Updated at 7:30 p.m, Tuesday, July 26: The Bellingham Police Department is currently investigating a string of attempted sexual assault cases that occurred near Western’s campus on Friday, July 15 and Wednesday, July 20, Sgt. Mike Scanlon from Bellingham Police said.
“We definitely want to resolve this as quickly as possible, so we need to identify this person,” Bellingham Police Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said.
The suspect is described as a white male in his 20s with a large beard, according to the Bellingham Police and a Western Alert sent to the Western community on Wednesday, July 21 at 3:56 a.m.
The alert stated:
“Western Alert: Report: A woman was assaulted near campus at 1:56 a.m. today in the alley between North Garden and North Garden Terrace. The woman, who is not a Western student, was walking in the alley when the man approached her from behind, held a knife to her throat and demanded oral sex. The woman refused and the man fled on foot. The man was described as a white male in his 20s, with a large beard, with what may have been a jacket tied around his waist and a snowboard-style hat. The knife used was a small pocket knife. This may be related to an earlier incident at 1 a.m. at Chestnut and Ellis Street where a man on a bicycle with a similar description came upon a woman and man walking and slapped the woman on their buttocks. The man on the bike said he had a knife then rode toward downtown. Police are searching for the man. If you have any information please call 911.”
The suspect has not been identified as of Monday afternoon, July 25, according to police.
A Western student, who has chosen to remain anonymous, was among the four sexual assaults reported on the morning of Wednesday, July 20.
Between midnight and 12:30 a.m., the student said they were walking up North Garden Street alone toward their home while talking with their mom on their phone.
The student said the man walked out of a dark area on the street and approached them.
“We are very confident we’re going to identify this person.”
Lt. Bob Vander Yacht
The student said they thought they knew him and could possibly be one of their friends. When he approached them, he ran his hand up their leg and grabbed between them.
“The sad thing is I kept walking, I just excused it as a guy being a guy,” they said. “We are so desensitized to that.”
The student told their roommates what happened as soon as they got home. They thought it could potentially be a friend. Their partner informed them the friend in question was out of state.
The roommates proceeded to show the student the reports of women from the same night who reported similar incidents, they said. After that, the student came forward to the police later Wednesday morning.
“This is when I realized it was more serious than I took it for,” the student said.
They proceeded to go to the police station to describe the suspect and meet with a sketch artist.
The student said the most important thing to know after this happened is steps to prevention.
“People say there are always ways to prevent it from happening,” they said. “I never walk by myself. This was the only time in my three years at Western that I have walked by myself.”
“The girls this all happened to range [in height and weight],” they said. “The police told me what saved me was the fact I was talking on my phone. I think that is super important. People text, but with your face down, you can become vulnerable. I was physically talking on my phone — I called my mom because I was walking alone.”
To prevent incidents like these from happening again, Vander Yacht suggests letting people know where you are, walking with others, staying on well lit walkways and using safety apps, if possible.
“We are very confident we’re going to identify this person,” Vander Yacht said.
Western’s Counseling Center Director Shari Robinson suggests walking with others late at night, staying with a group, making prearranged plans on how to get home when partying and paying attention to surroundings.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to do that now, but we do,” Robinson said.
In Washington state, the severity of punishment for committing an act of sexual assault varies depending on the type of assault and the suspect’s criminal record. Sexual assault in Washington state may range from resulting in up to 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines to anywhere from 93 to 123 months and fines up to $50,000.
Committing an act of sexual assault is a violation of the Student Rights and Responsibilities Code, which may result in a number of punishments including suspension or expulsion from the university, according to the Office of Student Life.
The incidents come just over six months since a string of voyeurism and indecent exposure cases near the same area, according to a previous article by The Western Front.
From Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015 to Wednesday, January 6, 2016, at least eight incidents of indecent exposure or voyeurism occurred north of Western’s campus. A suspect was never caught and there was never confirmation that the same person committed all of the acts.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Bellingham Police at (360)778-8800 or Det. Tawsha Dykstra at (360)778-8664. If you have information about similar incidents occurring on Western’s campus, contact University Police at (360)650-3555. For emergencies call 911.
Western’s counseling center offers a variety of options for support, including individual, group and after-hours counseling. While the center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, students also have the option to call the center after hours to get support for crisis support.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 3 in the morning, a Western student can still call,” Robinson said.
Students who are currently not enrolled in classes are also able to come into the center for clinic appointments where the center can provide additional resources. However, the center does not offer continued support to students who aren’t currently enrolled at Western. The center can be reached by phone at (360) 650-3164.
If you or someone you know has been affected by violence, Western’s Consultation & Sexual Assault Support center offers a safe and confidential resource for students. The support center can be reached by phone at (360) 650-3700.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Bellingham Police said they received reports of the following incidents:
Friday, July 15, 2016:
- Around 3:00 a.m. near East Holly and North Garden, an 18-year-old woman was assaulted by a male bearded bicyclist. The man grabbed her rear and then attempted to grab her arms. He fled after she started screaming.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016:
- Two women, ages 21 and 22 reported being approached by a man on a bike around 1:00 a.m. near Chestnut and Ellis. The man slapped the rear end of the woman. He then said he had a knife and then continued to ride downtown. The man had a pocket knife.
- A 29-year-old woman was assaulted around 1:56 a.m. by a man that approached her in an alley between North Garden and North Garden Terrace. After approaching the woman, the man held his arms around her, held a knife to her throat and demanded oral sex. He fled on foot after the woman refused and screamed.