The Portland Phoenix

Assaults in Portland raise neighborhood concerns

Portland Police Officer Coreena Behnke speaks at a meeting organized June 9 by the West End Neighborhood Association after a woman was attacked in the area. There have been six random, violent assaults on the peninsula in less than six weeks, with only one arrest. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

People on Portland streets are being encouraged to remain alert after two more unsolved, random attacks last week.

Police have not arrested anyone for the June 8 attack on 24-year-old Audrey Treadwell in the West End, when she was attacked from behind and hit several times in the head with a blunt object.

Approximately 24 hours later, on the other end of the peninsula, a Portland man was the victim of a similar assault while sitting on a bench in Fort Sumner Park.

The attacks followed two unsolved May assaults on women who were attacked while walking alone at night.

In one, a 32-year-old woman was attacked from behind on North Street in the East End on  May 29 around 12:25 a.m. by a suspect she described as a tall white man with blonde hair.

During the other, on May 5 at around 9:35 p.m., a 28-year-old woman was tapped on the shoulder from behind and then struck in the face and knocked to the ground outside of 95 Gray St. in the West End. She described her attacker as a white male with a slim build.

Police are trying to determine if the four incidents are related.

Last October, there was a report of a woman being assaulted on Thomas Street, as well as reports of several other women being approached by a similarly described man, but the suspect was identified and the victim chose not to pursue charges.

Police last week said they are confident the October incidents are unrelated to the recent attacks.

Despite four attacks in less than six weeks, Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said in a press release June 10 “such random assaults are not commonplace in the city of Portland.”

However, police also arrested and charged a suspect June 11 in two separate, unprovoked attacks in the Bayside neighborhood.

They said Portland transient Joshua Rezendes was arrested after allegedly slashing another person at approximately 8:12 a.m. near Oxford and Preble streets. The victim reportedly had a severe arterial wound to the neck and was transported to a hospital in critical condition.

Officers searching for a suspect in that attack allegedly came upon Rezendes assaulting another person at Oxford and Cedar streets. He was arrested and charged with assault and felony aggravated assault and taken to the Cumberland County Jail.

Treadwell posted an account of her assault to a public Facebook group June 9, urging readers to share the post and not to walk alone in Portland. She also gave the Phoenix permission to identify her by name.

Treadwell said she was assaulted with a club at 10:27 p.m. on Brackett Street near Pine Street, and that the attacker – a white man with a tall, thin build – did not try to rob her but “just wanted to cause harm.” She posted a photo of her bloodied shirt and bandaged arm.

Treadwell’s friend Rob Schatz also launched a GoFundMe page for her on June 11, which said she had multiple injuries including a fractured hand that will prevent her from working for several weeks.

The page had exceeded its fundraising goal as of June 14, raising more than $4,600.

The victim in the June 9 attack was a 33-year-old man who was struck from behind with a blunt object at 10 p.m., according to police. He described his attacker as a male with a dark complexion.

The Phoenix reported last month that despite a decline in the number of violent crimes in Portland last year, more women than men were victims of criminal violence for the third year in a row.

When asked May 20 if the Police Department is doing anything to prevent similar street crimes, David Singer, the department media and community liaison, said any time there is an incident or assault, police increase patrols in that area.

Community response

Officer Coreena Behnke, a Police Department community policing officer, spoke at a meeting of the West End Neighborhood Association last week following the attack on Treadwell.

Behnke provided safety advice, including not making phone calls or wearing headphones while walking alone. If you need to make a phone call while walking alone, she advised, find a wall and put your back against it so you can “see what’s going on around you.”

Behnke also said the best defense against an attacker is to “use what (you’re) born with,” meaning hands, feet, and head to strike back, and your voice to call for help. Fighting back in that way and focusing on getting away from the attacker, she said, is better than defending yourself with pepper spray, which can have an inconsistent effect on an attacker.

She also said any weapon you try to use on an attacker could be turned on you.

Behnke also commended the man who stopped the attack on Treadwell. An attendee at the neighborhood meeting named Edward Duffy claimed to be the person who intervened, and called the attack “terrifying.”

Duffy also said Treadwell was not talking on the phone when she was attacked and did not “have a chance.”

Behnke distributed information about the Rape Aggression Defense training course she teaches. The class requires a $30 registration fee that goes to the Amy St. Laurent Foundation, which was established in 2002 in memory of St. Laurent, a 25-year-old woman who was murdered in 2001 after going missing after a night out in the Old Port. Her assailant was later arrested and convicted. 

Despite several organizations that exist to help Mainers heal from domestic violence, no grassroots groups exist to help prevent random street attacks on women. Portland officials have apparently never considered installing emergency Blue Light towers, which other municipalities and universities across the country employ to discourage and respond to crime. 

The next RAD class is planned to begin in September, Behnke said, but in response to a question said she would be willing to offer one sooner if there is enough interest.

One attendee at the meeting asked if police offer RAD training for disabled people. Behnke did not directly answer the question, but said she has instructed children as “young as 8 or 9.”

Another asked about the traits of the victims who were attacked, on the assumption it could be helpful to know if the violence was racially motivated. Behnke said she could not reveal those details because of the active investigation.

She added that if police do find the suspect or suspects responsible for the recent attacks, cases could take six to 18 months to be adjudicated. The process is further bogged down right now, she said, because of the backlog of court cases created by public health constraints during the coronavirus pandemic.

Security measures like home security cameras, Behnke said, have been helpful to police because they capture what is going on in a neighborhood. Treadwell’s post originally included a screenshot of a man from a West End resident’s security camera, but it was later deleted because it was unclear when the video was taken.

Attendees at the meeting also asked about the laws around self-defense, which Behnke said “has to be proportionate” to the injury being inflicted on a victim.

People also discussed ways they could help prevent future attacks, such as a community carpool system to give people rides home at night.

Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau was also at the meeting, and he asked West End residents to leave their porch lights on as a way to make the streets less dark at night.

Duffy suggested setting up an old-fashioned phone tree for people to stay apprised of what is going on in their neighborhood.

“I just think in this community it’s our job to protect each other,” he said.

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