Dupont Circle bicycle groper committed a crime, not a misdemeanor

Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 30, 2012

Last month, after a young woman was sexually assaulted in Dupont Circle by a creep pedaling past her, I demanded that Washington’s bicycling groper be found.

To their credit, D.C. police took the crime against photographer Liz Gorman seriously, especially after at least four more shaken women reported the same type of attack in the same part of town.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The police did interviews, took statements, watched hours of security video until they froze the frame there — right there! — and found the jerk on the bike, his victim screaming next to him.

Then they caught the guy they believe is responsible for the attacks. Oscar Mauricio Cornejo-Pena even told them: Yup, he did it. He was a most helpful suspect, even offering up some crimes the cops didn’t know about.

“He admitted that he committed numerous similar offenses, possibly eight or more,” according to the charging documents drawn up by Officer Alexander MacBean.


Gorman says she was sexually assaulted in Dupont Circle Wednesday afternoon July 11, 2012 (Liz Gorman/COURTESY OF LIZ GORMAN)

He was charged with “misdemeanor sexual abuse (with aggravating circumstances),” which, according to D.C. Official Code, is punishable by jail time of “not more than 180 days, and, in addition, may be fined in an amount not to exceed $1,000.”

That means that terrorizing women who are walking down the street, roughing them up and grabbing their privates gets you the same punishment as attending a cockfight, impersonating a police officer, trespassing on someone’s lawn or selling a fake Gucci purse.

In the District, sentencing guidelines say that a person who breaks into a vending machine or a parking meter should get more jail time (up to three years) and pay a bigger fine (up to $3,000) than a sociopath who violates women on the street.

What does this tell you about what our society thinks of sexual assault? Apparently, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), the Senate candidate who caused a firestorm by claiming a “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy, has plenty of company in the Neanderthal department.

The biking groper assaulted Gorman, 25, on a July afternoon as she was walking down the street in busy, pretty Dupont Circle. He came out of nowhere, behind her, with a swift and rough assault. She didn’t see his face but heard him laughing.

She blogged about the perils of “walking while female,” and her story went viral. After I wrote about her, I was flooded with
e-mails from other women who had been similarly assaulted, some of them decades ago. I realized the power of such an attack.

The groper didn’t stop with Gorman. During the following two weeks, at least four other women called the police to report similar attacks. In court documents, each described a man who wore a pageboy cap, carried a green backpack with strings for straps and rode a mountain bike.

They told police that he grinned, laughed and mocked the women as he shoved and grabbed them.

One woman who was attacked by him said he “rode his bike in a very cocky, arrogant, confident and relaxed manner. He didn’t speed off right after the assault,” she told detectives. He waited and watched her scream.

Another woman, who was assaulted twice in one attack (once from the front, then from behind after circling around her) yelled at him and chased him down the street.

Police were on the lookout in DupontCircle, and they spotted a guy with a green, stringy backpack on a bike and stopped Cornejo-Pena.

He gave them his driver’s license and a wrong cellphone number. They took his photo and let him go. A few days later, after an investigation, they found the right phone number and called him in. He gave his statement after watching the surveillance-came­ra video that the detectives had dug up.

He acknowledged that it was him, the charging documents say. And guess what? One time, after he assaulted a woman, he went right back to his group of chess buddies in Dupont Circle and watched them play, he told police.

So what about Liz Gorman, they asked. The one back in July?

He told police that he didn’t remember her. So they didn’t charge him with that one. (And she’s not too happy about that.)

But then he bragged about a whole bunch of other assaults the cops didn’t even know about. I’ve got to wonder whether he didn’t try to high-five the detectives, too.

But the detectives didn’t laugh. They charged him.

Cornejo-Pena, who is 31 and works at a fancy hotel downtown, made too much money to qualify for a court-appointed attorney. So the judge sent him to a halfway house and ordered him to stay away from the four victims on record.

On Friday, he’s scheduled to be in court to introduce his attorney.

The truth is, he’s probably not going to get any real jail time, said Chai Shenoy, a lawyer who specializes in sexual assault and who runs a group in the District, Collective Action for Safe Spaces.

Of the cases she has taken on, the ones where women are groped on Metro, violated on the street or attacked in their neighborhoods, she has never had a criminal conviction for that type of street harassment.

“We applaud the police for taking the crimes seriously, using their resources and working hard to make an arrest,” she said. “But it’s a double-edged sword. We want police to take these crimes seriously, we want prosecutors to take these crimes seriously and then, at the end of the day, we have sentencing guidelines that won’t provide justice.”

Allison Leotta, who spent 12 years prosecuting sex crimes in the District before becoming a crime novelist, said the judge might take the alleged groper’s numerous cases and stack the penalties, giving him a couple years in jail.

“The problem is, it’s a misdemeanor,” she said. “And that doesn’t take into account how incredibly traumatizing this is for the victim. It’s not like having your wallet stolen — this stays with the victim the rest of her life.

In an election year when the meaning of “rape” is being discussed,I guess it should be no surprise that our laws for this crime are inadequate. When it comes to punishing sexual assault, we have a long way to go.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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