In late October, he stepped out from behind a tree in Laurel Park, and masturbated while a woman walked by.
A week prior, he stood in a puffy jacket, and again masturbated on the back porch of a house on North Garden Street.
And just three days before that, he knocked on the window of a house to get the attention of a sleeping woman inside. He wore a tiger mask to conceal his identity, but wanted to make sure she saw him fondling himself.
These incidents are just three of the 20 or more cases of lewd conduct happening around Western Washington University that Bellingham Police say are connected to one white man in his 20s. Sgt. Claudia Murphy said the cases began in early August and have not stopped.
Murphy supervises the Family Crimes Unit at Bellingham Police.
“I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years. People like this don’t just stop on their own. There are cases where behavior like this has escalated,” Murphy said. “I think like a lot of things, he’ll go until he’s caught.”
After weeks of saying detectives are unsure the incidents were related, Murphy said police now believe the incidents are tied to one suspect because it’s a series of very specific events, in a concentrated area, happening during similar time frames, and the suspect descriptions from witnesses and victims seem to match. Police recently released a composite sketch of what they believe the man looks like.
“Each case we get a little bit more that we can combine. We hope to get a better picture of who this is, the car they run into, the house they run into. We want sufficient evidence to lead us to his identity,” Murphy said.
Police have investigated 20 or more complaints of voyeurism or indecent exposure in the last few months, most recently Thursday and Monday. Most of the events, similar to the ones over Halloween weekend, have happened around Western. The occurrences have been happening almost weekly, and the numerous incidents have been concentrated near Western, and the Columbia, York and Sehome neighborhoods. Police are still unsure if five cases from early 2017 are connected.
Some of the cases show similarities, such as the suspect exposing himself or masturbating in a public place. In other instances, the suspect attracted the attention of people inside a home and exposed himself near a door or window.
In all cases, the suspect was a white man in his 20s, but he’s always gone before police arrive.
Murphy said it’s been difficult to catch or identify the suspect because of the vagueness of witness descriptions and because police haven’t always been notified immediately. Bellingham and Western police have increased patrols in the area, but it has done little to dissuade the suspect.
“What we’re doing is gathering info as it comes in, we’re adding to the puzzle, getting more pieces. But we need more puzzle pieces to get the full picture,” Murphy said. “You can give us a piece of the puzzle we may not already have. … Calling us about this or something that happened six weeks ago is not a bother. Help us put the pieces together to get the big picture.”
Murphy said that while the suspect has the possibility to escalate his crimes, she couldn’t speculate on what that escalation might be. Because the identity of the suspect is still unknown, Murphy said she was unsure what could trigger him.
Voyeurism or indecent exposure reports are not uncommon, Murphy said. Every summer there’s usually a naked man in a park or on a popular trail. But the recent string of occurrences is notable, due to the sheer number of them.
“I know that what will ease people’s anxiety is a press release saying we got him. But we need the public’s help to catch him,” Murphy said. “In the meantime, be vigilant for your neighbors and for yourself.”
List of the most recent lewd incidents:
▪ Nov. 9: A woman saw a man looking into her living room window in the 2700 block of Franklin Street. The man was white, in his 20s or 30s and was wearing a hat.
▪ Nov. 6: A Western Washington University student walking on the sidewalk near campus saw a man sitting in a parked car “with his pants down or off, and was masturbating.”
▪ Oct. 29: A man was hiding in a shower in a women’s bathroom in a residence hall on Western Washington University’s campus. Two women saw him.
▪ Oct. 27: A man tried to enter a residence hall on Western Washington University’s campus, but couldn’t, so he exposed himself to a woman nearby.
▪ Oct. 25: A man was masturbating outside the basement window of a home in the 1000 block of North Garden Street.
▪ Oct. 24: A man was seen masturbating in Laurel Park in the Sehome neighborhood.
▪ Oct. 14: A man was masturbating on the back porch of a home in the 1200 block of North Garden Street.
▪ Oct. 13: A man wearing a tiger mask and dark clothing was seen masturbating outside the window of a home in the 300 block of Gladstone Street. The man knocked on the window a couple times to make sure the resident could see what he was doing.
▪ Sept. 26: A neighbor reported a male was using a phone to record or photograph his neighbor from outside the bathroom window of a home in the 2600 block of Peabody Street.
▪ Early September: Five voyeurism incidents occurred near Western, in the 800-1000 blocks of East Maple, Billy Frank Jr. and High streets, as well as an occurrence in the 1300 block of Franklin Street. Most of the incidents took place between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.
▪ Early 2017: Five cases of voyeurism within a week happened near Western, mostly in the York and Sehome neighborhoods. A male was reported to have shined a flashlight or phone into women’s windows.
Safety tips and resources:
▪ Call 911 first.
▪ Try to get a good description of the person, without compromising your safety.
▪ Close curtains or drapes, and don’t backlight yourself in a room.
If you’re a Western student:
▪ Use Western’s Counseling Center.
▪ Contact Western’s sexual assault support services.
▪ University public safety assistants, or “Greencoats” are available to escort students or others on campus during evening hours by calling 360-650-3555.
▪ Western Washington University Police are at 3911 or 911, or anonymously at 360-650-7233.
▪ Tips can be sent to Bellingham Police Detective Sue Howell at 360-778-8682, anonymously at 360-778-8611, or online at cob.org/tips.