Denise Nguyen has heard all the safety tips: Don’t walk alone at night. Be aware of your surroundings. Travel in pairs.
But as she took her dogs for a snowy walk Tuesday down Trenton Street in East Boston, she was at a loss. Three women in her neighborhood reported being attacked Monday evening within blocks of one another as they went about their daily lives, taking out the trash, walking into an apartment building.
“What do you really do, hibernate?” asked Nguyen, 46, who said she was out walking while the attacks were taking place. “I’m a nonviolent person, so I don’t own a gun. I don’t own mace. What do you do, carry a frying pan?”
On Tuesday, police blanketed the community, trying to ease residents’ fears as they continued to search for the men behind an unusual cluster of attacks in East Boston and an additional attack in the North End.
The Boston Police Department issued a community alert after three women reported being attacked Monday between about 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Trenton and Chelsea streets. Each victim described her attacker as highly intoxicated and dressed in black. The man fled after knocking each woman to the ground and flashed a knife in the third attack, said police, who said they believe the attacks are related.
Early Saturday morning, a woman in the North End was sexually assaulted by a blond man who took her picture before fleeing. Police have also stepped up patrols there and said Tuesday they do not believe that the attack is related to those in East Boston.
“We’re asking for help, not just women, but everybody, to be alert,” said Sergeant Michael McCarthy, a Boston Police spokesman. “If you see someone who matches the description we put out, please call. No matter how insignificant you think it is, please let us know.”
Sexual assault prevention advocates cautioned that while a series of assaults is alarming, it does not necessarily mean that sexual violence is on the rise. Citywide, reports of rape and attempted rape are down this year by 43 percent, compared to the same period last year, McCarthy said, though the most recent attacks have not yet been counted in that data.
Said McCarthy: “We’re going to do everything we can to find these people that did this, and hopefully we won’t have any more.”
On Tuesday, women in the Eagle Hill neighborhood of East Boston said they were rattled, and some said they would not feel safe walking alone until the perpetrator is caught.
“It’s just really disturbing to me,” said Anna Kondratenok, 31, who lives in East Boston and walks dogs in the neighborhood where the attacks occurred, a neighborhood she usually considers “pretty safe.”
On Monday at around noon, she said, as she prepared to walk three big dogs, a man dressed all in black and reeking of alcohol followed her into an alleyway between two houses and urinated. At the time, it was unnerving; now, she said, it is terrifying.
“I think it’s horrible that this is happening,” she said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Police have not yet made any arrests in the attacks, but McCarthy said detectives were out all day Tuesday canvassing in East Boston, knocking on doors and looking for surveillance footage. Police cars cruised regularly down Trenton Street, where two of the attacks took place, and residents said that officers out walking on foot had stopped to talk to them about what to look out for and how to stay safe.
“These are the kinds of crimes that people are arguably most fearful of in communities: women walking alone, coming home from work, coming home from shopping, and having some predator attack them randomly,” said Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at SUNY Plattsburgh. “I think it causes the erosion of a sense of safety that people need to have in communities.”
Nolan said Boston police have handled the attacks well: They informed the community immediately, got detailed descriptions out to the public, broadcast safety tips, and increased patrols. It is a tough call to decide to publicize sexual assaults, he said, because police do not want to create panic or compromise their investigation, but with a good description, the public can help identify the perpetrator quickly and prevent future assaults.
Sexual assault prevention advocates echoed Nolan’s sentiment that notifying the public was the right thing to do, but said prevention requires focusing on the perpetrator’s actions, not on steps women can take to stay safe.
“What that does is, it treats sexual assaults as inevitable and puts the burden on people who are potential victims to protect themselves,” said Meg Bossong, community engagement manager at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. “We really do think that sexual assault is preventable.”
The suspect in Saturday’s assault in the North End was described as a white man in his 20s with blue eyes, a medium build, short blond spiked hair, and possibly with freckles on his cheeks. He was wearing a dark pea coat, a dark hat, jeans, and trail boots.
The women attacked Monday each described a similar suspect: a Hispanic man in his 30s or 40s, between 5 feet 5 and 5 feet 9, dressed in black, clean-shaven with a medium build and medium complexion, and a mole or mark on his left cheek. Anyone with information is asked to call the sexual assault unit at 617-343-4400. Survivors of sexual assault can call the Boston area rape crisis center hotline at 800-841-8371.
A statement from Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s press office said the mayor has the utmost confidence in the Police Department and the commissioner.