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Gainesville, UF police discuss recent campus attacks

4 incidents related; all 4 women fought off attacker

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – One day after the fourth assault of a young woman on or near the University of Florida in the last nine days, Gainesville and campus police held a news conference to share what information they have and how they are reacting to keep women safe.

Police said the women were all either 20 or 21 years old and were grabbed from behind by a tall, white man -- and all of them fought off the attack. None of the women were sexually assaulted, but police are considering the attacks attempted sexual assaults. They said in one case, the attacker got the woman's underwear off, and in another case, he was trying to get her clothes off.

Police said there is no commonality in the appearances of the women, three of whom are college students.

Police have not been able to get good enough descriptions to put out a composite sketch.

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The first attack happened about 9:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at 1824 N.W. Second Ave. A 21-year-old woman was grabbed from behind and punched in the head. The attacker got her underwear off but was chased off by a Good Samaritan who heard the woman's screams.

The second attack happened about 1 a.m. Aug. 31 at 500 S.W. 13th Street. A 20-year-old woman was grabbed from behind and pulled into some bushes. The attacker was trying to get her clothes off when a witness saw what was happening, and he fled.

The third attack happened about 3 a.m. Friday at an uncertain location on the UF campus. A 20-year-old woman was punched in the face, but fought off the attacker and ran for help.

The fourth attack happened about 8:45 p.m. Sunday on campus between McCarty Hall A and B. A 21-year-old woman was grabbed from behind, and she kicked the attacker in the groin and he fled.

Officers said a reported sexual assault of a woman in northwest Gainesville last week was in no way related to the other four attacks.

"This is a pattern of repetitive behavior," UF Police Chief Linda Stump said. "These women are getting grabbed from behind, they are being thrown down violently. They are being attacked, and this guy is running when there's a struggle. These incidents are happening very quickly on campus. In a heartbeat he can be gone, he could be blended in."

Police said the attacker in Sunday's incident was a white man, about 6 feet 1 inch tall and 185 pounds, wearing a black hat and had no facial hair.

The attacker in the first two incidents was described as a white man in his 20s, at least 6 feet 3 inches tall, between 200 and 250 pounds, with brown hair, a brown beard, and wearing a blue shirt and orange cargo shorts -- a description similar to that of a man who tried to sexually assault two women near campus over the Labor Day weekend. (Surveillance photo of possible suspect released by Gainesville police)

Police are still actively investigating the other incidents and have increased patrols at the university during the night hours.

"None of these women have been sexually assaulted," Gainesville police spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said. "There have been attempts, we believe, to get to that point. But by some sort of intervention, none of these victims have been sexually assaulted."

Police are asking for the public's help in identifying any suspicious people.

"We are coming after you," Stump said. "We hope you don't strike again. We understand your method of operation and we are coming after you. And we are not going to stop."

Andrea Aguilar's sorority put new rules out so that no one walks alone.

"Girls need to stay in groups together, they can't leave the event early, alone," Aguilar said. "They have to have at least three girls walk with them and walk back."

Students are posting free self-defense class times on Facebook and grad student Nikki Steinberger organized a last-minute rally on Monday, encouraging students to sign posters, pledging "No Gator walks alone."

She plans to hang the banners around campus to serve as constant reminders.

"(My message to the attacker is) 'You mess with one Gator, you mess with all of us,'" Steinberger said. "We are going to find whoever this is. … I do hope that he gets what he needs as well, as far as help and assistance. He is a part of our community. He is in our city, so I hope he gets what he needs to make sure he feels he doesn't need to do this to anyone ever again."

The attacks have opened students' eyes and changed their behavior.

"It's kinda creepy knowing that there have been multiple attacks, and you can't let your guard down ever and that just kind of reinforces that whole idea that girls have to be really careful," said Annie Smith. "It's always good to be safe, but something like this requires you to be overly careful."

The University of Florida offers several programs to help students with self-defense techniques and nighttime escorts throughout campus. Students are also encouraged, if nothing else, to at least phone a friend, so they're not walking alone on campus.

"It's OK to ask for help, have a friend pick you up, if you don't want to walk across campus, because the risk of sexual assault isn't worth it," said Eric Barchard, a UF orientation leader.

The president of the University of Florida sent out an email, warning students of the dangers and advising teachers to let out class a few minutes early so students can arrange to walk together.

"Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our students," said UF Vice President for Student Affairs Dave Kratzer.

Ironically, it's sexual assault awareness week, and teal ribbons are wrapped around 2,000 campus trees.

"The fact is this is happening every two minutes and most of the sexual batteries are between acquaintances so we really want to focus on those," said Rita Lawrence of Gator Well.