WICKER PARK — Aria Mehta was walking in late May in Wicker Park when a man wearing a large hoodie and face mask approached her, asking for directions to South Canal Street.
Mehta told the man what bus he could take, but he asked to look at the directions on her phone, which she declined, she said. Mehta eventually allowed him to take a photo of the map on her phone and walked away.
But moments later, the man approached her again, she said; this time, he was masturbating under his sweatshirt.
“He pulled up on me really fast on his bike and said that my directions were confusing, and I noticed he was masturbating under his sweater,” she said. “He had a huge sweatshirt on to kind of cover his crotch area, I guess … and he just was jerking off under his sweatshirt.”
Mehta screamed and ran away, then called the police at her house, she said. She’s been in touch with a detective.
Women in the Wicker Park and West Town area have reported similar attacks: A man they don’t know approaches them to ask a question or request directions, then the man exposes himself or masturbates. In some cases, the man has followed or chased the women, they said.
Three women said they’d been victim of such an attack walking through the neighborhood or near their homes. A fourth woman said a man accosted her while she walked her dog, yelling “sexually aggressive” comments before chasing her down a street.
One of the women said she has been in contact with nine others who reported similar incidents.
Some attacks occurred within the past few weeks, while others date back to October.
The 12th Police District issued a community alert this week, warning neighbors about similar occurrences, although officials did not list specific incidents, give any time frame for the attacks or provide a description of a possible suspect. Police also did not say whether they believe the same person is behind the attacks. Detectives are investigating, but no arrests have been made.
The women said the man was around average height, heavyset and sometimes wearing a hoodie or face mask.
Each of the women who spoke to Block Club said they were shaken by their experience and are grappling with mental health fallout.
“When it got nice out again, the trauma came back to me, and I started to get therapy, evidence-based cognitive therapy for trauma,” said one woman, who lives in Wicker Park.
‘I Definitely Don’t Feel Fully Comfortable … Knowing That He’s Out There’
Ukrainian Village resident Annie Carlson was walking her two dogs down a dark residential street in October when she saw a man between two cars, dressed in all black. He asked her for directions.
“I couldn’t really understand what he was saying super clearly. But as he was speaking, I noticed he already had his pants down and was exposed and touching himself,” she said. “And so my immediate reaction was just to start yelling, like, ‘Get the f— out of here,’ just yelling super loud.”
The man turned and walked toward some houses across the street, Carlson said.
That same month, another woman who lives in Wicker Park and who asked to remain anonymous, was walking down a street near her home when a man stepped out of an alley and approached her. He, too, asked for directions.
The woman did not stop, and the man followed her, she said.
“Then when I yelled, ‘Get back!’ He continued to pursue me, and then I started to scream. At which point he exposed himself and I started running. And he chased me about halfway down the alley,” the woman said.
The woman ran to her home and called the police, who did not return her call that night, she said. The next day, she made a report in person at the 14th District station, and she been talking to a detective, she said.
Carlson said the encounter felt invasive, especially because it happened so close to her home. It’s made her more aware of her surroundings when she goes on walks, she said.
“I was pretty freaked out and just rattled also because of the environment of it all, like dark, you know; just creepy,” she said. “But then, as time has passed, I’ve obviously felt more comfortable and just have been more on alert. I definitely don’t walk with AirPods in, or I have a pretty bright light that I’ll have when I’m walking at night.”
For the Wicker Park woman, it’s taken months to process the incident. She said the fear of encountering the man again returned this summer when more people were out in the neighborhood.
The woman said therapy has been helpful, but for a while she avoided areas around Wicker Park where she’d heard other women report similar attacks.
“I’ve stopped avoiding because I think that that makes things worse,” she said. “But it’s always in the back of my mind when I’m walking: Could I encounter him again? And thinking: What would I do in that scenario? Would I try to get a picture of him? I don’t know.”
The woman said she’s helped others report similar incidents to police, but she isn’t sure if detectives have connected them.
Police said in a community alert the attacks have happened in the 12th and 14th police districts. The incidents occurred between North Avenue and Division Street, and Western and Milwaukee avenues in the 14th district; and from Division Street to Chicago Avenue, and Wood Street to Campbell Avenue in the 12th district.
A police spokesperson did not answer additional questions.
“Detectives have been made aware of incidents where a woman walking alone either with or without a dog are being approached by an unknown male,” according to the alert. “Said individual attempts to engage the female by asking for directions or to utilize their cell phones after which the individual touches himself and attempts to follow the female.”
Police are encouraging anyone to call 911 immediately if an unknown person approaches them and makes them feel uncomfortable. The alert also advises people to be aware of their surroundings, not to chase an assailant and mark down any unique characteristics to report to police.
Additional information can be shared with detectives at 312-746-6554 or 312-744-8261.
Weeks later, Mehta said she remains on high alert.
She had a panic attack after she was accosted because she thought the man might know where she lived. She was scared to walk in her neighborhood for a few weeks after, she said. Now, she’s feeling more confident, but she wears baggy clothes even when it’s “95 degrees outside.”
“Which is really, really frustrating for me. Walking around has been a little bit more comfortable, but I definitely don’t feel fully comfortable walking around knowing that he’s out there,” Mehta said.
Mehta is angry no one has been arrested in the attacks while many women have been victimized. She’s met with a detective investigating the incident, although she hasn’t always been responsive, which is frustrating, Mehta said.
“This man is clearly sick. And it breaks my heart because he’s hurting women, and no one’s really doing anything about it,” Mehta said. “And it’s just sort of expected to be something we’re supposed to deal with.”
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