NEWS- Rampage: Home invasion adds to attack fears
At the splashy "Artini" party in the Frank Ix building July 20, signs advised partygoers that security was available to see them to their cars. The safe-walk-home effort was in response to a series of random attacks on pedestrians in the downtown area by white t-shirted teens, a number that edged up from at least eight to 11 following three weekend assaults on West Main Street.
And a July 19 home invasion on Park Street has further set the city on edge.
Early July 21, two different couples were attacked within minutes. A man and woman had just come out of a restaurant at 2:45am and were sitting in a car near West Main restaurant. Four to six boys in white t-shirts approached the couple.
"One asks the girl to use her cellphone," says Police Chief Tim Longo. "She doesn't have one. The kid jumps on the trunk of her car. She gets out to confront him– "and was then struck.
Minutes later, another man and woman were walking near the Drewary Brown Bridge on West Main when they passed a group of white t-shirt-clad teens, one of whom asked what time it was.
"As they walk by, they strike the man from behind," says Longo. "None of these folks was seriously injured."
The next night, in the early morning hours of July 22, a man leaving Starr Hill restaurant was asked the time by two males he estimated to be between 15 and 16 years old. The man was struck with a fist in the back of his head and in the jaw, and the assailants fled behind Starr Hill toward Hardy Drive.
The victim describes both boys as around 5'10" tall. One was thin and wearing a white t-shirt, the other had a stocky build and was wearing a blue-checked shirt and wire rimmed glasses, Longo says.
He believes the two July 21 attacks are related "because of the time and close proximity," but he adds, "I'm not sure the third one is."
Longo doesn't rule out the possibility that these attacks and the previous eight could be related. "I believe we're dealing with multiple groups," says Longo. "It could be some of the same individuals. It could be two or three groups trying to one-up each other."
Since two pedestrian attacks on July 6, police have formed a task force to investigate the rash of assaults with a common denominator: strangers beaten by groups of young black males in white t-shirts.
"We're dealing with a situation in which the victims are not able to identify the attackers," says Longo. After school resource officers were added to the investigation, "I think we may have a fairly good idea," says Longo. "We've talked to kids and the parents who may be involved."
Police have also stepped up their presence downtown, as well as deploying plainclothes officers, says the chief.
Particularly frustrating to Longo: "12- to 13-year-old kids are out on the street at 2 or 3am without being accountable." Charlottesville has a curfew for children under 17 who are supposed to be off the streets at midnight on week nights and 1am on weekends. Before police can charge street-roaming teens, they have to issue a warning.
"We have increased curfew warnings," says Longo. Police are also drafting letters to remind business owners who admit underage kids to hip-hop events of the curfew.
Two weeks ago, police were adamant that there was no evidence the assaults are gang-related.
"I don't know that for sure," Longo now concedes. "There's a lot of speculation, and to say we're not exploring that angle would be inaccurate."
In the wake of the attacks, police hosted a meeting with nervous citizens July 18.
The Downtown Business Association is clamoring for surveillance cameras on the Downtown Mall– although none of the attacks have taken place on the Mall proper– while blaming the media for portraying downtown as unsafe.
In the midst of this unease, a home invasion on tony Park Street July 19 has sent further ripples of fear throughout the city. The street is popular with lawyers, both as a place to work and to live– even beyond the bridge over the Route 250 Bypass. The invasion happened in the 1100 block of Park.
"A professional couple was in their house, and they hear a noise on the porch," says Longo. The husband went out to investigate and found two males– one black, one white, in their twenties. The homeowner was struck in the head and taken back in the house, and he and his wife were bound.
The burglars roamed through the house before leaving with about $500 worth of property, including bank cards. Police retrieved poor-quality images from the ATMs the invaders used, but probably will release the images anyway.
"Why target this house?" wonders Longo. "There's nothing remarkable about it or the people in it. Typically in home invasions, there's a specific target."
In burglaries, explains Longo, the thieves don't want to meet the homeowners. "In home invasions, you're going to have an encounter," he says.
Police are looking at relationships that may link the invaders with the residents, but they don't rule out a random attack.
"My hope is this is an isolated event and unconnected to the assaults downtown," says a neighbor, who requests anonymity. "People don't normally break into houses that are occupied. I feel this is an isolated event."
The neighbor acknowledges that people find the incident "unsettling," but maintains that the neighborhood is safe. "I'm not going to put in an alarm system," he says.
Longo, too, maintains that statistically the city is safe. "We've had this spate of attacks," he says. "They've received a tremendous amount of hype and publicity."
Acknowledging the rising perception that downtown is dangerous, he says, "We have to react to it."