Crime & Courts

At Wichita State forum, words of concern, reassurance after park attack

Emergency kiosks dot the Wichita State University campus. WSU police think the campus is safe despite a crime in which a woman was raped, beaten and set on fire in Fairmount Park about a block south of Wichita State's main campus, south of 17th and east of Hillside. (Nov. 18, 2014)
Emergency kiosks dot the Wichita State University campus. WSU police think the campus is safe despite a crime in which a woman was raped, beaten and set on fire in Fairmount Park about a block south of Wichita State's main campus, south of 17th and east of Hillside. (Nov. 18, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Comments at a safety forum hosted by Wichita State University on Tuesday showed that the university community remains shaken by a brutal crime that occurred near the campus: A woman was raped, beaten and set on fire in Fairmount Park.

Some students said they still feel unsafe after the attack late Friday night. One woman said it’s as if she has to venture onto a battlefield. Another said that if the university’s many international students don’t feel safe, they will leave – at a time when WSU has ambitious development plans.

University officials tried to reassure the audience of up to about 250 people gathered in the Campus Activities Center Theater.

Sara Morris, chief of the university police, said, “Our campus is a very safe campus. I feel very confident of saying that.”

Earlier Tuesday, an official had announced that Crime Stoppers of Wichita/Sedgwick County is offering its maximum reward – $2,500 – for a tip that leads to an arrest in the attack on the 36-year-old woman.

“It’s clear to say we have a monster or monsters among us,” said Gordon Bassham, executive director of the Wichita Crime Commission, which runs Crime Stoppers. “We say you are a monster and you did not deserve to be walking around among the rest of us who are law-abiding citizens.”

Investigators released no new information Tuesday about the attack. The woman remains in critical condition at a local hospital, Capt. Troy Livingston said.

Her injuries include burns on 55 percent of her body. The spreading fire left large scorched areas in the grass on the southwest side of the sprawling park. Livingston said Monday that investigators aren’t sure whether it was a random or targeted crime.

Crime Stoppers usually offers rewards of up to $2,500, Bassham said, but the crime commission board approved the maximum amount because of the heinous nature of the crime.

Wichita police have asked that anyone with possible information about the attack call investigators at 316-268-4181 or 316-268-4191. Tips can be made anonymously to Crime Stoppers at 316-267-2111. Tips can also be submitted online at WichitaCrimeStoppers.com or by text by sending TIP217 followed by the information to CRIMES (274637).

The park at which the attack occurred is about a block south of Wichita State’s main campus, south of 17th and east of Hillside.

Livingston said Tuesday that the victim is not a student at WSU, and “there’s no evidence to suggest this crime is associated with WSU.”

Nevertheless, the university hosted the safety forum Tuesday, two days after it issued a statement saying it was horrified by the attack. The statement said the university is concerned “for the safety and security of the community south of campus, which includes WSU students and employees as residents.” The forum lasted nearly double its scheduled one-hour time frame.

A woman in the forum audience, Kali Kerr, said she is organizing an effort to help the victim by establishing a fund and by increasing the reward amount. Kerr said she and others are working to provide the best Christmas possible for the woman’s children.

Kerr’s call to help the victim and her family drew applause.

“I’m going to do something about this,” she said later.

Also at the forum, Livingston summarized the investigation so far but said he couldn’t say much without jeopardizing the investigation. Officers have done immediate and follow-up searches for evidence and have exhaustively knocked on doors and interviewed people. Still, he said, “Quite frankly, we don’t have a lot of information.”

Because of the severity of the woman’s injuries, she was limited in what she could tell police.

“She gave us what she could,” he said. “She’s a very brave lady.”

What she could tell police, he said, is only that a black man attacked her.

He stressed that police need tips to move the investigation forward. The police department is committed “to do anything possible to solve this” and is working closely with other agencies, Livingston said.

The detectives working on the case come from the homicide unit because of the seriousness of the woman’s injuries, and from the gang unit and sex-crimes unit. The department has contacted a former detective because of his expertise in investigating sex crimes.

Morris, the university police chief who asserted that the campus is “very safe,” urged those at the forum to use basic prevention: Be aware of your surroundings, walk together, don’t leave property where it can be stolen. Use lighting and security cameras to “target-harden” so thieves and criminals won’t strike or will go elsewhere, she said.

Wichita police Capt. Brian White, who heads the police North Bureau station west of the university on 21st Street, said it’s vital for police to have the community be its eyes and ears. He urged people to call police any time someone looks suspicious. “And trust that little voice that you hear.” If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t, he said.

One man in the audience said Fairmount Park has been a “beautiful place” for years and a popular venue for sports activities. He said that it was fairly busy around the campus the night of the attack because of a Shockers basketball game.

Morris said university police would like to be stationed at university property south of 17th near the park all the time but can’t because of staffing limitations.

“Just like the Wichita Police Department, we can’t be everywhere all of the time,” she said.

Livingston added that police are looking for ways to address any issues around the park and that most problems occur late at night. “We’re not just abandoning that park,” he said.

Livingston and White repeatedly invited community groups to meet with police on crime prevention. One of the most effective ways to stop one of the most common types of crimes, White said, is not to leave anything visible in a vehicle.

Morris said “theft is the biggest issue we have on this campus.” It means don’t leave your laptop to go get a drink unless a trusted person watches it while your are gone, she said.

One woman in the audience said she would like to see regular self-defense training for women. When she asked the women in the audience whether they were interested in such classes, a number raised their hands.

WSU officials at the forum noted that the campus provides a safety escort program and a shuttle service.

A man in the audience, Luzon Muhammad, said the attack against the woman shows the need to uphold women’s rights and that one way to do that is to “teach respect for females” in high schools and colleges. He added: “Everyone … came from a mother.” His comments also drew applause.

White and Morris stressed the importance of people reporting even relatively minor crimes because otherwise, police tracking crime trends won’t know it is happening.

“Tell us the things that we can’t see,” she said.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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