After giving a General Assembly update to the Springfield Civic Association last month, Del. Vivian Watts (D-39th) listened to a discussion at the meeting about the serial groper. Upon hearing that police are classifying the incidents as simple assaults and not sexual assaults, she is now asking questions.
Watts has written a letter to Franconia District Police Station commander, Captain Jim Baumstark, after hearing him speak at the meeting about the string of 24 Springfield assaults, which date from September to late March.
Baumstark referred to the series of incidents as "simple assaults," as he and other police have mentioned previously. At the community meeting in March, Baumstark said after getting clarification with the state, they determined that the incidents were simple assaults — not sexual assaults.
The commander explained to the residents that a sexual assault occurs when the suspect receives sexual gratification from the acts. Police have not publicly stated if the groper is grabbing women in "intimate areas" of their bodies. If the groper is doing that, Watts said she interprets current law to mean the incidents should be classified as sexual assaults.
It's unclear if police are determining that it's simple assault because the groper is not touching private areas and not receiving sexual gratification or if he is touching women in private areas and not receiving sexual gratification. It appears that Watts believes that if the groper is grabbing women in private areas, whether he's being sexually gratified or not, it should be considered sexual assault.
"Talking to the Commonwealth, there would have to be some proof of sexual gratification for it to be considered a sexual assault," Baumstark said. "This seems like an issue with a guy grabbing a victim and running and continuing to do it until he's caught."
In an email Tuesday morning, Baumstark said detectives working on this investigation have spoken to the Commonwealth Attorney and they are still recommending simple assault charges at this time, and that there is current case law that he believes has led to this decision.
A few residents expressed their concerns with this classification at the community meeting. Watts and state Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35th) have also received at least one letter from a concerned resident about the classification of the incidents. The resident asked not to be named in the media.
Watts said in her letter to Baumstark that she understood Virginia Code of Law on sexual assaults to include groping.
According to Virginia Code §18.2-67.10 (6), sexual abuse refers to "an act committed with the intent to sexually molest, arouse, or gratify any person." This includes intentionally touching the victim's intimate parts or materials covering the victim's intimate parts.
"I read this to clearly cover groping," Watts wrote. "If this is not your understanding, I would be very interested in having a discussion with you about the interpretation and whether I need to talk to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office about clarification of the Code language."
Publicly, the Fairfax County Police have not specified where on the body the 24 victims were grabbed. Police reports have only revealed that the women were approached and grabbed from behind and the suspect flees after the victims scream or protest.
The Springfield assaults have been occurring in the area since early September. The most recent incident occurred in HomeGoods in Kingstowne where the suspect followed the victim into the store and grabbed her from behind before fleeing. Other shoppers attempted to help, but the suspect got away. .
FCPD detectives are currently still following up on leads and tips from calls received after the video was released, and the investigation of all 24 incidents continues. At this time, the suspect possibly faces one year and $2,500 in fines for each incident if charged with simple assaults.
Watts and Baumstark discussed the matter regarding simple assault versus sexual assault in a phone conversation on Monday, Baumstark said. Baumstark told Patch that Watts said she would get back to him on the interpretation of the code law and decide whether a new bill needed to be introduced in the 2014 General Assembly or if the code section just needed to be clarified.
In her letter to Baumstark, Watts wrote, "Obviously, if a change would help facilitate prosecution, I’d be more than happy to introduce a bill in the 2014 General Assembly session."
At the moment, the investigation into the series of incidents only shows that these have been simple assaults, police say. Baumstark said they will revisit the type of charge once the suspect is caught.
"When we catch the suspect(s), the detectives will confer again with the Commonwealth Attorney with current facts and statements to get guidance for placed charges," he explained in the email.
Baumstark explained to Patch that both assault and sexual battery are class one misdemeanors that carry the same punishment of one year and $2,500 for each incident. According to Virginia Code § 18.2-67.4., "an accused is guilty of sexual battery if he sexually abuses, as defined in §18.2-67.10 (6), the complaining witness against the will of the complaining witness, by force, threat, intimidation or ruse..."
Police with the Franconia District Station and FCPD have been dedicating multiple resources to the area in an attempt to locate and apprehend the suspect(s) committing these assaults. Baumstark said FCPD still needs and is asking for the community's assistance in apprehending those responsible for the series of assaults in Springfield.
See a map of the incidents here.