About 120 people came to a community meeting Monday evening at Robinson Secondary School to learn more about how the police are responding to two recent sexual assaults in Fairfax and how to avoid being a victim of a similar attack.
Sgt. R.M. Thiel of the West Springfield Police Station outlined the basic facts of the incidents, or at least what the police are willing to reveal at this point:
On March 14, at around 10 p.m., a woman was accosted by a man “armed with an edged weapon” while she was walking in a wooded area between the 9700 block of Commonwealth Blvd. near the Commonwealth Swim Club.
“The suspect was startled by a noise and fled the area in an unknown direction.” He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and his face was concealed but he was described as white and approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall.
On March 19, at around 4 p.m. a 16-year-old girl walking on a trail near Woodson High School in Fairfax was approached by a man who grabbed her neck from behind and assaulted her. He ran off and escaped in an early 2000 model Honda Accord or Civic. This suspect was described as white, 20 to 40 years old, approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall, thin, with dark hair. He was wearing a light colored shirt and blue-gray shorts.
“We’re here because we’re all concerned about having a safe community,” said Braddock Supervisor John Cook, who convened the meeting with Capt. Joe Hill, commander of the West Springfield Police Station.
The latest statistics show the crime rate has decreased, Cook said, and “Fairfax County remains the safest jurisdiction of our size in the country.”
Thiel said the police are assuming that the assaults were perpetrated by two different individuals, because “the descriptions are different” and because “there is nothing that specifically would link them together.” But he noted, “he would never rule anything out” and conceded there’s always the possibility the descriptions are incorrect and it could be the same person.
Rick Costa, of the Kings Park West community’s Neighborhood Watch, said younger people hang out and drink, smoke, and have sex near the spot where the first assault took place and wondered what the 24-year-old woman was doing walking on a rarely used path in the dark of night.
“The police department is asking the same questions. We can’t talk about the details of the case,” Hill said. “We’re doing everything we can to catch these guys.”
A woman in the audience asked what people should do if they find themselves in a scary situation where they fear they could be assaulted. “A simple thing like making noise and yelling will help,” Thiel said, although “it may not stop a determined person.” The Woodson student “did everything right,” Hill said. “She screamed. She kicked. She refused to be a victim. She fought back and got away.”
Fred Sanborn, chairman of the Fairfax County Law Enforcement Foundation, told the audience the foundation is establishing public safety programs and plans to offer a women’s self-defense course to be taught by off-duty police officers.
An audience member raised the issue of Trayvon Martin, the teen killed by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., Feb. 26, and asked how a similar incident could be prevented here.
The Fairfax County police department provides training to Neighborhood Watch groups, Hill said. “We teach people in Neighborhood Watch you don’t drink, you don’t carry weapons, you don’t confront anyone.” They are supposed to call the police if they see anything suspicious.
Doug O’Neill, coordinator of safety and environmental health at Fairfax County Public Schools, said FCPS wants to improve safety near Woodson by fencing off the trail where the attack took place. Instead of cutting through the wooded path, students would have a longer walk along the more open Nutwood Way.
Several members of the audience opposed the fence. One resident of the Chestnut Hills West community called the proposed fence “the craziest idea I’ve heard” and said it “would create a safe alcove for kids to gather after school to do drugs.” Instead, he called for alternative safety measures, such as surveillance cameras, better lighting, and more patrols.
Rather than relying on the police and FCPS, another member of the audience suggested the community take responsibility for clearing out brush in the area.