Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Crime Beat Column: A Visit To the Philadelphia Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit

The below column originally appeared in the South Philadelphia American in 1997:

A child is abducted walking to school one early morning. A woman is assaulted while getting into her car at a parking lot one early evening. Another woman is attacked while waiting for a subway on a lonely station.

I visited the Philadelphia Police Department Detective Bureau's Sex Crimes Unit and asked if these commonly feared incidents were typical.

"It happens, but that's not the large percentage of our cases," said Philadelphia Police Captain Eileen M. Bonner, the commanding officer of the unit. "Over 75 per cent of sex crime victims know the person who assaulted them."

I met with Bonner and Lt. Ken Coluzzi, who heads up the unit's special investigations, at their office at the old Frankford Arsenal. The unit has city-wide jurisdiction.

"A sex crime is committed when sex occurs between two people by force or intimidation, intellectual or sexual compulsion," Coluzzi said. "Force doesn't only mean a weapon. Any kind of force, like a physical threat or to suggest that harm may come if they don't comply with their wishes."

Typically, uniform patrol officers get the 911 call and then pass on the report to the sex crimes unit. Unit investigators go to the crime scene to protect it and gather as much physical evidence as they can. They talk to the victim if they are available and can speak, and they talk to potential witnesses.

"One crime is too many, but there are no crime patterns right now that we are investigating. There are only isolated incidents," Coluzzi explained. "We just recently had four women who were raped in the Center City and Fairmount area. Three were elderly women and one was a 38-year-old. A man broke into their homes and once inside he raped, robbed, and in one case, beat the woman."

Fortunately, Coluzzi told me, they apprehended a man who was charged with three of the four rapes.

I asked Coluzzi about sex offenders who use the Internet to entice victims.

Coluzzi replied that the unit coordinates Internet crimes with the State's Attorney General and U.S. Postal authorities. The unit gets involved when the case involves child  pornography or the solicitation of a minor for a sexual act.

Bonner added that the unit handles physical abuse of children as well as sexual abuse. She explained that the unit works closely with the city's Department of Human Services.

I asked if there was a typical sex offender, a "Chester the Molester" type.

Coluzzi said no, but he said that a profile of a sexual offender can be done on an individual series of crimes. He spoke of the FBI's Violent Crime Apprehension Program (VICAP) and the Pennsylvania State Police's Analytical Technique of Apprehension of Criminals (ATAC) systems. Homicides, violent sexual crimes and missing persons are registered in the two systems.

The unit submits a 15 page form with the particulars on the victim, the assailant and how the crime took place. A computerized consolidation of information and a profile of an assailant is disseminated throughout the country.

There is also no typical sex crime victim, I was told. The victims cross all social, economic and racial lines.

"The youngest victim was three months old and the oldest was in her nineties," Bonner said.

Coluzzi recalled one of their more well-known cases. In 1996 a man abducted young children out of their homes in the middle of the night, drove them away to be raped and then returned them to their homes. For two months the unit conducted extensive crime scene searches for searches for physical evidence and investigators worked the streets. Witness who came forward due to media attention were very helpful, Coluzzi said. The sex offender was caught and he is now in prison.

Another major case, dubbed by the media as "The Center City Stalker," was worked by Sgt. Patrick Ghegan, who joined our discussion.

"Back in '88 a man was accosting women in parking lots and buildings, and in one case, he waited in the ladies room," Ghegan said. "One woman near 8th and Market resisted and he beat her with a pistol."

Another one of the victims was having a baby and the assailant told her he was a security guard and could help her. He took her to a secluded area ad attacked her. After a three-week investigation the man was apprehended and was later imprisoned.

Coluzzi said that the unit's investigators can't get personally involved, but sex crimes do affect them more than a common burglary.

"It's a crime against a person. For the victim, it's a very traumatic experience that stays with them for the rest of their lives,' Coluzzi said.                    

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