RIVER NORTH — Paige Ruhnke was walking her dog on the lakefront flyover near Navy Pier in May when she said a man on a one-wheel electronic skateboard reached under her shorts, groped her from behind and sped away laughing.
Ruhnke said she didn’t initially report the assault but did post on Nextdoor, a community forum website, to warn neighbors. Soon, other women reported similar attacks while walking Downtown.
Now, police have released a community alert asking for the public’s help in finding the man they say has groped or fondled at least two other women, once in June and the other on Saturday. Police said the man has been seen wearing a white helmet, sunglasses and riding a motorized one-wheel skateboard. He was last seen wearing a blue polo shirt, backpack and blue jeans, police said.
Neighbors — comparing notes from attacks they witnessed or where they were victimized, as well as pictures they took — say they think the same person is responsible for even more assaults and have galvanized to track down the man.
A neighbor who said he spotted the man recently followed him to trendy River North restaurant Sunda, 100 W. Illinois St., where someone buzzed him in through a back door. Restaurant leaders said the man is not employed at the restaurant.
Despite calling 911, police weren’t dispatched to the scene, the neighbor said, outraging those desperate to stop the attacks.
The gropings come as Wicker Park and West Town have also struggled with sexual assaults dating back nearly a year.
“People might think oh, it’s just a slap in the butt … but until it happens to you, being touched by a stranger like that, and especially whispering in your ear and squeezing your body or your genitals. That’s traumatizing,” said one victim who was groped in South Loop.
One of the attacks happened around 10:15 a.m. Saturday in the 1100 block of South State Street, police said. In that case, an unknown man riding a one-wheel motorized skateboard approached a woman from behind and touched her butt and genitals, police said.
Police suspect the same person bumped into a woman around 10:15 a.m. June 1 in the 400 block of West Lake Street, grabbing her butt and genitals before fleeing on his motorized skateboard.
Residents say they have spotted the man groping women Downtown as recently as last week.
Loop resident Adrian Gutierrez told Block Club he was walking his dog on the east side of Michigan Avenue near 9th Street around 5 p.m. Thursday when he saw the unknown man slow down his skateboard. The man then grabbed the butt of a young girl and then groped another woman about 30 feet ahead before speeding off, Gutierrez said.
One of the victims appeared to be a minor who began “crying hysterically” to her mother, Gutierrez said. Gutierrez attempted to chase the man but could not catch him.
About an hour later, the woman attacked in South Loop said the man approached her while she was crossing the street at Michigan and Roosevelt. The woman, who did not want to be named, said he whispered something in her ear and grabbed her butt really hard before speeding away.
“I could literally feel his breath and he whispered something but I couldn’t understand … he just kept going with a smile … honestly I didn’t want to make a scene because there were so many people and I was in shock,” she said.
The attacks have the community on high alert as residents have been frantically sharing sightings and photos of the man on Nextdoor in an effort to catch him.
An Escape In Sunda
The man was most recently seen on Monday morning by resident Mike Perrino, who spotted him heading north on the lakefront. Perrino, who was on an electric unicycle, followed the man.
“He immediately got very hostile. He kind of reached into a pocket to make it look like he had a weapon. He didn’t. He told me to be careful,” Perrino said.
The man tried to lose Perrino, but Perrino kept following him. He eventually turned into an alley, buzzed the buzzer for the back door of Sunda New Asian and was let inside by someone at the restaurant, Perrino said.
A Sunda employee came outside when Perrino went around to the front of Sunda, Perrino said. When he asked the employee about the man, he was told that he escaped out the back door, Perrino said.
During the chase, Perrino said he called 911 to report that he was following a man believed to be responsible for recent gropings in the area. The operator said he was tracking his location, so Perrino ended his call, he said. He called again when he arrived at Sunda but was hung up on, he said, and the police did not show up.
In an Instagram message between one of the victims and Sunda’s head chef Michael Morales, Morales said the man was able to sneak into the building while a delivery driver was making a delivery. He then said the man ran across the dining room and ran out the front door.
“Please let everyone know we are in no way associated with him,” Morales said in the direct message.
But Perrino said there was no delivery driver or truck in the alley when he followed the man. He reported the encounter to detectives.
In a statement Tuesday a Sunda spokesperson said the man wasn’t an employee but declined to answer additional questions.
“The individual is not an employee at Sunda, we’ve contacted the police,” the statement said.
Police said they could not confirm details of the run in with the man at Sunda.
Residents remain determined to find him. Ruhnke has started posting flyers along areas of the Lakefront path, where he is believed to frequently commute.
“I don’t have faith in the police finding him, I have faith in the community finding him. Since being on Nextdoor it’s been an amazing supportive system of people out looking for him constantly,” Ruhnke said.
Ruhnke and the victim who was attacked in the South Loop told Block Club they struggled to report their assaults to police. Ruhnke said she was hung up on multiple times when she called 311 before being able to file a report. The South Loop victim said she was also hung up on by 311 and her fiancé eventually drove her to the police station to report the attack.
Police officials did not respond to questions about victims having problems reporting the assaults to 311.
Police are urging those with information on the assaults to call Area Three detectives at 312-744-8261 and reference case numbers JF346444 and JF263556.
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