Christina Pena stepped through the fence and moved quickly down the wooded slope, along a well-beaten path that leads from her Merrifield apartment complex toward Gallows Road and the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station in central Fairfax County.

Pena was aware that two women had been assaulted, one of them raped, in the darkness there Friday night.

"I've always been afraid of coming through there at night," Pena said yesterday afternoon. But she has to get to the Metro station. "I have to work," she said. "I always look over my shoulder, and sometimes I get the creeps and start running."

Fairfax police now attribute to one man three attacks on women in the past three weeks in wooded areas near the station. Police have stepped up their visibility on both sides of Gallows Road, and Fairfax school officials improved the lighting near Stenwood Elementary School, where the first attack occurred last month.

"Apparently this guy knows the shortcuts very well," said Mary Ann Jennings, Fairfax police spokeswoman. "In each case, he grabbed or attempted to grab women off a shortcut or footpath. That's a heavily treed and vegetated area, and the best line of defense is to stay off the shortcuts and footpaths that go back into the dark little recessed areas."

The first attack occurred about 10:15 p.m. Sept. 21. Police said a 22-year-old woman walked north along Gallows Road and then west on a path next to Stenwood Elementary, in the Dunn Loring Woods neighborhood just north of Interstate 66.

The woman had just left the school grounds when she was snatched near the corner of Citadel Place and Carnegie Drive, police said. Her attacker dragged her to the woods near the school and raped her, police said.

The victim told police her attacker was a black man in his twenties, 5 feet 2 to 5 feet 6 inches tall, and was clean-shaven with short hair and a thin build. He wore a white T-shirt with a logo that included the words "Divers Club" and "Puerto Vallarta, Mexico."

Pedestrians cross the school yards night and day as they take the most direct route to the Metro, neighbor Sue Welsh said. She noted that the school had installed new outdoor lighting in the past week.

Ken Quincy, president of the Dunn Loring Woods Civic Association, said residents were "somewhat alarmed, only because nothing like that happens around here." He said police had increased their patrols and passed out a photo of the attacker's T-shirt logo.

The most recent pair of attacks occurred just south of Dunn Loring Station on the east side of Gallows Road. Behind the newer Westbriar Plaza condominiums sits the Merrifield at Dunn Loring Station complex, formerly known as Merrifield Village Apartments. Both victims Friday night apparently were headed toward the Merrifield apartments.

The first victim told police she was grabbed as she was walking down a footpath near Livingstone Lane about 9:40 p.m. She was knocked down, but when she screamed, her attacker sprinted away toward the station, police said.

While police were interviewing her, a second woman was assaulted more violently. That woman told police she was on a shortcut from Gallows Road when she was grabbed by a man, dragged into a secluded area and raped.

Both victims in Friday's attacks described a short black man, 5 feet 2 to 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a thin build and short hair. He was not wearing the "Divers Club" T-shirt.

Police have stepped up their visibility on both sides of Gallows Road near the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Station.