The attacker stealthily slid up behind a woman as she loaded luggage into the trunk of her car Tuesday evening and touched her inappropriately. When she turned, he fled.
But for seven months, the man has eluded authorities, despite intensive manhunts, helicopter searches and widespread media reports that have featured composite sketches of the man.
“This individual is brazen; despite heavy police presence and a busy, populated area, he seems to be continuing,” said Lucy Caldwell, a Fairfax County police spokeswoman.
Residents in this neighborhood of single-family homes say the assaults have put them on edge. Many are convinced that the attacker lives among them, perhaps a block over or at the end of a street. They also wonder whether the gropings will escalate into more serious sex assaults.
“I’m not walking my dogs,” said Vira Chanthaphanij, a 38-year-old mother of four who grew up in Monticello Forest. “I’m afraid he might do more than just groping.”
The attacks have caused at least some of the victims to alter their lives. A friend of one said she described being grabbed as she opened the front door of her Monticello Forest home one evening. When she turned around, the attacker had sprinted away and was at the end of the block, the friend said.
“She no longer walks anywhere. She is driven to work,” the friend said.
The woman declined to speak with The Washington Post, as did several other victims.
The first reported attack occurred Sept. 7. Police said a 26-year-old woman heard someone whistle at her as she was walking near the Springfield Plaza shopping center, which borders Monticello Forest. When she reached the edge of the neighborhood, police said, a man grabbed her from behind, fondled her and fled.
The woman described the man as Hispanic and 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 8 inches tall. The description generally matches those given by other women who were attacked. In some assaults, the man was described as wearing a baseball cap, a knit hat or a bandanna and as having a close-cut beard. Police believe he may be between 20 and 30 years old.
Since that September assault, the attacks have continued — sometimes twice a day and as little as 20 minutes apart. The most recent assault occurred about 7 p.m. Tuesday in the 6400 block of Franconia Court. The victim is 32.
The assailant has targeted many women in their 20s, but they range in age from 15 to 49. In one case, a woman fought back, and in another, the victim screamed at the man.
Police said that they have no suspects in the gropings but that the man most likely has ties to the area.
They think he escapes on foot and is not using a car or bike. Beyond the method and location of the attacks, police said, there is no discernible pattern to the assaults.
Fairfax County police have scheduled a meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday at Crestwood Elementary School to address public concerns about the gropings.
Harold J. Bursztajn, co-founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at Harvard Medical School, said that he couldn’t comment on the psychology of the attacker in these cases but that such attacks are often not about a sexual thrill.
“It’s a compulsive aggressive behavior, which is dressed up in sexual clothing,” Bursztajn said. “It’s a series of boundary violations. . . . It’s as much for the pleasure of being aggressive and dominating the women.”
Bursztajn said the sense of power is often enhanced by knowing that police and the media are paying attention to the crimes. He said the attacker could be stalking the victims, waiting for the right moment to attack.
Many Monticello Forest residents said they think the attacker has been able to avoid capture because the neighborhood has a high volume of foot traffic. They said he could easily blend in among people headed to the nearby Springfield Plaza, apartment buildings or Crestwood Elementary School.
Many residents said they are taking precautions. Richard Caprille said he no longer lets his 4- and 7-year-old daughters ride their bikes to the end of the street. He expressed worry that the changing seasons could be bring on a fresh wave of attacks.
“As summer approaches, he’s going to be doing more and more,” Caprille said.