UPDATE (5 p.m.): A male suspect stalked a young girl inside a crowded Wal-Mart store in Fridley, MN, on Monday, groped her in the electronics aisle as she stood just inches from her mother, then slipped away before store staff or police could catch him.
But a camera system meant for catching thieves caught video of the suspect's movements before, during and after the alleged sexual assault, according to authorities.
Crucial aspects of the incident—including Wal-Mart's video from inside the store and the exact age of the alleged victim—remain under wraps. Investigators are following up on tips from the public in response to an outline of the incident and still images of the man they say committed the "brazen" act.
But in interviews Thursday, spokesmen from the Anoka County Sheriff's Office and Fridley Police Department offered selected details about the incident and the investigation so far.
What the Cameras Saw
Cmdr. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office said the video record is complete in describing how events unfolded.
First, Wal-Mart's cameras caught the suspect "stalking" the alleged victim inside the store.
The video then clearly "shows the assault taking place" in the electronics aisle.
Finally it shows the suspect "making his escape" out the front door.
"He was probably outside of the store with a minute of the incident taking place," Sommer said. In the video, "he's leaving very quickly on foot. ... He was probably off Wal-Mart property before police even arrived."
Fridley Police Capt. Bob Rewitzer said officers responding to the scene reviewed the store's video and determined that the suspect had fled, either by car or on foot. At that point, "a dragnet of Fridley probably isn't going to sweep this guy up," he said.
Eight Inches from Mom
The video leaves no doubt about what the suspect was up to, Rewitzer said: "It was clearly not accidental. It was clearly intentional."
Examination of the video shows things moving quickly after the "groping assault," according to Sommers. The girl appears to have reported what happened to her mother immediately—"within a matter of seconds," Sommers said. "Her mother is trying to see immediately where this guy had gone."
"I'm doubtful there was anything this mother could have done" to prevent the alleged assault, Sommers said. "There wasn't more than eight inches separating (mother and daughter) and this guy still perpetrated this act. So it's very disconcerting."
Sommer said several things stood out as unusual about the incident.
- "It's strange to see sexual assault of a child of that age."
- "It's extremely rare that we would have it entirely recorded on video."
- "It's rare that somebody would be that bold and that brazen."
The last point has authorities' attention. "We're particularly concerned about what he's capable of if he's willing to do this," Sommer said.
A statewide alert on Monday asked local law enforcement agencies across Minnesota for information about any cases that seemed "the same or similar."
When that failed to turn up leads, the sheriff's office decided to seek the public's help. "Identifying him is our goal," Sommers said.
After an initial investigation, Fridley police handed the case to the Anoka County Sheriff's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), Rewitzer said, as is typical for sexual assault cases.
"They have training and expertise to follow up" on such incidents that the city force can't afford, he said. "They're a tremendous resource in that regard."
Rewitzer said the CID "had a good interview with the (alleged) victim"—who Sommers described as "physically unhurt (but) emotionally traumatized."
In some cases, accounts from victims and witnesses and photographic and physical evidence don't converge into a single narrative. In this case, thanks to video they won't release, authorities say they know the story, even if they don't know the identity of the man they suspect—yet.
UPDATE (3:45 p.m.): Tips are coming into the Fridley Police Department and Anoka County Sheriff's Office about the alleged sexual assault of a girl inside the Fridley Wal-Mart on Monday that authorities say was documented by store cameras.
Capt. Bob Rewitzer said Fridley officers have been hearing from members of the public with information they say is related to the groping of a girl younger than 13 years old.* "I know that they have been getting some tips," he said.
Cmdr. Paul Sommer of the sheriff's office wrote in an email:
We are getting many calls and our detectives are working on follow ups. Nothing concrete at this time, but we are hopeful that a suspect will be identified.
Call the sheriff's office at 763-323-5000 with any information about the case, Sommer said.
UPDATE (11:30 a.m.): A sexual assault Monday on a girl younger than 13 inside the Wal-Mart store in Fridley, MN, was captured by store cameras, authorities say, but they won't make the video public.*
The reason: "We cannot identify the victim at all," according to Fridley Police Capt. Brian Weierke.
The Anoka County Sheriff's Office released still images of a male suspect Thursday, showing a white male about 30 years old leaving the store.
The suspect had "sexual contact" with the alleged victim while her family stood nearby, according to the sheriff's office. Weierke defined that as "unwanted touching of a body part."
"This case is very rare, to see something like this happen" Weierke said. He cited three factors that make the alleged crime unusual: an assault by a stranger, the alleged victim's age, and an attack in "broad daylight in a department store."
The sheriff's office put the time of the attack at 2:10 p.m. Video stills showing the suspect leaving the store carry a timestamp of 2:12 p.m.
"We believe the male left the store immediately," Weierke said.
Beforehand, however, the store's video shows the suspect apparently stalking the alleged victim, according to the sheriff's office.
"Wal-Mart has a pretty good camera system," Weierke said.
The case is following the normal procedure for sexual assault cases, Weierke said, with Fridley police conducting the preliminary investigation before handing it over to the sheriff's office.
Authorities don't always release images of suspects, Weierke said, but they want the public's help to find the man's identity.
"This is just an unknown in this case," he said.
ORIGINAL POST (10:45 a.m.): Police want the public's assistance in finding a man they suspect in an alleged sexual assault on a girl younger than 13 inside the store in Fridley on Monday.*
According to the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, the assault occurred at 2:10 p.m. while the victim was with her family and was captured on the store's cameras:
The victim in this case is a female child, under the age of 13 and the case involves the suspect having sexual contact with the victim. The assault was particularly brazen, in that it took place in an open shopping area and the child’s parent and older sibling was standing right next to the victim when the assault took place. The victim immediately reported the event to her mother and the Fridley Police were contacted.
A subsequent investigation has revealed startling information about the crime. Wal-Mart Security has provided law enforcement security footage from within the store that day. The actual crime itself was caught on video as well as additional footage where the suspect can be seen eerily stalking the victim and her family as they move about the store. The suspect is described as:
White Male – Approximately 30 year of age.
Average build, Sparse facial hair – beard or goatee
Wearing a Duck Brown colored work type hooded jacket
Black stocking hat with red flames on the top.
Still photos captured from the video are available. No video depicting the victim will be made available.
The case remains under investigation by the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and the Fridley Police Department.
*Correction: Earlier versions of this post inaccurately cited an exact age (13) for the alleged victim. Authorities are saying only that she is younger than 13.