Posted by: rcieri | April 29, 2010

Violated: A look through the eyes of indecent exposure victims

Graphic by Sarah Beth Costello

By Rachel Cieri

April 28, 2010

It was a typical Monday night at about 9:30 p.m. when Elon University junior Linda* returned to her Williamson Avenue house. In her usual after-gym routine, she jumped in the shower in her first-floor bathroom, completely unaware of the shock the next few minutes would bring.

Robe on and hair towel in hand, Linda saw an unfamiliar man open the bathroom door. She paused in surprise, thinking it might be her landlord.

“I kind of looked at him questioningly, and then I heard what he was saying,” Linda said. “He was kind of talking dirty and calling me ‘baby’ and kind of cooing. I looked down, and he was masturbating. My first instinct was just flight.”

The next thing she knew, Linda was sprinting across her front yard and into her neighbors’ open door to find the house empty. She barely remembers pushing past the man standing in the doorway.

“I ran around screaming their names, and it just kind of clicked that they weren’t there,” Linda said. “I went into the last room, and I turned back, and there was a deadbolt, so I deadbolted the door. I was freaking out for a solid 20 minutes not even knowing what to do.”

With no cell phone and only a dead laptop in the room she’d locked herself in, the only thing Linda could think to do was stay quiet. As she fled, she’d seen the intruder following her, and she was terrified he’d followed her into the house.

“I was just scared to leave that room and afraid to leave that house by myself if he was outside,” she said. “I was so terrified of what he was going to do to me.”

Meanwhile, Linda’s roommate had locked herself in her upstairs bedroom after hearing a scream. They had a similar incident this summer, so she didn’t want to take any chances. She called the police only for them to find the house empty and assume it was a false alarm. It wasn’t until her neighbors came home that they “put two and two together” and called the police again.

But this incident wasn’t to be the first or the last. It was just one in a series of indecent exposure crimes and intruders in student housing that left students at Elon fearing for their safety.

Hitting home

As Kelly* can attest, stories of the incidents don’t quite hit home until they happen to you.

“It’s something you read about with all the e-mails, but it’s still not really real to you,” she said. “And then to actually see someone like that out on your doorstep, it’s very strange.”

In mid-December, Kelly had a similar scare. One night close to the end of fall semester, Kelly walked home from a holiday party with a group of friends to her West College Avenue apartment, said
goodnight to her next-door neighbor and went inside. Just a few minutes later, she heard a knock.

“I thought it was my neighbor just coming back to get something she’d left, so I went and answered the door without even thinking, and it was this random guy,” Kelly said.

When the man at her door asked who’d dropped her off, Kelly started to close the door, only to have the stranger push back.

“I didn’t know who he was, and he asked if he could come in, so I just slammed the door,” she said. “Then he moved into the window and started taking off his pants.”

Kelly ran screaming up the stairs to her bedroom and called 911.
Though she’d read the infamous “Smith Jackson e-mails,” sent from the dean of students to report any threats to campus safety, she’d never given them more than a passing glance until she became the subject of one.

Elon junior Alice*, another victim, agreed. Alice had stopped at the local Food Lion around 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 19 to find the parking lot overflowing with shoppers, so she parked in one of the last available spots. Walking to the store from the far end of the lot, she noticed a beige sedan following her.

“If I outstretched my arm, I could touch it. It was that close to me,” Alice said. “It was going just as fast as I was walking, and I thought it was just a crowded parking lot, but there were no cars in front of him.”

“My first thought was of the Smith Jackson e-mails,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is happening to me right now. I’ve heard of it happening to other girls, but — oh, my gosh.'”

Linda expressed the same sentiment, saying that she’d even
contributed to the jokes her classmates made about the crimes before one of them happened to her.

Humor heals all?

“Those jokes do get old and kind of annoying, but I’m sure I was making them before it happened to me, so I can’t really get too mad about it,” Linda said.

Now, it’s not so funny when another student refers to “the ‘bater,” a nickname given to the man (or men) committing the indecent exposure crimes.

“It’s humorous in the fact that it’s a very strange crime,” Kelly
said, acknowledging her classmates’ responses. “But it was really scary.”

On the other hand, Alice won’t tolerate the joking.

“I honestly don’t think it’s a funny situation, having been there,” Alice said. “I find that really offensive. I know it’s in good fun, and I know it’s just them being silly, but it really bothers me.”

Shortly after the recent string of crimes, sophomore Adam Lawson
created a Facebook fan page devoted to making light of Smith Jackson e-mails. Alice was shocked when she saw a post about the incident she was involved in.

“The most recent ‘status’ was like, ‘Whoever that dumb bitch was who didn’t call the police’ Something like that,” Alice said. “And ‘What did she think would happen if she called a day late?’ I had to turn off my computer. I can’t believe someone would say something like that. You’re not in the situation. Granted, maybe they’re just saying that to draw attention to the group or to be vulgar for whatever reason. But that kind of took me aback.”

Leigh-Ann Royster, Elon’s coordinator for personal health programs and community well-being, has a different take on the joking, based on her 14 years of experience with victims of sexual violence.

“I think that it is a natural reaction, unfortunately, in our culture to
minimize incidents of sexual violence for other folks,” she said. “I think that it’s easy for people to joke about or minimize or blame the victim for choices that he or she has made because then it keeps them safe. It’s sort of like self-protection.”

Royster said this attitude is not unusual in any setting, but she thinks education about sexual violence will help the Elon community take it more seriously.

“It’s hard to imagine, in terms of how your safe environment feels shattered, until you’ve been the survivor of a crime like one of these,” Royster said.

Feeling unsafe in your own home

The safety of their environment is something Linda, Kelly and Alice have been forced to reevaluate in the past few months. Like most Elon students, they’d previously felt secure in a smalltown, suburban community. The crimes they experienced put a new perspective on the safety precautions they’d always been told to take.

“My dad was adamant about me getting a gun,” Kelly said jokingly,
noting that this particular solution would be a bit extreme. “But now I have the curtains loose over the windows, and I keep bear mace by the door.”

A tour guide for Elon’s Office of Admission, Kelly said it feels “weird” when the parents of prospective students ask her about campus safety.

“In general, I still do feel safe, but when I tell them that, (the crime) is always in the back of my head,” she said.

Linda, though, is still dealing with a fear of being alone in her own house.

“If I come home and the front door of the house is unlocked, I’ll just feel really uncomfortable and usually go over to a friend’s house and wait until someone gets back,” she said. “I still usually sleep with my roommate in her room. I’m still kind of scared to sleep
by myself in that room.”

Because Linda’s roommate was the victim of a similar incident in their house this summer, the coincidence has her convinced the intruder watches the house.

“Three of my roommates have boyfriends, and we have guy friends over all the time, and he’s never accidentally come when any friends or guys have been there,” she said.

Although Alice generally feels safe during the day, her job with Campus Recreation sometimes requires her to be at Koury Athletic Center by 5 a.m., when it is usually still dark. In the past, she’s always driven to work from her off-campus apartment, but when her
car was towed from the gym parking lot, she was told that she’d need another way of getting there.

“I’m not trying to be dramatic, but after that happened, I just don’t want to walk by myself when it’s dark out,” she said.

Official treatment

Other than this particular incident, Alice has been appreciative of the police force’s efforts to catch the man responsible for the crime at the Food Lion, saying that they’re serious about catching him. Kelly was also appreciative of their work, noting the quick response time and eagerness to help.

But at the same time, Kelly said she wishes they would pursue their leads more actively.

“I don’t think they’re doing the greatest job,” Linda said. “My dadactually came down a week or two after it happened, and it just seemed like they didn’t really know what they were doing. He said they constantly kept ruling people out that could easily be the guy. I feel like they’re jumping to conclusions so fast.”

Alice also expressed displeasure with an Elon Campus Safety and Police secretary that scolded her for reporting the Food Lion crime the next day.

“When she heard it happened the night before, she freaked out. She was like, ‘Why didn’t you call? I can’t believe you didn’t call 911.'” Alice said.

The late report syndrome

“The thing is, my first inclination was to run, not to stay in this parking lot and describe him,” Alice said. “It wasn’t even that I didn’t think to call the police. I just wanted to get out of there. I
didn’t think about calling anyone.”

The other two victims had similar reactions, wanting only to put as much distance as possible between them and their attackers as quickly as they could.

“I think that sometimes you lose your logic when you’re in a situation like this,” Alice said. “I remember when I read the e-mails, I was like, ‘Why didn’t you call the police? That could have helped so much.'”

In Alice’s first thoughts of panic, she worried that maybe it wasn’t “technically” indecent exposure since the criminal was in his own private property (his car), that calling the Burlington police would take them away from more dangerous crimes, and that calling Elon Campus Safety and Police wouldn’t be appropriate because it was out of their jurisdiction.

Although Kelly called the police as soon as she’d slammed her door, she remembers an impulse to call her boyfriend instead.

“But I do remember reading all those e-mails that are sent out all across campus that are like, ‘Call 911 first. Don’t call Campus Security, call 911,'”she said.

This impulse, Royster explained,comes from the stranger violation thatvictims of sexual violence feel.

“Sometimes when you’ve been assaulted by a stranger, then calling another stranger isn’t necessarily the first thing you want to do, even though we get those messages about calling 911 and making sure you do this immediately,” she said.

Royster also noted that as a general rule, people are more likely to question the actions of the victim in sexual crimes, and victims may question their own justification before seeking help.

Alice’s thought process involved self-doubt, but Kelly felt a sense of responsibility for what happened to her.

“It was stupid not to look who it was first (before opening the door),” she said. “Yeah, he shouldn’t be creeping around like that, but, you know, lock your door and be aware of your surroundings.”

Criminal at large

The crimes this winter certainly weren’t the first of their kind. For more than four years, indecent exposure incidents have been reported on and around campus, leading the community to ask, “Why hasn’t he been caught?”

The victims of these crimes agree when they were caught in the moment, they weren’t concentrating on the criminal’s face. This makes it hard for police to get a good description and even harder for them to make a positive identification.

Linda and Kelly said they think it is likely the same man who committed all of the crimes, but neither is sure she could identify him if she saw him again.

“I told them he looked like Alan from ‘The Hangover’ without the beard,” Kelly said. “But when they asked me questions like ‘Did he have freckles?’ I was like ‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe he did?'”

In addition to the suggestive nature of police questioning, Linda said she’s not able to recall the incident in complete detail.

“I feel like I just try to block out what happened so much that it’s fuzzy,” she said. “I feel like it could either all come back and click, or, I don’t know. My mom wanted me to make a composite of him, but I couldn’t even do that.”

All three victims said that they’d read through old Smith Jackson e-mails to check if the descriptions matched the man they’d seen, and while Linda and Kelly saw strong similarities, Alice noticed enough differences to make her think not all of the crimes were
committed by the same man.

“As creepy as it is,”she said. “I think there is more than one person out there doing this.”

Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect the safety and identities of the victims.

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