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.
Park Police Chief Dwight E. Pettiford acknowledged that the response should have been stronger.
"We will be making more adjustments" to the patrols along the Mall, he said yesterday. "We realize that what we did the first time was not sufficient."
Since the sexual assault Sunday, a low-key police force, ordinarily dispatched to guard the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and patrol the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, has been reassembled along the Mall.
"We have detectives working 24 hours a day and patrols everywhere," said Sgt. Scott Fear, a Park Police spokesman. "The force is trying to prevent another attack, but we also want to try and catch the people who committed these heinous crimes."
The detectives are working with other departments to determine whether a similar group of young men has attacked elsewhere in the city. They have checked with neighborhood beat officers to learn whether anyone has bragged of robbing and assaulting tourists.
They also have scoured the Mall and ordered that burned-out light bulbs near the crime scenes be replaced.
"We want to make sure every bulb on the Mall is lit," Fear said.
This is an unusual mission for the Park Police. Pettiford said it has been a decade or more since a similar attack was reported on the Mall.
During the National Cherry Blossom Festival, when more than 1 million people came to view the blooms, fly kites and watch the parade, not a single pocket was reported picked, Fear said.
Even the biggest problem that Park Police warn tourists about -- thefts from parked cars -- has eased dramatically in the past few years, Fear said.
In the dark, the Mall is a mix of elegantly lighted buildings, flags and monuments, with dim stretches illuminated by old-fashioned-looking street lamps. Figures can loom abruptly out of the shadows and vanish just as fast.
On Monday night, under a sliver of moon, several Mall visitors stopped to talk about safety.
Sean Boyler, 25, and his wife, Jennifer, 24, of Raleigh, N.C., were strolling near 14th Street. Sean Boyler, an Army helicopter pilot scheduled to deploy to Iraq in July, said they, too, had come out in the evening seeking cooler weather and the nighttime vistas.
Jennifer Boyler said the area did not feel dangerous. "Honestly . . . I wouldn't have given it a second thought," she said. "I love it here. I really do."
Her husband noted that the area along the Reflecting Pool gave them pause. "It's not lighted there," he said.
John Skikas, a Los Angeles narcotics detective, was in town vacationing with his wife, Robin, and daughter, Hannah. It was their first visit. They were walking near 12th Street. He had read about the attacks in the paper. "So I was real nervous," he said, especially walking along the Tidal Basin.
"It's dark," he said. "I think [it] could be a little bit more well lit. I'm a cop, and I'm really kind of observant and try to pick the most traveled pathways and things like that. The other thing is, we knew, being Memorial weekend, there'd be a lot of people out, and safety in numbers."