LAKE FOREST — Some crimes are so heinous, they’re destined to change the dynamics of a community.
The rape of a 9-year-old girl who was walking home from a short trip to buy school supplies when she was yanked into the thick bushes at Serrano Creek Community Park on Saturday night is that type of crime.
Signs of the community rallying together cropped up more quickly than the wanted posters that dotted the city in quantities similar to the red ribbons on schoolyard fences.
Within hours of being released to the public, laminated copies of a sketch of the suspected rapist were attached to trees, utility poles and just about anyplace else staples or tape would hold. In several locations, someone has pasted signs reading “Shoot to kill” above the suspect’s sketch. “There is no surrender here,” said John Hill, who has been vocal about his concerns that the park’s natural cover poses a safety threat. “We’re pretty much locked arm-in-arm. Hill and his neighbors aren’t turning into vigilantes, but they are demanding city officials continue to make safety improvements to the park, which is thickly covered by brush and eucalyptus trees.
While the community wasn’t outwardly panicked by the attack, it’s readily apparent parents began re-examining their routines even before receiving a letter sent home with Rancho Canada Elementary School students that reminded youngsters to walk with friends and use other common precautions.
Monday brought a sharp increase in the number of parents meeting their children at Rancho Canada, which is across the street from the park.
Michelle Prior said she usually picks up her 11-year-old son once or twice a week.
When he arrived at their meeting spot, the sixth-grader pondered whether the attack frightened him.
“Me? sort of,” Devin McCarthy said. “I just won’t walk through there for a few days.”
Devin’s friends Chris and Mindy — to the chagrin of his mother — were a bit more daring, declining a ride home and opting to cut through the park in a pair.
“I really don’t want them walking through the forest,” Prior told her son, who set down his trumpet case and bolted after the pair. When the two again rejected the offer, Prior said she’d call to make sure they arrived home safely.
“If anything else, those of us in the community are getting closer together,” Prior said, assessing her neighborhood’s reaction to the rape. “We have a very active PTA. As the students filed off campus Monday afternoon, they were watched by teachers who took up posts on sidewalks around the school and in front of the park. Two sheriff’s patrol cars criss-crossed the area, keeping an eye out for trouble and moving traffic along when it became snarled with cars double parked at Rancho Canada’s entrance.
The students’ buzz about the attack came in matter-of-fact tones as they crossed Serrano Road from the school to the park.
One talked about how police took a man into custody in a dramatic, guns-drawn scene inside the park. His account wasn’t based in fact.
Sheriff’s investigators were still hunting for a white man described to be in his 20s, 5 feet 11 inches tall with dark, shoulder-length hair and weighing about 180 pounds.
Bloodhounds and a helicopter converged on the Serrano Creek area shortly after the 7 p.m. attack, bewildering residents. The search continued Tuesday with sheriff’s officials releasing a sketch of the suspect.
It was based on a description given by the girl, whose identity is being kept confidential, after she ran home and reported the attack to her parents, sheriff’s Lt. Ron Wilkerson said. Investigators met with the girl a second time before completing the drawing.
“Obviously, there is a rapist out there who felt this was the perfect habitat for him to commit this crime,” said Councilwoman Helen Wilson, who was reached in San Francisco, where all council members are attending a statewide convention. “We need to prove him wrong. Hill said he and other neighbors will draft plans for making the park safer after meeting with city officials to see what they have in mind.
And he vowed the community will fight to keep this rape an isolated attack.
“It will never become the norm,” he said. “We think it was a crime of convenience. In this case, it appears she was vulnerable. We can help out by making sure those traps can be eradicated. Once you shed some light on the (park), the guy would have to be so much more bold to do it. As for the victim, sheriff’s officials were closely guarding information about her to keep her identity private. But, they said, she is recovering from the attack, at least physically.
Karen Lott, a Lake Forest resident whose son was shot four times in a drive-by shooting near El Toro High School several years ago, said those who know the girl and her family can help with the smallest of gestures.
“Even if people just take a hot meal to them or send them a note and say ‘we care,'” Lott said. “A lot of us, when we do become victims, just want somebody to support us, maybe leave a box of cookies at the door … or a note. Lott, too, was hopeful the attack will draw neighbors together.
“You’ve heard the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child?'” she said. “We need to do that again. We come home from work, push our garage door openers and go inside, and nobody ever sees us. Let’s become neighbors again. We can’t expect the Sheriff’s Department to patrol every neighborhood 24 hours a day.”