Education

She was attacked on campus. Why did it take so long for police to alert UNC students?

A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus in this 2017 photo.
A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus in this 2017 photo. rwillett@newsobserver.com

On the evening of Dec. 5, Rose Vigil was walking home when, around 9:30 p.m., she felt someone come up behind her on a brick path near the Old Well.

Before she could see his face, the stranger hooked his forearm around her neck and strangled her.

She was walking from Kenan Music Building to her residence hall. It’s a route that, as a music major, is almost automatic and should take a matter of minutes.

But with her neck in his grasp, the perpetrator pinned her to the ground. Her hands hit the bricks, then her head.

She tried to scream. “But it’s hard when you can’t breathe,” she said. She wanted to pretend to pass out. Maybe then he’d leave her alone. But she didn’t need to pretend – as the seconds passed, she felt herself losing consciousness.

“I felt like I was dying,” Vigil said.

It’s hard to know exactly, but she thinks about 40 seconds passed before someone saw the assault. The witness screamed, but the perpetrator didn’t release his grip until he heard the witness say she was calling the police. He grabbed Vigil’s bag and ran.

As of Jan. 16, he has not been caught.

About 50 minutes after the assault, an AlertCarolina text message sent at 10:31 p.m. reported a strong-arm robbery near the Old Well.

The attack in itself was traumatic: Vigil can’t walk outside when it’s dark anymore. She can’t sleep. When she studies, she has to face the door with her back to the wall, so she always knows what’s behind her. But Vigil was also troubled by what came in the aftermath of the assault: the AlertCarolina message, which included factual errors, she said.

The AlertCarolina system is a security measure on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus in compliance with the Clery Act, a federal statute that details how universities that receive federal funding report crimes on and around campus.

AlertCarolina has been criticized by students and community members for failing to send alerts – like when no alert was issued after a robbery on East Rosemary Street last March – and for taking too long, like when it took 45 minutes to release a message following the explosion on McCorkle Place in November.

For Vigil, a junior, the experience made her question students’ safety on campus and what goes into the alerts.

“I don’t know what his intention was,” Vigil said. “I don’t know if it was to kill me or assault me – I guess at that point it was just to make me pass out and then maybe keep strangling until I was just dead.”

But, she added, “It wasn’t a robbery.”

‘She was screaming’

Alyssa Browne, a graduate student studying sociology, was the witness who happened to walk by.

“It took me a few seconds to figure out what was going on, to comprehend it,” Browne said. “She was on the ground, and he was on top of her and she was screaming.”

At 10:32 p.m., an AlertCarolina email was sent.

“UNC Police are investigating a reported robbery near the Old Well on the UNC campus shortly before 10 p.m. this evening (Tues., Dec. 5),” the alert read.

“A female UNC student was walking with a friend along Cameron Avenue when she was approached by a black male suspect, about 5-10 in height with a slim build. The suspect assaulted the victim and took her purse, then fled in the direction of Franklin Street.”

“The individual was wearing a black zip-up jacket, blue jeans, and a black hat. No weapon was reported.”

Vigil noticed some discrepancies between what happened and what was reported in the alert. She wasn’t walking with a friend; she was walking alone. And the attack didn’t happen along Cameron Avenue; it was behind the Old Well.

Jeff McCracken, the chief of police for the Department of Public Safety, said though he wasn’t sure why there were errors in the alert about Vigil, a possible cause could have been the hustle to release information.

“Sometimes the need to put it out quickly can result in information that isn’t exactly correct the first time,” he said. “We try to do it quickly, and if every single piece is not correct, sometimes we can’t wait to nail down every single piece and try to fix it in the update.”

Browne said that, for only a few sentences, the alert took too long.

There are four categorizations of AlertCarolina messages: emergency, timely warning, informational and adverse weather. Vigil’s assault was classified as a timely warning. The only time an immediate, campus-wide alarm would sound would be in an emergency event, McCracken said, like if an active shooter was on campus.

McCracken said between the call, which was received at 9:41 p.m., and the time the text alert went out at 10:31 p.m., officers were assessing the situation, speaking with possible witnesses and reporting back to DPS media relations so an alert could be drafted.

“I think one of the issues we deal with is sometimes people get the impression that if they haven’t received some kind of a notification that nothing is being done, when that’s really not the case,” McCracken said.

Launched in 2008

AlertCarolina launched in 2008 to “educate students, faculty and staff about what to do in an emergency and where to go for information and resources,” according to an AlertCarolina document.

The alert system is a partnership between DPS and the university, McCracken said. According to the Clery Act, crimes that must be reported include criminal homicide, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, arson and hate crimes, according to the document.

Joanne Peters Denny, a UNC spokesperson, said in an email that alerts like Vigil’s are not typically reviewed by the university’s communications department because distributing the message quickly is the priority.

“Also, they must be written in accordance with the federal Clery Act, and therefore it is important that those trained on the Clery Act requirements are the ones writing and reviewing the language,” she said.

Alert methods include text message, email and/or voicemail and posting on the AlertCarolina website, where readers are instructed to check for updates.

Questions of accuracy

Beyond the factual errors and the time it took for the alert, Vigil felt the nature of the attack was not accurately conveyed.

“The police labeled it as a strong-arm robbery,” Vigil said. “But it didn’t really feel like that. If he wanted to take the bag, he could have just grabbed it and ran.”

The alert followed a typical fill-in-the-blank format that is meant to expedite the process, McCracken said.

“Strong-arm robbery is actually a legal term where force is used to take belongings and a weapon is not displayed,” he said. “But we wouldn’t put a lot of detail out really for investigative purposes.”

Withholding extensive detail is a part of the process in identifying suspects, McCracken said, so that authorities know the suspect would have no other way of knowing what transpired unless they had committed the crime.

The details of investigative reports are not public record, McCracken said, and the same premise is applied when writing AlertCarolina messages.

Browne said she wished there had been some notice about whether or not the perpetrator had been caught.

“I just realized how sanitized it is,” Browne said. “It made me question my safety walking around campus, and those alerts have never made me feel that way.”

In the future, both Vigil and Browne said they hope the messages are more transparent.

“If it was me, I’d like to know that’s actually what happened before I decide to go outside,” Vigil said.

She always thought she’d know what to do if somebody ever tried to attack her on the street, she said.

“It has definitely changed my perspective of security on campus,” Vigil said.

“What are the odds of being strangled on my way home?”

Kiana Cole, a former Charlotte Observer intern, is director of investigations at The Daily Tar Heel. On Twitter: @kianamcole

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