Back Bay sparkled under a brilliant noontime sun Wednesday, the usual mix of joggers and walkers, cyclists and dog owners rounding the 3.5 mile asphalt path that encircles the bay.

But for many, the invigorating regimen was tinged with anxiety following a daytime sexual assault in the Preble Street Extension parking lot Monday.

“I was shocked and scared,” said Meredith Finn, of Portland, who described Back Cove Trail as her favorite feature of Portland, a soothing place that drew her to the sport of running. “Maybe I should be more careful. I wonder if I should start to bring pepper spray?” she said.

Her sense of surprise was shared by many on the trail Wednesday as they tried to fathom how such a brazen attack could happen in front of so many potential witnesses, here in Maine.

“I’m stunned. In Maine?” said Bob Cardona, of Portland, recently returned from a trip to Houston. “I guess you still stereotype Maine as a safe place to live.”

Cardona said he wasn’t scared for himself but he has three daughters. Monday’s attack is the kind of event that leads to family discussions about safety, particularly with his oldest headed off to college, he said.


“Even though this is a safe place you still need your eyes open,” he said.

Portland police continue to search for the attacker and for anyone who saw a man fitting his description.

The 30-year-old woman told police she had just finished running at 10:20 a.m. Monday. When she got into her car, the man was in the passenger seat. He began to sexually assault her but she was able to sound the car’s horn and the man ran off, police said.

Police released a sketch of the man Tuesday based on the witness’s recollection. On Wednesday, police provided more details about the man’s appearance as they asked that anyone who might have seen him contact authorities.

The latest description says the man is between 36 and 48 years old, heavyset but not obese and between 5-foot, 11-inches and 6-foot, 2-inches tall, police said. He was white with brown receding hair and green eyes. He was wearing a red T-shirt, denim shorts and sneakers.

He appeared to have not shaved for several days and had tattoos on one or both forearms. The assault took place at 10 a.m. in broad daylight near the trail, which is popular with runners and walkers. Nearby Baxter Boulevard and Preble Street Extension are heavily traveled roads. Police believe there were several other people in the parking lot at the time.


The woman was not seriously injured. Police asked that anyone with information call 874-8584.

Police have canvassed the area and retrieved security video from nearby businesses as they search for leads.

The Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine is about a block away from the parking lot. The school issued a text alert to students letting them know about the assault and urging them to take precautions.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said his department will attempt to use the county’s facial recognition software to determine whether anyone matching the features of the sketch has been an inmate. Joyce was doubtful the system would find a match since it searches based on precise measurements of the eyes and nose and a composite sketch is based on imprecise recollections.

Still, he said it is worth a try.

Police say there has not been a sexual assault along Back Bay that they could recall. In the last such report, a woman claimed she was raped by a group of men in 2010 but later admitted making up the story.


Police say the victim in Monday’s attack is very credible.

Still, police did not immediately announce that the crime had happened.

“We released the information as soon as a we had an opportunity to conduct a thorough preliminary investigation and get a sketch together so we could provide the public with (helpful) information,” said Assistant Chief Vern Malloch. “We can react too soon and just raise alarm…It’s a balance. We try to do it in a speedy fashion.”

On Wednesday, additional police patrols were assigned to the area. And most of the lot was full, with 125 cars at noon. City officials say more than 250,000 use the trail annually.

As unsettling as the attack was, advocates for sexual assault victims say it should not come as a surprise.

“When we hear about assaults like this, even when in broad daylight, in front of people, unfortunately it’s not that surprising,” said Cara Courchesne, spokeswoman for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S. What’s reported to law enforcement is merely the tip of the iceberg.”


Sexual assaults by strangers, however, are more rare, accounting for about 15 to 25 percent of sexual assaults, she said.

Some of the people walking the trail around the bay hadn’t heard of the assault.

“I’m surprised. I sure wouldn’t have expected that at all,” said Mindy Williams when she learned of the daylight attack near where she had just parked. Several people enjoying Back Bay on Wednesday were hopeful police would catch the attacker, eager to reclaim a sense of security for what some described as the crown jewel of Portland.

“I know some people who don’t want to come down” following the attack, said Karen Serunian of Portland. She said she won’t stop her daily walks on Back Cove, unwilling to let a sense of anxiety dictate her life.

The attack, said her friend and walking partner Joanie Neuts of Falmouth, did remind them of the importance of taking precautions.

“I always lock my car. I always take my keys with me. I’ve never left them on top of my tire or in the gas cap. I actually even check in my car” before getting in, Neuts said.


Courchesne of MECASA said its important for people to be aware of their personal safety, but that sexual assaults are not the result of improper precautions.

“You can do everything you can to protect yourself, but of course a rape is perpetrated because there’s the presence of a rapist, not because the victim hasn’t done everything to protect themselves,” she said.

As important, she said, are community members.

“Being an engaged bystander has been proven to work in a variety of circumstances,” she said. “It doesn’t fall to the victim to protect themselves, but it falls to the people around them to be engaged enough as a citizen of the community to help stop sexual violence.”

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