Attacks at Hemet senior housing complex put safety in spotlight
10:00 PM PST on Friday, January 4, 2008
By GAIL WESSON
A gated community may make people feel safe in their surroundings, and they may think no one is going to walk in.
But one of the first tips Jeannette Casillas discusses with senior citizens when giving a safety talk is keeping doors and windows locked.
"When people see a place is a gated community, they think they're automatically safe, that they don't need to lock that door," said Casillas, prevention and education coordinator and self-defense instructor for the Hemet-based Center Against Sexual Assault of Southwest Riverside County, or CASA.
Police say doors or windows were left unlocked in apartments inside one gated Hemet senior complex where two women had been raped in recent months. Police suspect the death of one of the women was related to the attack.
A third woman, whose open window had locks to keep it from being pried open wider, alerted police Dec. 28 when a prowler tried to break in. Surveillance cameras at Oak Terrace Senior Apartments caught footage of police cars, staked out nearby, closing in on a man and making an arrest as he attempted to leave.
Unsettling is the fact that Oak Terrace participates in the city's Crime Free Multi-Family Housing program, which educates people about curbing crime through measures such as adequate lighting and locks, proper gate location and building design.
Hemet police Lt. Jeff Pinney called the development "a leader" among complexes with annual safety programs that welcomes safety inspections and recommendations.
"After the second assault, we actually put on a class specifically for the community about keeping their doors and windows locked," he said by phone. "It certainly is a deterrent in most places."
In this case, Pinney has described suspect Kenneth Daniels Jr., 21, of San Jacinto, as a sexual predator.
Until the recent series of assaults, Pinney described crime at Oak Terrace as limited to the "occasional rare vehicle burglary" and calls related to elderly health issues, like dementia.
Daniels faces 14 charges, including murder and rape, in the attacks. The Riverside County district attorney's office has not decided whether it will seek the death penalty in the case, district attorney's spokeswoman Ingrid Wyatt said by phone.
Daniels pleaded not guilty to the charges in a court appearance Friday at the Southwest Justice Center.
A 63-year-old woman was assaulted twice -- in August and October -- and less than a month ago, a 74-year-old wheelchair-bound woman was found dead with signs of blunt-force trauma. Although police are waiting for a coroner's report, they suspect her death is related to the attack.
Last week, Lewis Ashcraft, one of the owners of Oak Terrace, declined to comment on the cases, but he said steps were being taken to protect residents, including conducting seminars where residents could get self-protection tips from police.
The Center Against Sexual Assault, the nonprofit where Casillas works, offers a senior safety fair each April, schedules speakers for safety talks to groups and offers a four-week, eight-hour senior self-defense class as interest warrants, Casillas said by phone.
The Hemet Police Department also offers speakers.
Curtailing Abuse Related to the Elderly, a Riverside County Adult Protective Services Division program also known as CARE, is designed to protect the elderly from abuse and consumer fraud. The program partners with law enforcement to put on programs about personal safety at home and when out in public, said Margo Hamilton, the program's regional manager.
Seniors are "vulnerable targets," Casillas said. "Unfortunately, an attack can happen at any time of day. That's something we've learned here at CASA."
Sometimes once inside a gated community, people "think they're automatically safe, that they don't need to lock that door," she said.
"We want everybody to be aware and take precautions," said Pinney, the Hemet police lieutenant. "The key really is being attentive and aware of your surroundings and keeping things locked up."
Casillas works with a California Highway Patrol officer in the self-defense classes. Her oldest graduate was 82, she recalled.
"It gives them self-empowerment," she said of the class.
She teaches seniors to trust their instincts and to use their senses, voice, even a cane. She also shows them simple self-defense techniques such as going for vulnerable parts of an attacker's body, the throat and eyes.
Few senior victims of assault sought help from CASA in the 2006-2007 fiscal year, which ended in June, its statistics show. There were three victims age 61 or older, but there were 77 victims ages 41 through 60 and 275 in four younger age groups.
Reach Gail Wesson at 951-763-3455 or gwesson@PE.com
Safety tips for seniors
Be aware of your surroundings.
Keep doors and windows locked.
After dark, rely on the buddy system if you must go outside.
Trust your instincts and report anything suspicious to law enforcement.
For information about speakers and classes, call:
CARE (Curtailing Abuse Related to the Elderly): 800-476-7506
Hemet Police Department: Sgt. Mark Nipp at 951-765-2400
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