Weekend Rapes Raise Concerns About Female Safety in Morgantown
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — I was alone for three minutes and thirty-six seconds today before someone else came along. That, ladies, is more than long enough to be raped.
I was walking beneath South High Street, making my way along the rail-trail toward the Pleasant Street bridge, where one of two women were sexually assaulted early Friday morning. According to Saturday’s issue of the Dominion Post, the first rape occurred there about 4 a.m. Since no time is given for the rape itself, this is my best guess, based on the fact that police responded to Ruby Memorial Hospital at 4:21 a.m. (NOTE: If you don’t have a paid subscription to the DP online, this is their free version—but it doesn’t offer all the details the paid newspaper does.)
When I began walking I was in an open area, but I stopped after realizing how deserted it was, and how much vegetation could hide someone—including a woman being sexually assaulted. I’m sure I noticed this, like I always do, because having been raped, I’m both more aware of my surroundings than some people might be and, at the same time, determined not to let that past fear rule my life now.
I turned around and waited to see how long it took for another trail user to appear. A young couple with a puppy soon showed up. They were en route to the dog park—which is below the Pleasant Street bridge, too.
That trail section is fairly well traveled, but there are other sections where I’ve walked and seen no one for fifteen minutes. How many people and how frequently we pass each other often depends on the time of day.
When I first learned of the two rapes, I told my daughter, who, like many women, myself included, often walks alone. And I was reminded of my friend Tori, who told me two years ago that she had once been accosted on the trail by a mentally unstable man. “I reported it to the police, but I still see him around the trail,” she had said when warning us to be careful.
After reading the lead story in yesterday’s paper, I realized the rapist had probably been lurking on the trail, where he then preyed on his two very unsuspecting victims. Who could have been my daughter. Or me. (Except we never walk that early in the morning.)
The second rape apparently occurred at 8:38 a.m., about four hours after the first woman’s rape was reported. According to the newspaper, the assault happened on the trail between Wall and Walnut streets. The female runner was attacked just out of sight of the Hazel Ruby McQuain Ampitheatre, and about a block from the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department. That’s along the portion of the trail that runs behind the Shell gas station located at 1345 University Avenue.
As my daughter and I discussed the article, I said the areas were isolated. She disagreed, saying all kinds of people loiter near the waterfront. Then she said something that surprised me: “That’s dangerous. If it’s after dark, the buses won’t even let you off at the bus depot.”
She knows this because she regularly uses public transportation, and on several occasions she has asked to be dropped off there—but all the drivers refuse, citing the dangers.
I haven’t taken public transportation around town in quite a while. It’s probably been years, really. However, since I do use the trail a good bit myself, especially enjoying the scenic beauty along the river, I have frequently passed the bus depot. Once a few months ago I saw an ambulance, back doors wide open, as the attendants tried to wake up a man who was leaning up against a wall. He looked like he had overdosed. He is one of many people who are either addicts or unsavory in other ways, who hang out in that area at all hours.
If you want to get a good pulse on who lives in your community, walking around town can help you do that. But you might just want to hop on a bus now and then, too, because if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can learn a lot about what’s happening around town. Much of which isn’t reported on by the media.
For instance, did you know that there’s a gang of drug dealers here from Detroit? Probably not, but if you talk to the right people, you’ll learn all about how they’ve moved into Morgantown, which has become a hub for their assorted types of illegal activities. I learned this two years ago because I talk to a lot of people. And I listen, and ask questions.
In a perfect world, all women would be able to walk alone, day or night. We don’t live in a perfect world, though—and it’s growing worse all the time. So women who choose to walk or run alone must be cautious, alert and savvy.
Beyond that, we know we take risks, every time we get into a car, or cross the street, or even take medicine. And depending on the time of day, the levels of distraction, and other factors (such as whether your doctor prescribed the correct dosage), those risks increase. What I want to say is this: if you’re a woman, don’t take any unnecessary risks.
Today, after finding that most local women online didn’t know about Friday’s two rapes, I conducted my own informal poll in real time. I asked ten people I met downtown, mostly women, if they knew about the crimes. Only two people did: both were men. They read about it in the newspaper. That’s one way to be savvy, ladies; keep up with the news. One woman told me today she doesn’t do this because “it’s depressing; it’s always bad news.” Sadly, she’s right—but ignoring all bad, sad news means we miss news stories like this one, that do a valuable good by alerting us to neighborhood crime, which can help keep us safe.
One of the women I asked was waitressing on High Street at the time; I really believed there was no way she couldn’t know. Right? Wrong! She then said she was glad I told her, because she normally uses the trail to walk to work, saving herself parking fees.
After posting this news on my Facebook page this morning, some women balked when I said not to walk or run alone, or to use the buddy system. I get that. And trust me, I’m no different than you: I refuse to let fear keep me from going places alone, even on the trail. But because of my background, I’m more attuned to my surroundings. And I am very cautious. So if you want to walk or run alone, too, then be extra observant when you wear earbuds, buy and carry mace, don’t forget your cell phone (which should, like mine, have 911 on speed dial), and know exactly what to do if you’re faced with an attacker.
Oh, and let’s all hope that the man police arrested, Jordan Lamont Bennett, 22, is the real rapist. I say that because Bennett is black and lately I’ve been reading a lot about race and the police, and thinking back to something that happened to me when I was reporting on the Fraternal Order of Police activities here in West Virginia.
More recently, when the MacArthur Fellows were announced, I learned about Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University who won because of her fascinating work on societal biases, which include this one: “police officers are more likely to mistakenly identify African American faces as criminal than white faces.”
That, though, is a topic for another time. Perhaps next week’s blog.
* * *
I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about overcoming depression from domestic violence; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”