Officials at several East Baltimore schools are warning teen-age students to walk in groups or with their parents, as police continue to search for a man who has sexually assaulted five girls and young women - all near bus stops and in daylight.
The latest assault occurred Monday morning, the day before school began. Police have stepped up patrols along Orleans Street, concerned about the abundance of potential victims as students walk to and from four schools in the area.
Wanted posters with a sketch of the man being sought have been distributed to schools, libraries and stores throughout East Baltimore.
Police have assigned a 15-member task force to sort through dozens of potential sightings.
"Yes, we are concerned," said Gwendolyn Statham, principal of Dunbar Middle School, one of three schools near Orleans and Caroline streets, near where the assaults have occurred. "Students have been told to walk in groups. Most of the parents are aware and are bringing their children to school."
Police said they thought a suspect had been captured yesterday afternoon, when a patrol officer stopped a man who fit the description and was riding a bicycle similar to one that several victims said the attacker was riding.
But detectives let the man go after two hours of questioning at Eastern District station, saying he was not the attacker. He had a scar on his face that was not something noticed by any victims, and a tattoo on his forearm did not match the descriptions they gave.
A suspect came close to being captured after an attack at 7:30 a.m. Monday. The victim, in her early 20s, reported being grabbed from behind in a choke hold after she got off a Mass Transit Administration bus on East Monument Street. She said she was forced to walk to a secluded spot behind Dunbar Middle School, where she was assaulted.
Police said she screamed, and security officers from nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital chased the man several blocks before he escaped.
The attacks, the first of which was reported five weeks ago, have frustrated authorities. Not only are all occurring in daylight, but they are in areas saturated with law enforcement officers.
Hopkins has security and hires many uniformed city officers on overtime to patrol its perimeter. The nearby schools have police assigned to them, even when classes are not in session. And the attacks are occurring in the Eastern District, where police recently deployed an additional 120 officers to combat crime.
Young women walking in the area said yesterday they feel they do not have enough protection.
Outside the Dunbar school complex yesterday afternoon, twin sisters Tynesha and Latarsha Bibson, 13, and their cousins Aneka and Tiffany Johnson, were staying together, acknowledging they were scared.
"I think the police should be here every morning at 5:30," said Tiffany Johnson, 14, a 10th-grader at Dunbar High School. "I bet you if it were in the county, they would have helicopters and everything, and catch this man."
The girls said instances of sexual assault and men exposing themselves are commonplace in the neighborhood.
"It's stuff that happens every day," Aneka Johnson said. "But it only gets noticed when somebody gets seriously hurt."
Police said that in most of the five incidents, the attacker implied he had a knife. One victim reported being threatened with one.
The suspect follows teen-agers and young women who get off buses and walk alone, forces them into secluded corners, alleys or behind trash bins, and assaults them, police said. One of the five victims, who are all in their teens or early 20s, was severely beaten.
Detective Donald O. Catterton, the lead investigator, said one victim described a tattoo of the word "R.I.P." with an unknown name written above it.
The suspect is described as black, in his late teens or early 20s, 5 foot 6 inches or 5 foot 7 tall, weighing about 130 pounds.
He was last seen wearing a blue New York Yankees baseball cap, a white T-shirt and blue denim shorts. He has a tattoo on one arm and wears a white cross hanging around his neck. He has been seen riding a mountain bicycle designed for performing stunts.
Anyone with information should call the Police Department's sex offense unit at 410-396-2076, or Metro Crime Stoppers at 410-276-8888.