Southeast DPS have suspect in sexual misconduct incidents reported on campus

Friday, October 26, 2012

Authorities at Southeast Missouri State University say they are close to filing charges against a man who has been exposing his genitals to female students over the last six weeks across the Cape Girardeau campus.

No arrests have been made, but a suspect has been identified, said Doug Richards, director of the university's Department of Public Safety. In separate incidents, three female students filed complaints that a man approached them during daylight hours and exposed himself, Richards said. The first report was made in September from an incident that the victim said took place in a parking lot along Bellevue Street, Richards said. On Wednesday another incident was reported near the Mark F. Scully Building at Woodlawn Avenue and Henderson Street.

The department has been investigating for several weeks, Richards said, and an arrest warrant is being finalized to bring a man into custody.

"We have been very aggressively trying to identify this suspect," Richards said. "I feel that our investigation has been very thorough and will end up resulting in criminal charges being filed."

The suspect is not a student at Southeast, the director said, although the victims described the perpetrator as a man of college age, in his early 20s, with dark hair and a beard. Following those incidents, the suspect drove off in what appeared to be a Honda Element, according to the victims.

After each of the incidents, including the one this week, Richards said the university probably went above the mandates of the Jeanne Clery Act, which requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to publicly disclose statistics about on-campus crime. The university, in these cases, alerted students to the threat with fliers that were tacked up around campus, Richards said.

The fliers were greeted by some female students with anxiety and by others with a shrug. Some said Thursday they hadn't heard of the incidents.

Erin Neier, a 20-year-old junior at Southeast who works on The Arrow student newspaper, said she saw the fliers.

"I kind of brushed it off," Neier said. "But in the back of my mind, I was like, 'Really? Did that happen on our campus?' I really couldn't imagine it. I guess I was just thinking it was probably some student playing a prank."

That looked less likely as each incident was followed by another, separated by about two weeks, Richards said. Counseling was made available to the victims, who are not identified per a Southeast Missourian policy. The department increased its patrols and launched an investigation that included interviewing potential witnesses, setting up stakeouts and studying closed-circuit surveillance video. Richards would not say whether the suspect appears on the recordings. He declined to discuss many details of the ongoing investigation.

After the warrants are sent to the Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, Richards is hopeful to have the man in custody and charged with three counts of sexual misconduct within four days, he said.

Under Missouri statute, the most applicable charges appear to be second-degree sexual misconduct, which -- according to one definition -- takes place when someone exposes his or her genitals under circumstances in which it is known that such conduct is likely to cause affront. Each charge would carry a possible penalty of up to six months in the county jail. Richards would not rule out additional charges.

The occurrence of sexual offenses are rare at Southeast, Richards said, pointing to his department's preliminary 2011 annual report released this week. In 2011, one rape was reported by a student, the report says, although there was no arrest made. Of all 49 of the so-called Part I offenses reported last year -- including assault, burglary, larceny and arson -- only one, a burglary, was solved for a 2-percent clearance rate for violent crimes on campus.

Over the past four years, students have reported 14 "forcible" sex offenses that were said to have taken place on campus, with another 12 of those incidents alleged to have happened in dormitories or other residential facilities. The report says no "non-forcible" sex offenses took place over the same period.

Tammy Gwaltney, director of the Beacon Health Center that provides medical and advocacy services to victims of sexual abuse, said those who commit abuses such as indecent exposure are power seekers. Gwaltney admitted a skepticism that sex offenders can ever fully recover.

"How are we going to know that they're healed without letting them back out there?" Gwaltney said. "With alcoholics and drug addicts, they can give a blood sample and see that they're clean. For these offenders, there's not some test they can take."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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