Fourth incident of sexual assault reported on Columbia paths

A woman was groped last week on an east Columbia footpath, marking the fourth similar type of sexual assault in that area in a four-week span, according to Howard County Police.

Police believe all four incidents, on footpaths in Owen Brown and Long Reach, were committed by the same man.

In the series of incidents, which occurred on Aug. 7, Aug. 9, Aug. 25 and Sept. 5, the suspect is described by police as a black man, 5 feet 10, between 150 and 170 pounds with short black hair and in his 20s.

“We are taking our response to these incidents very seriously and have implemented a coordinated response including an increased patrol presence and a thorough criminal investigation,” police spokeswoman Mary T. Phelan said in a statement Tuesday.

After the Aug. 25 incident, police stepped up patrols in the area of the initial three incidents, which occurred on footpaths south of Route 175 near Dobbin Center.

Phelan said police have increased the number of bike and foot patrols, in addition to other undisclosed investigative operations. Police said additional officers have been assigned to the bike patrol unit, which is deployed when weather permits. 

Jogger Dawn Biggers, who said she lives near where two of the August incidents were reported, said she was not surprised by the reports.

“I've always been a little hesitant back there in the woods, but I've never had anything happen. It doesn't shock me that it happened,” said Biggers, who runs on paths four times a week.

Biggers carries her phone with her as a precaution and avoids running at night.

“Any time after 5 p.m. I probably won't go,” she said.

Dog walker Shannon Fitchett, who lives in the Jeffers Hill neighborhood, said she keeps a 10-foot buffer between herself and other people when out at night.

“I'm not particularly concerned because I'm walking a 90-pound pit bull,” said Fitchett, who also was not surprised by the reports, “but other women should look out for themselves and not walk too late.”

Phelan said police are not advocating avoiding footpaths while the suspect is at large but residents should “use caution and be aware of their surroundings.”

Daniel D'Amore, the director of the Columbia Association's Open Space Management Division, said the department is communicating with police as they investigate the incidents.

“Columbia Association cares about the safety of its pathway users,” D'Amore said in a statement. “We remind people to remain alert and aware of their surroundings while they enjoy CA's open space.”

Here are the incidents, according to police:

• Sept. 5 — a woman was running on a path near Blade Green Lane when a man ran up behind her and touched her inappropriately.

• Aug. 25 — a woman was walking in the area of Oakland Mills Road near Dobbin Road when she was inappropriately touched by a man talking on a cellphone.

• Aug. 9 — a woman said she was jogging on a footpath near Majors Lane when she was touched inappropriately by another jogger.

• Aug. 7 — a woman on a footpath off Old Montgomery Road reported a man ran up beside her while she was jogging and grabbed her.

Police are recommending the following safety tips for pathway users:

• Familiarize yourself with the area, and know your route before you travel.

• Stay on designated sidewalks and pathways, and do not venture off into isolated areas.

• When possible, bring a buddy.

• If traveling alone, tell family or friends where you are going and when you expect to return.

• Stay alert and carry a cellphone.

• Do not wear headphones because they may distract you from your surroundings.

• If a stranger approaches, follows you or makes you feel uncomfortable, turn around, call police and head toward a group of people or a home.

Correction: This story previously reported the incidents occurred in the Village of Oakland Mills. It was the Village of Owen Brown. 

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