- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

At the small playgrounds that dot the Germantown, Md. apartment community near Churchill Ridge Circle, the swing sets and jungle gyms are empty. When children do come out to play, more parents tag along and they watch more carefully.
The increased vigilance is in response to a series of sexual assaults that have shaken the otherwise safe Montgomery County neighborhood. Since March, eight girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 19 have been attacked in seven incidents in the county, usually in daylight and usually in open spaces. Three of the attacks, including the two most recent, occurred in Germantown.
"It's a priority and we are doing our best to see what we can do," said Montgomery County police Sgt. Rick Cage.
Citing subtle differences in the nature of the attacks, police continue to say they lack the "crucial detail" that will link the crimes. But after more than a week since the last assault and no arrests, besieged residents are taking extra precautions on the chance there is a serial sex offender at large in their community.
Esther Washington, director of the playground camp at Waters Landing Elementary School, a quarter-mile from the last attack, said they have introduced the children to all of the building-service people so they are familiar with them and can recognize strangers.
She makes sure that there are two camp counselors with the children at all times, but said she feels that it is up to the parents to decide whether or not to discuss the assaults with their children.
Kristin Sweeney said she does not want to scare her three young children by telling them about the assailant, so she gives them general safety rules instead. Mrs. Sweeney dropped her 6-year-old son off for camp at the school just an hour before the latest attack.
"Before, I used to feel at ease dropping [him] off," Miss Sweeney said. "Now I make sure he gets on the bus myself."
The most recent incident occurred on July 9, when a man posing as a maintenance worker was admitted to an apartment by a 13-year-old girl home alone. Police said the attacker sexually assaulted the girl before fleeing the apartment, but that she was not otherwise injured. It was the first time in the seven attacks in which the assailant attempted to gain access to the victim's home.
In six cases, victims provided similar descriptions of their attacker: a white male in his 20s, thin, with short blonde or brown hair. The seventh victim didn't get a good look.
At the Waters Landing Pool, next to one of many tree-lined bike paths in the community, Monique Witz and Angie Watson, both mothers of 4-month-old babies, said they walk together often. They have recently become more hesitant to walk the paths and prefer to stick to the main streets. In five of the instances, the attacker has approached women on secluded trails.
"I used to go alone sometimes, but now I don't feel comfortable unless Angie is with me," Miss Witz said.
Bethany Cooper, from Damascus, manages lifeguards at the Waters Landing Pool. She said since police officers stopped by the pool to put up a flier about the assailant, the lifeguards are keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. Miss Cooper keeps pepper spray with her at all times and said lifeguards always leave the pool in pairs at night.
"I try not to go anywhere alone, especially in the evenings, even though most of the assaults have occurred in the middle of the day," she said.
A Montgomery County police spokeswoman yesterday said there have been increased patrols in the neighborhoods where the attacks have taken place. Walking in pairs is good advice, but rather than concentrate on a perceived pattern the attacker may have established, police say people should practice personal safety in all situations.
Terri McHugh, a North Potomac mother of a 16-year-old, said she reminds her daughter to be cautious. She gives her daughter a cell phone when she is driving somewhere alone. But as with many other members of the community, there's only one thing that will ease Miss McHugh's mind.
"I just hope they catch him," she said.

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