A Thursday night community meeting about a string of sexual attacks and robberies on the West Side did little to allay Lonia Sneed’s fears.
“I am very concerned about what’s going on in the Austin area …,” said the 52-year-old Austin resident, who walks with a cane and volunteers near where one of the attacks occurred. “It is getting too close to home.”
Sneed was among 60 residents that attended a meeting at Pleasant Ridge M.B. Church, 116 S. Central on Oct. 13 to update residents about the attacks – eight in all, with the latest occurring in the 900 Block of North Leamington.
29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham called for the meeting, inviting her fellow West Side aldermen-Jason Ervin (28), Walter Burnett (27), Emma Mitts (37) and Michael Chandler (24). State Rep. Camille Lilly also attended.
Graham said she wanted residents to be “aware of what’s going on and have an opportunity to protect themselves.”
She also noted that none of the incidences occurred in the 29th Ward.
“We are being proactive,” she told the crowd.
The attacks occurred in West Side police districts 11, 12 and 15, which encompass the Lawndale, Garfield Park and a section of Austin areas, respectively. The incidents occurred between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., as one or two black male offenders target women walking alone either getting out of their car or walking to their residences. The offenders brandish a black revolver taking the victims’ money, purse and cell phone. The first attack occurred on Aug. 28 in the 1100 Block of North Lawndale.
The offenders are between 20 and 30 years old and weigh 130-190 pounds. The offenders are between 5’5′ and 6′ and wear either a mask, skull cap or a black hoodie over their heads, and dark clothing. The offenders have also been described as having pink or yellow eyes.
Police officials attributed that unique characteristic to either lighting in the streets or a medical condition like jaundice.
“In some of the incidences, he also fondled the female,”15th District Police Commander Walter Green said. “I’m not quite sure if that was for gratification or maybe just looking for more money or things to rob from them.”
Green advised women to travel in groups and cautioned them to scream if they see someone coming their way suspiciously. Green noted that more police patrols were added, but he would not provide specifics.
But some residents expressed concern over the police’ “slow response” in alerting residents about the attacks that began in August. Residents said they got word of the attacks a week ago prior to last Thursday’s meeting, after several women were already assaulted.
“It seems like it would make more sense to get the word out after victim number two or three,” said Dwayne Truss, an Austin resident and community activist, adding that such inaction would not happen in other communities.
“When you look on the news, when something happens in certain neighborhoods, whether it be North Side, Near North [or] Lakeview…the word gets out real quick,” Truss said. “In our community, we have to go up to eight sexual assaults of our women before we get any kind of attention from the police department.”
Joseph Salemme, commander of the Area 5 Detective Division, said the delay was more administrative than conspiratorial. Salemme explained that the attacks occurred in two separate police districts and the detective divisions did not know these cases were similar.
“Ideally, we would have caught it immediately. We didn’t,” Salemme said. “I prefer to concentrate on catching them now and, hopefully, we can move forward and apprehend them.”
Ald. Mitts was also a little miffed about the delay. She said she “stayed on the phone practically all day,” contacting police officials to get answers. But once she found out, Mitts hit the streets with Graham and Ervin passing flyers to make people aware.
“I knew we couldn’t be sitting back and not inform our community like that. That’s a no-no,” she said.
Some residents at the meeting urged the community to work with the police. Aubrey Carter, 68, said residents need to stop being afraid.
“We got to come on and stick together and stop…just sitting there waiting on the police to do our job. We are supposed to help them do the job,” Carter said.