The Creeper in the Woods; A lesson in situational awareness

As I went for a run yesterday at my local forest preserve I had a chance to practice my self-defense skills. Here is what happened. As I was pulling in to the parking lot, I scanned the area and noticed a man by himself who seemed to be moving around aimlessly. Besides this man, I noticed a young couple in the parking lot/boat launch area making lovey eyes at each other. No one else was in the vicinity. After a few moments, the man got into his car and left and I felt it was safe to go for my run.

About 35 minutes later, I was running back to the parking lot—hitting my final strides, pushing to make good time. Then, I noticed the same man who had left earlier. He was back and this time he was hanging out by the front of outhouse building. He saw me running in and moved behind the building—passing the men’s side, stopping at the women’s side. (I was still booking it home, in the last stretch of my run and could see the outhouse area from the trail). As I was standing in the area where the trail started, catching my breath and reviewing my performance, I was able to watch him come out from behind the building, walk to the front of it then return to the rear of the building. I stood in the area partly just to catch my breath, but also to allow room and time to keep my eye on the man who continued to move around behind the outhouse – and staying on the ladies’ side. (The walls of this building do not go all the way to the ground, so I could see his feet/legs from the front of the building.)

Since he continued to hang around the ladies’ side of the outhouse, I opted not to avail myself of the facility. I did call the Forest Preserve Police and make a report of the man, his car and his behavior.

This ‘incident’ doesn’t sound like much. But it was definitely odd behavior. While I doubt the man intended to drag me into the woods to rape me and leave me for dead, my gut told me there was some voyeuristic intent.

There are quite a few lessons to learn here, namely pay attention to your surroundings! When you are arriving to an area that is the time to scan and assess who, what and where. It can’t be over stated to put the damn phone down! Being observant when I was arriving clued me in to the fact that this man had been intending to leave when I arrived. Being observant helped me notice the make, model and license plate of his car. Being observant helped me notice his clothing and recognize that he was wearing two coats and hat on a mild day (it was roughly 50°F outside). Being observant helped me catch that he was acting oddly – most obviously hanging out at the washroom area for the wrong gender but also that he had returned to the area after driving away.

Another take-away lesson from this is to leave the area. Could I have used the facility? Sure. Would it have been wise? Most likely – no. This is the Avoidance Model of self-defense. It isn’t new. It isn’t revolutionary and it sure isn’t complicated. The formula looks like this:

See Creepy Man → Avoid Getting Close to Creepy Man = Self Defense

This might mean a slight inconvenience (e.g., driving away to use a restroom in a gas station rather than the one in the forest preserve). However, considering the alternative – being a victim of a peeping tom – the inconvenience now doesn’t seem so great.

One final lesson to take away from this: I didn’t leave the area quickly because the man had not approached me nor addressed me in any manner, so there did not appear to be any immediate danger. This was a chance to be a good witness.

I got into my car, locked the doors, started it and then backed out of my parking spot. I decided I was in a safe enough spot to observe the individual for a few moments to see what exactly he was doing. He remained behind the ladies’ side of the facility for a few more minutes then decided to leave. When he began walking to his car, I took a good look at him and then slowly started driving away. I noted his car, license plate state and number and I recorded that information as well as what I observed about his physical appearance. If you are in a position to snap a picture without undue risk, then do that. In order for me to have taken a worthwhile photo, I would have had to fully stop, which I didn’t want to do with the man approaching his own car.

A simple safety and avoidance check list looks like this:

  1. Who is in this parking lot / public area (Couples? Mothers with children? Men/women who are alone?) You must slow down enough to observe this. Do not be in such a hurry that you forget to observe.
  2. What are the people there doing? (Are they walking decisively to the entrance? Are they occupied in a task at their vehicles? Are they paying attention to you?)
  3. Where are the people in relation to you? To the building/shop/recreation area? To the parking lot? (Are the people in a transitory state – putting groceries away? Are the people congregated at an entrance? Are the people congregated in a parking lot? Are there lone individuals hanging around away from others?)

The answers to these questions are the cues that need to start pinging your Something’s Not Right Here Radar. Observe and profile actions and behavior relative to others in the area. That is how you identify who belongs and who might have something nefarious in mind.

Here are the safety tips that the Forest Preserve Police provide:

  • Keep vehicle windows closed and doors locked at all times.
  • Activate your car alarm.
  • Always remove your ignition keys.
  • Never leave your vehicle running.
  • Before entering your vehicle, scan the surrounding area, and always check the interior and the floor and rear seat areas.
  • Prior to arriving at your destination, lock valuables in the trunk or glove box, hide them completely out of sight, or take them with you. A wallet or purse hidden under a newspaper or floor mat does not fool a criminal.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t broadcast your movements when hiding valuables.
  • Larcenies are crimes of opportunity. When property is left unlocked or in plain view, it invites trouble.

 

This is the information they will need from you, should you have anything suspicious to report:

Include Details

Automobile—vehicle make and model, color, year, license plate number and state, and any distinguishing features.

Individual(s)—number of people involved, physical description (height, weight, race, gender, age), description of clothing.

Location—your location and the location of the activity you are reporting.

Finally, I carry this OC when I’m running and would strongly recommend it to anyone (male or female) who likes to use public trails.

The company also offers a model that attaches to your bike  if you are a cyclist.

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