By Rebecca Bowyer
Within the last six months, there have been three reported cases of sexual assault along the Rivanna Trail in Charlottesville. The attacks have led some to wonder—just how safe is it to run, walk or hike the 20-mile trail?
Although normally rare, attacks along some portions of the trail aren’t unheard of. Since 2011 there have been 10 reported criminal incidents, according to Charlottesville Police Department spokesman Steve Upman.
Upman says 20-year-old Brien Gray-Anderson, of Charlottesville, is facing charges in connection with the three incidents that happened between March and May. That includes two misdemeanor sexual battery charges and a felony charge of attempted sexual assault.
Between 2011 and 2015, seven incidents were reported along the trail. Five were physical assaults and two were sexual assaults.
Upman says the first sexual assault involved a woman being attacked and raped by two male strangers. The second case was a forcible fondling—a man attacked his girlfriend.
Charlottesville police say they have worked actively to bring an end to each case.
“Of the 10 total incidents between 2011 and 2016, seven resulted in an arrest being made while the remaining three were cleared, due to the victims declining to prosecute,” Upman says.
Three of the attacks happened on the trail in the area near the 1400/1500 block of East High Street, another three were near the 1100 block of River Road, one happened near Riverview Park and an additional three at Jordan Park. Upman says there is not enough information to assume a trend about where attacks are happening.
Virginia Trower, 29, and Lauren Connor, 31, have both lived in the Charlottesville area for the past several years. The pair say they run together at Riverview Park with their infant children about once a week. The women don’t often run by themselves, but when they do, they are more aware of their surroundings.
“When I learned there was an incident here (at Riverview Park), I was definitely a little wary when I was by myself,” Connor says, looking around at the trails, which are still heavily shadowed around sunrise. “I don’t usually go to the other side of Route 250.”
While the trail doesn’t have a dedicated officer, Upman says during the summer months an officer who is normally assigned to Charlottesville High patrols the trail from Riverview Park up to Free Bridge. Trower says she has seen officers in years past, and was once stopped on the trail by one.
“[The officer] made me stop running, take my earphones out and told me they were a bad idea—it was this big speech on safety,” she says. “He was saying, ‘Someone could come up behind you, and you wouldn’t even hear them, you wouldn’t even know.’ He said the same thing to every woman that was running.”
Along with increased patrols, the police department advises people to bring a partner to the trails. If someone does go by himself or herself, Upman recommends going during daylight hours, having a cell phone handy and staying on parts of the trail where you are visible to others.
Despite some safety warnings, many are choosing to remain positive and take advantage of the trail. Kaitlynn Gilmore, 22, of Orange, doesn’t live in the area, but works in Charlottesville. While she isn’t a park regular, she says the recent attacks don’t change her view of the Rivanna Trail.
“It’s nice that there’s this little patch of green, where I can go and clear my mind during my break,” Gilmore says. “It’s worth it.”