On the Mall, Image of Safety Is Shattered

Jennifer Boyler of Raleigh, N.C., strolling on the Mall on Monday night with her husband, Sean, said the area did not feel dangerous.
Jennifer Boyler of Raleigh, N.C., strolling on the Mall on Monday night with her husband, Sean, said the area did not feel dangerous. "I love it here. I really do," she said. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Petula Dvorak and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The green expanse of the Mall evokes many emotions, but wariness has never been one of them. Over the years, the lack of crime has created an aura of safety that allows joggers and tourists, children and couples to drop their guard and stroll in the day and even at night.

That changed in recent days, when a band of robbers used the elm tree shadows to surprise and attack six tourists walking along Washington's grassy sanctuary under the spell of the stars. It was as if an unspoken agreement had been broken between the underworld and the nation's icons.

"There's no question that the Mall has been off-limits to thugs, and it's no surprise that they found it," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "But it should only be for a split second."

Norton, a race walker who strides across the Mall when the sun goes down, was angry that the U.S. Park Police did not double up patrols on the Mall after what happened Thursday. Twice that night, bandits brandishing a semiautomatic handgun robbed a man and a woman, assaulted the woman and fled. A similar attack happened early Sunday.

"You might give them a pass on Thursday night," Norton said of police. "But it was inexcusable to have a third attack on a holiday weekend."

The Thursday night assaults happened only 15 minutes apart.

In the first, a couple walking along the Mall near the Museum of Natural History about 10:45 p.m. saw three young men wearing black ski masks and dark clothes approach. The men asked for the time, the male victim said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect the couple's privacy.

The robbers grabbed the woman's hair and pulled out a handgun, the man said. One groped the woman, she told him. They took about $100 and a checkbook from her purse, and a wallet and cellphone from the man, he said.

The second attack, which happened about 11 p.m. three blocks from the first, was similar in most respects, police said. But in that incident, the woman was beaten and kicked in the head and back, police said.

Then early Sunday, shortly after midnight, a group matching the description of the assailants in the Thursday night robberies resurfaced. Again, a couple were robbed on 12th Street. This time, the 17-year-old female was sexually assaulted, police said.

Two of the women were taken to hospitals for treatment and released.

After the Thursday night incidents, police added a scooter and a patrol car to the stretch of Mall between Ninth and 12th streets, near where the attacks happened, Norton said.

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