By JESSICA HARDIN
and JUSTIN DENNIS
A recent spate of reported crimes against women at local parks has law-enforcement officers and members of the running community urging caution, especially for women who are walking, biking or running alone.
Since this spring, there have been at least six cases in which women reported being sexually assaulted, attacked or harassed in area parks.
Most recently, a woman reported being sexually assaulted Saturday night at Packard Park in Warren and another woman reported being sexually assaulted Tuesday morning in Poland Township Park.
The victim of Tuesday’s attack described the suspect as a white male of medium build with blue eyes, standing 5 feet 10 inches tall.
At a news conference Tuesday, Poland Township police Chief Brian Goodin requested that anyone with information about the attack call the police department at 330-757-8033.
“Anybody that has anything, they can call anonymously. This person needs to be put away quick,” Goodin said.
Goodin recommends that people who run in the park maintain an awareness of their surroundings and always run with other people.
In April, a woman reported being attacked and dragged into the woods on West Newport Drive in Mill Creek Park. The suspect was described as a black male, weighing about 170 pounds, standing 5 feet 10 inches tall, with black hair.
In June, another woman reported that a man followed her, masturbated in front of her and made lewd remarks to her on a West Newport foot trail south of Lanterman’s Mill in Mill Creek Park. That suspect was described as a black male, age 18 to 22, with a slim build.
Asking about the cases Wednesday, MetroParks Police Chief Jim Willock said he could not comment on the ongoing investigation “other than to say we are working with other law-enforcement agencies to see if there is a connection between our cases and theirs.”
He advised anyone planning to walk or run alone “to visit a more populated area such as the East Golf Trail” and to go with a partner or group if going to a more isolated area.
He also advised against using earbuds “if you are alone in an isolated area.”
The Portage County Sheriff’s Office is investigating sexual assaults and robberies against two different female bicyclists that happened within the same half-mile segment of the Berlin Hike and Bike Trail in Deerfield, Sheriff David Doak said.
In a June 14 incident, a man “seriously assaulted” a woman about 6 p.m. near the trail’s state Route 224 intersection. The white male suspect was described as being in his late 20s or 30s, standing 6 feet tall, weighing between 175 and 200 pounds, and having short brown, curly hair and no facial hair.
He may have been driving a gray, four-door Pontiac Bonneville, according to a release from the department.
In an Aug. 14 incident, a man dressed in all black, including hat and mask, sexually assaulted and robbed another woman biking along the trail just before 7:30 p.m. near the intersection of state Route 14 and Wagner Road, Doak said.
The victim described the man as being in his mid-30s to early 40s, having a medium build and weighing between 180 and 200 pounds, according to a release.
“Most of these scenic trails – there’s just not a lot of passers-by or vehicle traffic ... that would pay attention to [people at risk],” Doak said.
“The reasons people like to use those is because they’re scenic and in remote areas. That makes it very difficult for us to find witness information.”
Doak said Wednesday both incidents were similar, but he did not say they were connected. The sheriff’s office declined to release reports on the assaults as the investigations are ongoing.
The office is urging anyone with information to contact Portage County detectives at 330-297-3890. Doak also called for others who may have been assaulted on the trail but have not reported it to come forward. “It could be helpful,” he said.
There are no regular patrols of the Berlin Hike and Bike Trail, Doak said, adding he wishes his department had the resources for one.
The office has linked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for increased security, but that department is also strapped for manpower, he added.
The office cautions those using the trails against going alone and implores them to stay aware of their surroundings and report suspicious activity such as people loitering in or near vehicles.
Anyone taking the trail alone should at least let another person know where they’re going and how long they expect to be gone, he said.
“We are really encouraging females in particular not to be out on those trails by themselves,” Doak said.
Youngstown Road Runners Club responded to the incidents in Mill Creek Park earlier this summer by partnering with Second Sole, a running store in Boardman, to host a self-defense class in July.
The class featured a Jiu Jitsu instructor, Staci May, of Mineral Ridge. May trained under Jim Bundy, who owns Team Bundy Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Howland.
Bundy’s studio regularly offers self-defense seminars for women.
“We do Gracie Jiu Jitsu, which trains you to beat someone who is bigger and stronger than you. There won’t be a guy fighting you unless he thinks he can take you” Bundy said.
Stephanie Ratliff, of Warren, is one of Bundy’s students. News of recent assaults compelled her to start practicing Jiu Jitsu in July.
“Those kinds of stories are the reason why I wanted to do this. It seems like it’s happening more and more and it’s scary for women. I want to know that if something like that happened I would be able to defend myself,” she said.
In addition to self-defense techniques, road runners club president Michelle Hirschl recommends that runners carry their cellphones and a small canister of tear gas, if they know how to use it.
She mentioned that Second Sole sells running belts with pockets for these items.
Though YRRC does not have plans to host another self-defense class, Hirschl hopes the club can act as a network for runners in the area.
For Hirschl, the most important way to exercise caution on the trails is to run with others.
“YRRC has a website and a Facebook group. If you want to run at a specific time, post on our Facebook page to look for a running buddy. Don’t go by yourself. Use our page as a platform to find someone to run with,” she said.
Contributor: Staff writer Jordyn