A week before John P. Hicks allegedly raped a woman on a Red Line Metro train last month, Transit Police identified him as a suspect in an indecent-exposure incident on the same line but did not immediately seek to arrest him, court records show. An eyewitness had captured the incident on video and reported it to police.
Hicks, 39, now jailed in Montgomery County, was arrested and charged in the April 12 rape the same day it occurred aboard a moving train in the Wheaton-Glenmont area at midmorning. Metro Transit Police said in a court affidavit that they swiftly identified Hicks through high-definition surveillance video, the rape victim’s recollection and records from Hicks’s Metro SmarTrip card.
The court records show that Metro police used the same methods — Farecard data, video recordings and a witness account — to identify Hicks as a Red Line passenger who exposed himself and masturbated April 2 on a train headed from the District into Maryland. That identification was made during a three-day investigation of the indecent-exposure incident a week before the rape, according to a police affidavit.
On Tuesday, Metro officials offered little comment on why Transit Police did not quickly obtain a warrant for Hicks’s arrest for indecent exposure before he allegedly raped a woman at knifepoint on the same subway line. The evidence against him at the time apparently was strong enough: Police charged him in the masturbation incident less than 24 hours after he was taken into custody in the rape, court records show.
After an outcry from public and elected officials Tuesday over why the rape was not announced to the public, Metro essentially acknowledged that its response was wrong. The agency said that from now on, Transit Police will publicize violent crimes in the system the same day they occur as long as doing so does not impede investigations.
Asked about the sequence of events, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly provided few specifics in a statement, saying that Transit Police were “in the process of obtaining an arrest warrant on the indecent exposure case” when the April 12 rape occurred. She said Metro Police Chief Ron Pavlik Jr. would not comment, including on why the rape was not publicized.
With Metro’s credibility already scraping bottom because of chronic safety and service failures, the revelation that Hicks was known to Transit Police as a suspect in an indecent-exposure case days before he allegedly committed a far more horrific offense added fuel to a controversy over Metro’s decision not to publicize the rape and arrest.
News of the April 12 rape surfaced publicly only this week — more than a month after the crime — when two reporters received a tip about Montgomery court records related to Hicks’s arrest.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld — who has been applauded by Washington-area officials for his efforts to revitalize the beleaguered agency since becoming its top executive in late November — was criticized Tuesday on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for not telling the public that a woman had been raped on a train at 10 o’clock in the morning.
The rape, during which the victim and assailant were the only riders in a car, was highly unusual, according to Metro’s most recent five-year crime report. It lists four other rapes in the transit system, one each in 2011 and 2013 and two in 2014.
Appearing at a congressional hearing Tuesday on Metro’s operational safety, Wiedefeld told House members, and later reporters, that he did not think it was necessary to publicize the crime because the suspect was quickly arrested and no longer a danger.
“We put monthly crimes stats out,” Wiedefeld said when asked why no news release was issued about the sexual assault. “We caught the person the same day. . . . It lessened any threat on the public. That was our concern. Obviously, if we didn’t catch the person, that would have been a whole different matter.”
Referring to the rape and to Wiedefeld’s oft-repeated pledge to be candid with the public about Metro’s problems, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) told reporters after the hearing: “I think people are more concerned with incidents like that than they are” about the subway’s frequent mechanical troubles, including track fires. “By not letting us know, Metro was at odds with its own new transparency,” Norton said.
At the time she spoke, House members were unaware of the earlier indecent-exposure case. “All Metro has is General Manager Wiedefeld’s credibility,” Norton said. “If Metro loses that, then everything is lost.”
In 2010, the transit agency was criticized for failing to alert the public that two rapes had occurred in a Metro parking garage. A spokeswoman at the time said Transit Police were worried that disclosure would compromise their investigation. Metro’s then-board chairman, meanwhile, said news about the rapes “got lost in the shuffle” while the agency was dealing with disruptions caused by snowstorms.
Metro’s current board chairman, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), was out of town Tuesday and unavailable to comment, his spokesman said.
The rape occurred the same day that Transit Police staged a public event aimed at raising awareness of sexual harassment on public transportation. “Metro is working to make all riders feel safer and more comfortable on the system,” Lynn Bowersox, the agency’s chief of customer service, said in a news release at the time.
Community groups that participated in the event said they were disturbed that Metro was not more forthcoming about the rape.
“I am so outraged and hope the [victim] will be able to receive the help she needs to heal,” said Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment. “The attack also clearly illustrates why there is a need for this campaign.”
The rape also happened a day after a fatal stabbing on a platform at the Deanwood Metro station.
Ten days before the April 12 rape, a man masturbated aboard a Red Line train as it traveled between the Gallery Place station and into Montgomery, Transit Police said in an affidavit filed recently in Montgomery District Court. A witness sitting near the suspect made a cellphone video of that incident and reported it to authorities.
Over the next few days, the affidavit says, investigators used the cellphone video, SmarTrip card data and surveillance footage from Metro stations to identify Hicks, of Northeast Washington, as a suspect. On April 6, when the witness was shown an array of nine photographs, including one of Hicks, the witness “positively identified” Hicks “as the person who exposed and masturbated,” according to the affidavit.
But Hicks remained at large.
As for the April 12 rape, the woman told police that she fell asleep on a Red Line train, about midway in the car, and awoke about 10 a.m. around the Takoma station, in the District near the Montgomery border. She noticed a man dressed in black who was 35 to 40 years old, she told police.
She said he approached her. “Do you have a boyfriend?” the man asked, according to the woman. “Are you going to Glenmont?”
As the train made its way through the Forest Glen station, the man pulled out a folding knife and flashed its blade, the woman told police. The man then placed the woman “in a bearhug and forcefully guided her to a separate portion of the train car, blocking her attempts to exit,” the police affidavit says.
After raping the victim, the man forced her to “sit in the corner” of the car, where he assaulted her again, according to the affidavit. “During some point of the aforementioned events, a struggle ensued over the knife, which caused a laceration to [the victim’s] finger,” a police detective wrote in the affidavit.
Investigators reviewed surveillance video, which shows a man leaving the car at the time specified by the woman. Detectives also reviewed a database of Farecard use, which “showed that a SmarTrip card registered to John Prentice Hicks was processed exiting at Glenmont Station at 1000 hours” April 12, the affidavit says.
Detectives showed the woman a mug shot of Hicks from a previous arrest as part of an array of photographs that included five other men. “This is the man from the train today,” she said, pointing to Hicks. “I recognize the shape of his face.”
After Hicks was identified as the alleged rapist, Transit Police detectives were given copies of his photo, the affidavit says. It says that one detective “immediately recognized [the man] as John Prentice HICKS, a suspect who was positively identified approximately one week ago in a separate sex offense” — the indecent exposure.
Hicks was arrested and charged with rape later that day. The next day, April 13, he was charged with indecent exposure in the earlier incident.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, said she was angry that the public had not been informed.
“It can enter your calculus, particularly as a woman, whether you’re going to a ride the subway and if you’re going to ride in a car alone with someone else,” Cheh said.
Jessica Raven, head of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, who took part in Metro’s sexual-harassment awareness event, said: “We’ve worked very hard to collect information on this problem. ... Something as serious as this, I’m not sure why Metro wouldn’t want the public to know.”
Lori Aratani contributed to this report.