For Sonoma County Sheriff?s deputies patrolling rural roadways tonight, any suspicious vehicle, any person in the roadway, and especially any woman stopped on the side of the road with a man will be cause for special concern.
The alert comes after a 46-year-old woman reported being a victim of a roadside attack early Saturday morning outside of Sebastopol.
Her story is a familiar one: At least six women have reported being approached, and in some cases hurt or threatened, while driving on rural county roadways since November 18.
?We?re not sure where he is identifying these people. Most likely he is watching people get into their cars, then following them,? said Capt. Matt McCaffrey, spokesman for the Sheriff?s Department. ?They have all been leaving a public place.?
At least eight women in Sonoma County have been accosted in somewhat similar circumstances since November. Six of the encounters, including two assaults, occurred on rural roads. Two of the encounters occurred in the parking lot of a Rohnert Park apartment complex on Camino Colegio when a man targeted pedestrians. The description of the man was similar in all the cases.
Authorities had been reluctant to positively link all the cases. But after Saturday?s attack, officials said the assumption is that one man was involved in all eight incidents.
?We have to work on the assumption that that?s likely,? McCaffrey said. ?We don?t want to rule out that it could be someone else or a copycat, but it would obviously be silly to not be looking at the same individual.?
In the most recent case, the 46-year-old woman was persuaded to pull to the side of Sexton Road outside of Sebastopol by a male driver who attacked her when she got out of the car. She was able to fight him off and get back in her car.
The emerging pattern was clear enough by mid-February that the Sheriff?s Department issued a warning to anyone driving alone on rural roads not to fall victim to false pleas for help, a tactic used in at least three of the cases.
The suspect is described as an adult male with a medium complexion and dark hair, often wearing a knit cap and a sweatshirt or windbreaker.
On Monday, officials warned women again: ?Common sense is that if someone?s behind you, this is not a good time to pull over,? McCaffrey said. ?Personal safety is your responsibility.?
Extra patrols have been added in the Bennett Valley Road area, Calistoga Road and the west county, McCaffrey said.
?We?re going to keep on doing it until we catch him,? McCaffrey said. ?Our worst fear is to have more victims.?
Sebastopol Police this week distributed a sketch of the suspect to all officers. ?If we see a female driver pulled over with a man, that would spark a lot of interest now,? said Police Chief Jeff Weaver. ?We?re going to stop and say ?Hey, is everything OK between the two of you??
Yet patrols are not a guarantee of arresting the perpetrator or deterring another attack, McCaffrey said. ?We could be on the roads 24 hours a day and never bump into this guy; it?s a real hit and miss,? McCaffrey said.
A better solution, he said, is for women to program the Sheriff Department?s dispatch number into their cell phones and not be afraid to call, he said.