WILMINGTON — Since early 2018 the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) has responded to dozens of crimes across the city. Oftentimes incidents are one-off occurrences or crimes of opportunity — other times they only appear to be unrelated.
What seemed to the police to be typical property crimes including wallet thefts, stolen cell phones, and breaking and entering are now being looked at in a different light and are believed to be connected. At least 11 cases are now being considered as related.
Earlier this week the department released limited details about several assaults targeting men who had been drinking in Downtown Wilmington. It was later revealed that seven of the 11 male victims were military members, and there were four incidents of likely sexual assault.
On Thursday, Cheif Ralph Evangelous answered some of the nagging questions on the minds of downtown visitors and residents.
What took so long to piece the cases together? Have there been more victims? Are there any suspects?
Limited details from the victims
One of the hardest parts of making the connection between the multiple cases, which date back to at least January of 2018, was spotting a common MO (modus operandi). It wasn’t until late this summer that Evangelous said police began to see this commonality between the cases.
But it might not be the police’s fault for not realizing it sooner — one of the common themes shared amongst all of the victims was a significant loss of memory of the events.
“So as you know we have 11 cases that we have tied in through MO. I can’t talk about the MO because it is critical to the case right now. Out of the 11 cases, seven were military, some were Marines some were Army,” Evangelous said. “Out of that 11, four we think were sexually assaulted, two we are confident they were, two — they don’t know — all of them had some sort of cognitive impairment, remembering nothing from the time that they left the bars.”
When the first reports were taking last year some of them were for theft, others for vandalism — not unusual calls for downtown on the weekend, he said.
“So no one made much of it, then we started looking at stuff again this summer … we went back and started reading the reports and in the reports was mention of a specific MO that now tied all 11 of these together,” Evangelous said.
There is also no commonality between the different bars the victims had visited — at least — not yet.
“That’s the first question we asked, is it one or two bars? That makes it easier, [but it’s] multiple bars. There is no commonality in bars at all, and that’s even more frustrating for us because this guy, this guy doing this, he’s working all these bars. Or he’s waiting for bar closing and he’s targeting drunk people. If that’s the case — then maybe they are not getting drugged,” he said.
One of the problems with date rape drugs is they metabolize fairly quickly and unless they are tested for within hours, they might be undetected. For now, police are waiting on forensics to get back on some testing, the Chief said.
Escalation, from suspect and police
What might have started off as typical property crime incidents have started to escalate into something more serious: sexual assault.
“As the actual sexual assaults occured we saw that this thing is escalating, this guy is getting more and more brazen,” Evangelous said.
But police do have some challenges ahead of them in the investigation, one of which is the fact that, so far, they do not actually have a crime scene.
“We don’t have a crime scene because they [victims] don’t know where it happened. They don’t remember anything. We don’t have a [detailed] suspect description because they don’t remember anything,” he said.
There is a partial suspect description which is, according to Evangelous, a black male in his 20s or 30s.
As the suspect escalates, so will the police.
“What we had to do was get ahold of NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Services) who we have been working with CID (Criminal Investigations Department) from the Army and try and get these guys to re-interview everyone,” Evangelous said.
That process has already started and police are hopeful they will find more commonalities between the crimes. Evangelous said the police are also waiting on some forensic evidence to return from the state to hopefully help in the case.
Like any sexual assault case, victims are often embarrassed or ashamed which is why these crimes are often underreported. Questions as to the willingness of victims to come forward and report a sexual assault are also on the minds of the police.
“Do they truly not remember what occurred or is it because of embarrassment that they don’t really want to talk about it?” Evangelous said.
For now, he does not believe that the suspect is targeting Marines, but it is possible that he is targeting military members — although — it could simply be that there are lots of military men in downtown on weekends.
One of the other challenges for police was the fact that for some of the incidents, time passed before the crimes were reported. This makes things significantly more difficult for police to investigate. Other times, that wasn’t the case.
“Some of them we actually found them out, wandering the streets out here, some of them went back to their hotel, one went home. So it wasn’t like an immediate thing because they didn’t have a phone with them, one of them actually flagged down a City of Wilmington sanitation worker to call the police,” Evangelous said.
Information is still limited but police will continue to investigate the incidents and provide more information when they are able.
“I just hope we get a break in this thing … You know, it is frustrating for everybody. Our people are putting a lot of time and effort into this right now. You just don’t know whether or not they don’t want to talk because sometimes you know, you just want stuff to go away and so it’s really impeding what we are trying to accomplish here,” Evangelous concluded.
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