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The Athens Police Department released a composite sketch of the suspect of three related sexual assault cases.

Athens officials hope to keep residents aware of assailant situation without causing panic

Athens Police Department Chief Tom Pyle said he doesn't mean to induce panic in residents, but that he wants to keep them aware.

Ron Lucas, deputy service safety director for the City of Athens, said the city struggled with social media generating panic in 2013, when certain accounts reported an armed robbery at Stocker Center when there wasn’t one.

“Before we knew it, social media exploded on it,” Lucas said. “I have a Facebook friend that reported through social media that there was a mass shooting in Athens at Ohio University. So you can see how quick it can turn into something that it isn’t and generating that panic.”

Ohio University's campus closed Jan. 31 when university officials heard that an armed robber was allegedly seen near Stocker Center after robbing some off-campus apartments, according to a previous Post report.

It was a similar concern about misinformation on social media that triggered the city to release a Feb. 4 news release this year urging residents to come to the police with tips regarding the Athens Police Department’s Jan. 28 announcement that three sexual assaults in Athens had been linked with DNA evidence.

“You know, I believe in social media. I believe in the power of it,” Lucas said. “I believe it’s a great communication tool. I also believe in the opportunity of it to be used incorrectly.”

APD received results from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation that linked a Dec. 12 sexual assault to two others, one in June 2015 and the other in June 2006, according to a previous Post report.

Lucas’s concerns grew when an Instagram user posted an account of an alleged encounter with the “OU rapist,” including a video of the altercation. Lucas said he worried the post might have targeted someone other than the actual perpetrator of the alleged assaults, and that it might have ramifications for the person accused in the video and Instagram post.

“That could put a negative connotation on that particular person for who knows how long,” Lucas said. “That could be a serious problem for that young man, you know.”

According to the Feb. 4 news release, more than 75 tips resulted from APD's announcement.

“The police department has received a number of tips, and they’re actively investigating each one," Lucas said. "As far as how substantial those tips are, I can’t say. But they are actively investigating.”

Athens Police Department Chief Tom Pyle said he doesn’t mean to start a panic, but that he wants to make sure people are aware of the situation so they stay safe.

“If you told me people were concerned and were looking over their shoulders and watching out for one another, I’d be actually happy about that because that’s really the appropriate response at this point,” Pyle said.

For Julia Messinger, a freshman studying marketing, the most frightening part about APD’s announcement was the sketch of the alleged attacker.

“I guess when you see a sketch, it makes it more frightening,” Messinger said. “I feel like you usually see a sketch more in murders.”

According to a previous Post report, APD is looking for a white male in his early 20s to early 30s, 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-9-inches tall, and weighing approximately 160 pounds.

Messinger said she saw the sketch when someone posted it on GroupMe, a group messaging app, with a link to the article. She said she thinks the announcement has caused only “a little panic” and she doesn’t think she’s felt any substantial change in the campus atmosphere.

“I feel like as bad as it sounds, I’ve walked home alone before,” Messinger said. “I walked alone last night. No one’s really taken any extra precautions that I know about. I don’t feel any less people are going out.”

She said rumors have spread among her sorority about where the alleged assailant may have been spotted.

“It could be all talk,” she said.

She isn’t sure whether the city and police department releasing more information would put her at peace. As it is now, she said she feels like he is “everywhere.”

Some people took to Twitter to express their concerns about potential existence of a serial assailant.

— Julia Fair and Kaitlin Fochesato contributed to this report.

@baileygallion

bg272614@ohio.edu

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