Law enforcement officers from Gadsden and Etowah County are attempting to dispel rumors that exploded in recent days online claiming there have been multiple attacks by a serial rapists in one section of town.
There have not been three rapes reported in the Country Club/Clubview area, Sheriff Jonathon Horton and Gadsden Police Chief Lamar Jaggears told about 40 people gathered at Eura Brown Elementary School Thursday night, in a meeting called by Councilman Kent Back.
The isolated report that seems to have spurred the rumors is disturbing enough..
Horton said at 2:59 a.m. Sept. 25, a woman called 911. She was passing by the Coin Laundry on Rainbow Drive, and she saw a man "take control" of a woman outside the business. She saw a wallet dropped on the ground by a van, and she thought what she saw didn't look right.
Fortunately, Horton said, there was a deputy in the Whorton Bend area, and he reached the scene at 3:03 a.m. He spotted the wallet and ID, as well as the van at the scene at 3:09 a.m., the sheriff said.
At 3:13 a.m. Horton said, the deputy found the woman behind the business on Club Drive. The offense the woman reported was not rape, the sheriff said. The applicable criminal offense would be sodomy, he said, involving oral sex.
He said the victim told investigators when the lights from the deputy's vehicle became visible, the man ran away.
Horton said the woman technically was not homeless, but that she was transient, and she'd been living in the van, parking it at the coin laundry with the owner's permission. The business is open 24 hours. The sheriff said parking there, she was able to have access to the restroom.
Horton said investigators believe the suspect in the case may have been aware she was staying there, and was watching her.
"He found a vulnerable person," the sheriff said. He said the woman was taken to a local hospital where the exam included a "rape kit," and biological evidence was obtained. He said investigators hope a match can be found in DNA databases.
Neighboring businesses have cooperated with investigators, Horton said, providing security camera footage, but while it shows a shadowy figure's path in the area, it didn't capture the subject's facial features.
Investigators were not able to find an image of the suspect, and had only the sketchiest of descriptions, Horton said. If they had more detailed information, he said, they would have provided it to the public to seek help. Instead, the investigation has continued and investigators are working to develop a suspect.
The woman was assisted in finding a shelter in Calhoun County, he said.
It was later that the sheriff's office, Gadsden police and Back became aware of "misinformation" being reported on social media and through text groups.
The Coin Laundry is one of a handful of businesses on Rainbow Drive that are in the county's jurisdiction. However, Horton said county investigators and Gadsden police consulted to determine that this incident is the only report of its kind received in that vicinity.
County and city officers were at a loss as to the source of rumors of a serial rapist and multiple vehicle burglaries in the Country Club. More than a dozen county and city officers attended the meeting.
"There were not three rapes," Horton said, as has been rumored.
Jaggears said Gadsden police are assisting the county in the sexual assault investigation, but had received no reports of similar incidents.
He said he'd looked back at reports for vehicle break-ins to Sept. 14, and found only one reported in the Country Club/Clubview area, and an 18-year-old neighbor was apprehended in that truck burglary.
Some of those at the meeting were satisfied to hear "from the horse's mouth" about what had been reported, and what had not. One attendee said he believed there should be greater "transparency" about crime.
After the meeting, some police and city representatives pondered: How can you be transparent about something that didn't happen?
Both city and county law enforcement agencies have had more officers in the area since the incident. Lt. Scott Lumpkin said a mobile camera was moved to the golf course area on Sept. 26. It's being checked regularly, he said, and if anything useful is found it will be given to county investigators.
One attendee questioned whether the laundromat needs to be open 24 hours, if it is used in overnight hours.
Horton said the woman who made the 911 call works late, and said she goes to the laundry a couple of times per week. She'd met the woman in the van; that's why she knew what she witnessed at that early morning hour was wrong.
Residents attending were able to express their concerns — basically, how concerned they should be. Should those who walk in their neighborhood stop doing so, one woman asked.
Both Horton and Jaggears encouraged people to consider their safety in all neighborhoods, at all times. The chief said he's always suspicious, always cautious and observant of surroundings.
"This isn't Mayberry," Horton said.
As to the assault under investigation, the sheriff said there had not been a consistent description of the suspect's clothing given — which is not unusual when someone has gone through a traumatic attack. He said it can take victims some time to process what happened and provide information.
He said the victim described the man as "well-spoken," and possibly not from "the South," based on his accent.
Horton said investigators examining security recordings in the area found no signs of the suspect going to a vehicle; that he was always on foot.
One resident expressed concerns about that. If he didn't have a vehicle, she said, people were concerned that it might be someone who lived in the area.
Deputy District Attorney Brynn Crain said the district attorney's office is following the investigation. He said District Attorney Jody Willoughby is satisfied the sheriff's office is diligently pursuing the case, and Crain said he had personal interest in it.
"I live a stone's throw from the Coin Laundry," he said.
"We encourage people to be vigilant, to be observant," Horton said. He said investigators continue to investigate and if there is any information they can provide that will be helpful to the public, they will do so.
He and Jaggears urged residents to contact police with information about this case or other criminal activity they see.
Contact Gadsden Times reporter Donna Thornton at 256-393-3284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: ECSO investigating one sexual assault, not serial attacks as rumored