Laura Trotman got into an empty elevator in the campus library the other night but, before the doors closed, a man walked on and accidentally brushed against her. She jumped. So did he.
“He meant me no harm, but it was just my paranoia that made me do it and I guess that scared him,” said Trotman, 21, a senior economics major here at the University of Illinois.
Trotman has reason to be nervous. At least 13 women have been raped or sexually molested near campus in recent months and, in an apparently unrelated case, a female student was murdered in her apartment last April. Two of the sexual attacks took place just across the street from Alpha Phi, Trotman’s sorority house.
Police think one man may be responsible for many of the assaults and even have a suspect, but so far have not gathered enough evidence to justify an arrest.
While the investigation continues, an air of tension has gripped both the academic and social life of the Big Ten school, and students have become increasingly preoccupied with personal safety. “It’s all-consuming, more than your parents would ever want to know,” Trotman said.
Sororities have ordered supplies of tear gas for their members, fraternities are organizing a neighborhood watch patrol, and coeds rarely venture out alone at night as they think twice before making what were once routine strolls to the library or to bars.
Students say the situation is all the more disturbing because they had naively presumed that the 35,000-student state-run campus, 130 miles south of Chicago, was immune from serious crime.
“Here we are out in the middle of cornfields, a nice quiet country town, just ma and pa and a serial rapist,” said senior Beth Berardi, the president of Alpha Phi.
Blood, Hair Samples
The attacks began in April, but the frequency intensified in mid-summer and into the fall semester. They stopped abruptly five weeks ago, about the same time police obtained a warrant to take blood and hair samples from a suspect.
Lt. Robert Soucie, who heads the investigation for the Champaign police, said it could take as long as five months to complete sophisticated genetic tests on the samples that could link the suspect to rape victims. And he warned that the lull in incidents does not necessarily mean that authorities have found the right suspect, that only one person is to blame for all the attacks or that assaults will not resume even if an arrest is eventually made.
“I don’t think that’s going to solve all the problems,” Soucie said. “I would hate to see people breathe a sigh of relief or let down their heightened awareness.”
For the time being, at least, that is not a concern. Both students and faculty members say the rape threat has proved the most rivetting issue on campus in years.
Mary Ellen O’Shaughnessy, an administrator who deals with programs for women, said demands on existing escort and ride programs for women has mushroomed, as have requests for rape whistles and participation in self-defense programs. Lately, O’Shaughnessy said, there has been an upsurge of women who have parked cars illegally near the center of campus rather than risk nighttime walks to the student union, library or other buildings.
Not long ago the university distributed 10,000 maps pinpointing the assault sites. Most fraternity and sorority houses now sport ominous looking posters with the warning, “Do not walk alone” in big red letters next to maps that highlight well-lit streets and danger spots as well as emergency numbers.
“What a powerful man he is,” O’Shaughnessy said of the rapist. “He’s got the entire community frightened. Any man that’s sick enough to do what he’s done, he’s going to do it again.”
Outrage over the rapes has had other consequences. A recent candlelight march to protest sexism drew about 500 women and men, probably the largest such gathering on campus since the days of anti-Vietnam War activism. Administrators say they also sense a growing interest from both sexes in literature and seminars that deal with so-called acquaintance rape, the little reported but nevertheless serious phenomenon involving women who are mistreated or assaulted by their dates.
Some women say they not only are taking new safety precautions, but also find themselves lecturing friends about careless behavior. “I think I’ve gotten a little paranoid,” admitted 19-year-old junior Stephanie Surles. “But if my paranoia causes other people to be prudent, that’s OK with me.”