Prince George's County police have been flooded with tips and have identified several "persons of interest" in their investigation into the "college-age" man who raped one University of Maryland student last week and kissed or fondled three others, officials said yesterday.
At a campus meeting, Maj. Kevin Davis of the county police told several dozen students that his detectives have stepped up police presence and "covert operations" in the college town.
"There are more police per square foot in College Park than virtually any area in Prince George's County," Davis said. "We are collectively committed to catching the person responsible for this crime."
After the meeting, the university's vice president for student affairs said that in her more than two decades at College Park, the flagship campus had never fallen prey to a more persistent predator. "I have not in my experience here seen a serial crime like this," Linda M. Clement said.
Davis said he was "fairly confident" that the young man who raped one woman and fondled or kissed three others early Thursday is the same person who during the last academic year committed an escalating series of "Peeping Tom" crimes near campus, including voyeurism, flashing and crawling into bed with a female student.
"This particular person, the older he gets, the more brazen he gets," Davis said. "And the more he exposes himself to being caught by police."
Authorities do not have enough detail of the man to make a composite sketch, but they said he has been consistently described by his victims as a white man with "brownish hair," about 20 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, and 150 to 160 pounds. They believe he has been alone and on foot when confronting and spying on women.
Officials aren't sure whether the man is a college student, but they noted that the incidents stopped over the summer break, when the majority of students are away.
Starting in September last year, the crimes have been largely isolated to a neighborhood adjacent to campus that is home to many fraternity and sorority houses and has other large houses shared by multiple students, officials said.
About 4:30 a.m. Thursday in the 7500 block of Dickinson Ave., a man crawled into bed with a 19-year-old woman and her boyfriend and began fondling her, said Cpl. Clinton Copeland, a county police spokesman. By the time the woman realized it wasn't her boyfriend touching her, her assailant had run off, Copeland said. The couple then called police.
Minutes later, a man crept into a home a block away on College Avenue and kissed two sleeping 21-year-old women on their foreheads, Copeland said. Then he raped a woman in the basement, according to police.
In both instances, police found unlocked doors and windows in the houses. Initially, authorities described all four incidents as "sexual assaults." Yesterday, Davis said only the rape and the first incident were so classified.
Except for one nonstudent, all the attacker's victims in the past year have been students age 19 to 22, Davis said.
The university's senior victim advocate also told students yesterday that the woman who was raped had chosen to stop cooperating with police after details of her assault were reported in the media late last week.
"She was cooperating fully with the police, as were all women affected, until it became clear to her that her privacy and her identity could not or would not be protected," said Cortney Fisher of the university's Office of the Victim Advocate, a recently established unit of the campus health department. "At that point, she felt and continues to feel that she is in increased danger by giving statements to police."
At the meeting yesterday, officials distributed pamphlets with safety tips and encouraged students to be vigilant. A Prince George's County detective suggested that female students equip their bedrooms with portable motion sensors.
Those suggestions were met with anger from some students. "This kind of a pamphlet just stimulates a community to tell women what to do, instead of taking action to prevent rape," said Chelsea Frankel, 21, a senior from New Jersey.
Instead, the university should focus on "lighting the area, having more police around ... having sexual assault prevention education," Frankel said.
Davis, however, pointed out that in March, after the Peeping Tom struck again, police organized a "town hall-style meeting" in College Park. "Six folks showed up," he said, peering down from the podium at the roughly three dozen students - and plenty of empty seats in the student union ballroom.
"I think college students in general feel invulnerable to harm," Clement, the UM vice president of student affairs, said after the meeting. But that sense of security might make students an easier target, she said. "I think if you're a perpetrator of a crime like this, a college community is particularly vulnerable ... because they feel so invulnerable."