convicted has yet another alleged victim come forward.

"Susan" was a 19-year-old former intern in 1979 when she contacted Crommelin about finding a job. He took her to dinner, then insisted on stopping at his apartment. When she accompanied him inside, she says, he immediately knocked her down and raped her. Ashamed and confused, she let him drive her home. "I still feel guilty," says Susan. "What if I'd come forward and prosecuted in 1979? Would these other girls have had to go through this? But I figured I'd gone out with him; I'd had some drinks; I went to his apartment. Ten years ago people didn't talk about date rape. I didn't think I could win."

Now a wife and mother, Susan takes some comfort from Crommelin's conviction. But, she says, "I know he doesn't think he did anything wrong—that's what's so scary."