A typical late summer day in Forest Park doesn’t look the least bit threatening. Joggers and bikers scurry along Forest Park Drive with little care. Casual strollers take in the last of the mild summer air, while workers in business suits cut through the park to get home, enjoying the last days of late sunsets that make such a commute safe.
But signs that all is not well under the green canopy can be seen at every corner. Cop cars, with their multicolored dome lights flashing, sit at every entrance to the park and cops lean against the vehicles, holding sheets of paper with a sketch of a man they desperately want.
The face on the paper is nameless, but in the park he’s known as simply “the rapist.” He’s a white man in his 30s wanted for the Aug. 26 rape of a 69-year-old jogger in the park and possibly as many as five other sex crimes, including one in March of this year.
He’s accused of approaching his victim in broad daylight on a desolate trail between Union Turnpike and Myrtle Avenue, attacking her with a stun gun and raping her, a similar story to a March 29 attack where a jogger was nearly raped by a man who attacked her with a stun gun less than a half mile away along the same trail.
The rape, and the news that the suspect is wanted in at least a half dozen more attacks in and around the park in recent years, brought to light a number of constant complaints about quality-of-life issues and minor crime in the park, and the concerns over whether or not conditions there — from inadequate security to lighting — are factors.
The incident has led to a noticeable police presence inside the park. Along Forest Park Drive, Myrtle Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard, police cars stand guard, many from other precincts in the borough. Deputy Inspector Hank Sautner, commanding officer of the 102nd Precinct, said at this week’s community council meeting that the NYPD has sent two officers from each of the borough’s surrounding precincts to assist the 102nd in patrolling the park and looking for the suspect as part of a Critical Response Team. A “temporary headquarters” has also been placed near the Buddy Memorial at Park Lane South and Myrtle Avenue.
After the March attack, Sautner assigned two of his officers to full-time park duty and for several months after that incident, mounted police patrolled the trails.
But then that ended and now a debate has sparked up again, one that had been discussed before — a permanent police presence.
One suggestion that seems to be going nowhere is for a dedicated police precinct for the park, which exists right now only for Central Park in Manhattan. A source close to discussions on park security said that idea appears to be a nonstarter.
“It’s hard to argue for a precinct in Forest Park when there isn’t one in Flushing Meadows,” the source said.
A more realistic option may be to bring back cops on horseback. For years, police had a horse stable in the park where mounted police would operate out of. That’s gone now, but there has been a push to bring it back.
Eric Yun, a spokesman for Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), said she was drafting a letter to the city Parks Department suggesting bringing back mounted police and Crowley spoke to Parks Commissioner Veronica White about the idea in May.
But Sautner confirmed at the community council meeting Tuesday that the former stables are unusable and new stables would need to be built if they were to return. He cautioned against thinking a mounted unit in the park would be solely for the park, noting that they would be called elsewhere in the borough, and perhaps the city, when needed.
“I’m certainly welcoming of any resources to come out to the park,” Sautner said on Tuesday. “But I don’t complain about not having enough resources. I deal with what I have,”
Civilian patrols are also being discussed. G-COP, Glendale’s civilan patrol group, already keeps an eye on the Glendale portion of the park. Its president, Frank Kotnik, said the group is looking to assist Ed Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, with establishing a civilian patrol group in Wooodhaven, directly across Forest Park from Glendale.
“They will not be out there by themselves,” Kotnik said, adding a Woodhaven patrol would help the situation in the park. “What’s good for Glendale is good for Woodhaven and what’s good for Woodhaven is good for Forest Park. We don’t have a blind eye toward the park.”
Wendell pointed out the ongoing issue with lighting in the park. He created a map of locations in the park where lights have been out, including nearly the entire length of Forest Park Drive and along Myrtle Avenue, between Freedom Drive and Park Lane South. A few days after the rape, Wendell’s car was broken into while parked along Myrtle Avenue at dawn.
He said the DOT responded and fixed at least some of the lights along Myrtle Avenue, but there are still issues along Forest Park Drive and Freedom Drive with lights timed wrong.
“You can go out there at two in the afternoon and the lights are all on,” he said.
The DOT didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For the most part, parkgoers took news of the attacks in stride and said they wouldn’t let it change their routines.
“I try to remind myself it’s just one guy, it’s not a crime spree,” said Debbie Chiva of Kew Gardens, who often jogs in the park after work. “And I never go deep into the woods alone. Even before the attacks, I just wouldn’t.”
A Glendale resident, who didn’t give her name, said she was initially concerned about the attacks, but said she wouldn’t change her habits, which include walking her golden retriever in the park.
“I grew up in New York and you hear about rapes and murders in parks all the time,” she said. “I’m not going to let it stop me. You just have to be aware of what’s around you. It’s New York.”