The attack of a woman on the Rivanna Trail on Tuesday, February 5 didn’t draw much public attention. Days later, runners who frequent the trail said they were unaware any violence had occurred in the area, and agreed that, for the most part, the city’s recreational space is safe and quiet. But city police say incidents like this one heighten their awareness of violent and suspicious behavior on the increasingly popular trails, and place a spotlight on a well-known homeless camp near the site of the assault.
“We need to figure out how to do a better job of policing this trail,” City Police Chief Tim Longo said. “It gets entirely too much use for there not to be a more sustained, visible presence of the police there.”
According to the police report, a woman was alone on the Greenbelt between the Free Bridge and Caroline Avenue around 6pm when a tall black man with an afro approached her on foot, pushing a shopping cart that contained a yellow sleeping pad. The report says the man spoke to her as he passed before knocking her unconscious from behind. She awoke near a wooden bench, found some belongings to be missing, and ran to her car. The woman was released from the hospital later that day with a clean bill of health, and city police are actively searching for a man in the area who fits the description.
Longo said police don’t yet have enough information to warrant the arrest of a suspect but they’re currently investigating a person of interest and are making trail safety a top priority. And while trail users ought to be aware of their surroundings and take precautions like traveling in groups, he said, ultimately park and trail safety is the responsibility of the police.
Overall, the city’s trails are known to be a safe haven for runners, walkers, and cyclists, and trail users and police alike were surprised by the attack. Longo said he couldn’t recall any similar assaults in the recent past, but the system used for recording city crime makes it difficult to keep track of park statistics.
According to Longo, the trails don’t have a fixed address. Officers responding to an incident have to write up the report of an incident under whatever street address is closest, making it virtually impossible to search the database for a history of crime on the trail.
Local athlete Sophie Speidel has been running on the Rivanna Trail for 12 years, and said she always feels at ease on the trail —never uncomfortable or threatened.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have great trails in and near Charlottesville,” she said. “Being on [the] trails allows me to think, meditate, and reflect quietly, surrounded by nature.”
Speidel said she’s never seen an officer patrolling on the RT, but she hopes police will step up their presence.
Ragged Mountain Running Shop owner Mark Lorenzoni said Charlottesville has become an increasingly safer place to run in the 35 years he’s been here, and the trails are “a sanctuary of relaxation and safety,” far from the city’s noise and traffic.
“The trail system as a whole is one of the safer areas to exercise, and I can maybe count on one hand the number of incidents that have happened,” he said. “The trails have a tremendous record, and I wouldn’t want to see people get up in arms and panicked about this.”
But runners should be aware of their surroundings whether they’re Downtown or in the woods, Lorenzoni said, and he encourages athletes to travel in pairs and groups, especially at night.
“I tell people all the time that you’ve still got to pay attention,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are.”
Like Speidel, Lorenzoni said he’s never spotted a police officer on the RT, and employees and customers at Ragged Mountain all shook their heads when he asked if anyone had crossed paths with law enforcement out there.
“But if suddenly a bunch of attacks started happening down there, I’m sure they’d step up the patrol,” he said.
Community service officers stationed at public schools are redeployed to city parks and trails during the summer. But with limited staffing and resources available, police presence on the RT during the colder months is minimal. Longo said he’s directed the commander of the Field Operations Division to establish a “problem solving project” to develop a longterm strategy to address trail issues.
Deciding how to consistently manage the numerous homeless encampments needs to be part of that plan, Longo said. There’s no way of knowing whether the assailant lives in the nearby homeless encampment until he’s been identified, but given the attack’s location and the victim’s physical description of the attacker, it’s an understandable leap to make, he said.
“The assumption that this person is probably homeless is a reasonable assumption, but it’s certainly not conclusive,” Longo said. “It could be a factor that affects the timeliness of our investigation, or our ability to readily identify a suspect.”
Living in a cluster of tents and tarps along the trail is almost always illegal, Longo said, whether the land is public or privately owned. In very rare cases, property owners can give the homeless permission to set up camp on their land, if permitted by zoning laws. But more often than not, even if their presence isn’t threatening to trail users, Longo said they simply can’t stay there.
“I think we have to make a decision that is balanced by law and public policy,” he said. “The consensus I’m getting from people who use the trail and live in that community is that the police department and the city need to get a handle on this.”
County police agree that trail safety needs to be a priority, and like the city department, they’re concerned about the homeless encampments along their own stretches of trail.
“First and foremost, we’re focusing on the safety of the people who live there,” county police spokesperson Carter Johnson said. “We’re not trying to come in and treat them like they’re breaking the law—we just want to make sure they have the resources they need.”
The Haven’s program director Stephen Hitchcock said incidents like the one near the Free Bridge are not in character with those who live in camps along the Rivanna, and he’s wary of blaming the group as a whole.
“I think it would be a pretty big leap to stigmatize the homeless population from that incident,” he said.
Usually after an episode involving someone known in the homeless community, Hitchcock said The Haven buzzes with gossip. But in this case, nobody seems to know who the mysterious man pushing the shopping cart was.
“I haven’t heard anything about it around The Haven, which is why I’m hesitant to draw any conclusions like that,” he said