Police defend timing of rape news

Word to Mt. Vernon residents delayed to confirm possible link of up to six crimes

November 13, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

A Baltimore police spokesman defended yesterday the department's decision to delay notifying Mount Vernon residents of a string of rapes, saying that investigators worked to gather reliable information before notifying the public and that residents should always be careful, "whether we're looking for a suspect or not."

Late Monday, days after community groups and area institutions began spreading word about burglaries and sexual assaults that had occurred in the Mount Vernon area over the past several weeks, police confirmed that investigators were exploring links between the crimes, some of which involved a man scaling fire escapes to gain entry through unlocked windows. Two posters featuring sketches of possible suspects were distributed to the news media that evening.

"We have to be careful to balance speed and accuracy, and that's a challenge ... particularly when you're talking about releasing information about someone who may have committed more than one crime or has the potential to commit more," said Sterling Clifford, the police spokesman. "Frankly, there wasn't a good sketch or description of the suspect for a long time, and it took time to get that and to make sure that the information we had was solid enough to at least come to the conclusion that there were some crimes that were linked."

Asked whether earlier notification could have helped some residents better safeguard themselves and their homes, Clifford said, "I hope people won't be dependent on one specific police alert to lock up before they go to bed at night."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, approached at a meeting of law enforcement officials yesterday, declined to comment about the case.

Investigators believe as many as six incidents since September could be connected. The incidents have taken place from the 2900 block of St. Paul St. in Charles Village, an area where a series of three sexual assaults sparked fears earlier this year, to the 900 block of St. Paul St. in Mount Vernon. The most recent one occurred Nov. 6.

The following day, the University of Baltimore was notified about the incidents and sent out a warning to students and faculty, said Samuel D. Tress, the chief of the school's police force. "We heard Friday, and we put the warning out the same day," Tress said.

A spokeswoman confirmed that a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art was among the victims, and that school put out a notification as well.

Paul Warren, vice president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, sent an alert to community members, urging residents to "secure your property, take extreme care, and please take the initiative to alert your neighbors (especially single women or any women you see in an alleyway at night)."

Yesterday, Warren said he was troubled that police had not done more.

City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, chairman of the council's public safety and health committee, and whose district includes some of the blocks where crimes occurred, said the number of incidents warranted earlier release of information.

The suspect believed to be responsible for the string of rapes is described as a man between age 20 and 30, who in a sketch does not appear to have any distinctive characteristics. Another suspect, a male of an unknown age who was wearing a bandanna, is being sought in a rape that occurred in the 500 block of Cathedral St.

Police asked anyone with information to call the Central District at 410-396-2411 or the sex offense unit at 410-396-2076.

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