Police investigators were frustrated Friday in their search for witnesses to a daytime rape of a USC student that lasted for more than an hour this week in plain view on an open stretch of Santa Monica Beach.
The rape, which occurred Wednesday north of the Santa Monica Pier, began when a man approached a 22-year-old woman who was sunbathing. The man jabbed a sharp object in her back and threatened her into cooperating with the attack, police said.
People were walking, jogging and bicycling nearby and probably saw the two, but no one attempted to summon help--possibly because they were unaware that a rape was taking place, Santa Monica Police Lt. Robert Thomas said. Unable to fight off her attacker and because the man was armed, the woman was not screaming or struggling visibly.
Crowds on Wednesday afternoon were sparse because of the cool weather and strong offshore winds, Thomas said.
"She was so scared because he had told her that he had killed three women," Thomas said. "(The attacker) was just lucky nobody was walking by closer."
Thomas said "every officer is aware of this crime, and they will be looking more carefully for the suspect." But so far no witnesses have come forward and police have been stymied in their search for the attacker, described as a dark-complected Filipino man, 25 to 30 years old, about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with dark hair. He weighs 150 to 160 pounds, police said, and wore a striped shirt and dark pants.
The woman told police she did not think the attacker was a transient, although she thought he had been drinking.
Thomas declined to elaborate on the victim's condition.
Thomas said witnesses may have passed within 75 yards of the attack, which occurred not far from a paved bicycle path in an area where the beach is 300 to 400 yards wide.
"This is normally a safe beach because it is so wide open," he said.
"We have people calling us all the time and asking us if it is safe for a single woman to (lie) out on the beach," Thomas said. "We've said we've never had any problems before. Of course, we can't say that any more."
The incident was the second known case of sexual assault at Santa Monica Beach since October, when a 28-year-old Santa Monica woman was choked and sexually assaulted around noon south of the pier by a transient wielding a knife. The woman screamed during the attack, but nobody came to her rescue. There have been no arrests in that case and police have no suspects.
Some Santa Monica residents, increasingly concerned about crime, seized that case as an example of a need to crack down on the city's transients. A rally in April drew a crowd of about 150 who complained that City Atty. Robert M. Myers was lenient with homeless people who slept in parks or on the beach.
Police said Wednesday's rape was perhaps more shocking than the one in October because it occurred on a vast, open stretch of beach where there is nowhere to hide, such as behind the trees or bushes south of the pier.
But Thomas said Santa Monica police are not deploying additional officers to the beach in the wake of the attack. "We just don't have the manpower," the lieutenant said.
Rape experts at Los Angeles-based crisis centers described the attack as unusual but not without precedent.
Jennie Balise, an intervention services coordinator for the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults against Women, said that organization's hot line receives 800 to 1,000 calls a month from rape victims or their relatives.
Although most such calls involve rapes that occur indoors and rapes perpetrated by acquaintances of the victims, a surprising number begin or actually take place in public settings such as beaches, parks or shopping mall parking lots.
"This kind of thing is certainly not unheard of," Balise said. "My belief is it has happened plenty of times before."
Wednesday's incident occurred about 4:30 p.m. near the 1200 block of the Promenade, a concrete walkway that runs next to the bike path. The walkway is about 100 yards from where the rape took place, Thomas said, and anyone walking there "probably thought it was just a couple making out."
Thomas said the attacker approached the woman and instructed her to "act like we're friends." He then sexually assaulted her repeatedly--penetrating her with his fingers--until about 6 p.m., when she was able to escape and call police. Officials said the act constitutes rape under state law.
Los Angeles County Lifeguard Lt. Dan Cromp described the afternoon of the attack as a typical slow, cool spring day with strong afternoon sea breezes and scattered crowds. He said a lifeguard tower near the water was manned, but lifeguards were not notified of the rape until about 8 p.m.
"No witnesses have come forward--it was a reasonably slow day," Cromp said. "Of course, we're obviously on the lookout for him."