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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Battling Fear

Serial Rapist Has Residents of 'Safe' Simi Valley Worried

March 18, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIMI VALLEY — Monica Munoz was all set to head out to Rancho Simi Community Park with her 2-year-old son Carlos. It was, after all, a beautiful, sunny day in the middle of the morning.

Then she thought better of it. Maybe she should wait for her husband to come along--just to be safe.

"I'm scared," she said. "I don't know what's going to happen when I go out on the street."

In one of the nation's safest cities, a suspected serial rapist has reminded some women that even sleepy Simi Valley--from its blue collar homes to its gated communities--is vulnerable to the most violent crime.

The knife-wielding assailant, who according to police wears a ski mask and apparently breaks into homes at night, is believed responsible for two attacks this week in central Simi Valley, and nine more during the last four years.

City police have said they remain focused on catching the serial rapist.

"It is the No. 1 priority of this agency," acting Chief Tony Harper said. "We do not have a suspect identified at this time, but we do have several leads on which we are following up. And we're putting every bit of effort we possibly can into resolving this case."

Police advised residents to keep their doors and windows locked at all times, to have good lighting around the house or to use motion sensors.

"Awareness is probably the key issue here," Sgt. Bob Gardner said. "There is a tendency, because Simi Valley is a very safe city, to think that crime doesn't occur here. But, people ought to remember not to let their guard down."

Some of the city's female residents are taking the advice to heart.

Munoz has begun to park her car closer to work. She and her co-workers leaving their 11 p.m. shift at El Pollo Loco walk each other out. When she is home alone for the evening with baby Carlos, her husband, Juan Nava, checks in regularly from his night shift.

"I don't understand who would do this," she said. "I work with a lot of women. One who lives alone is really scared."

Other women seconded that concern, but said safety has always been a top priority for them. Most women said they always keep their doors and windows locked, and check them at night before they go to bed.

"At night I go around the house to make sure everything is locked. My husband thinks I'm a fanatic," said Tonya, who wouldn't give her last name for fear that the rapist would seek her out.

She said her family is considering leaving town, in part, because of worry that crime from the San Fernando Valley could spill across the county line.

"I think this is strange for Simi Valley," she said. "It certainly doesn't happen here on a daily basis. But, it wouldn't shock me in the [San Fernando] Valley."

But some women admitted they can sometimes get complacent because they live in a community where children roam the streets and neighbors know each other's names.

"We feel safe in our gated community. The baby-sitter will walk herself home at night," said Mary Vessele as she ate at a Los Angeles Avenue McDonald's. "Now, I definitely won't let her do it. You can't let your guard down for a minute."

But other women took word of the serial rapist in stride.

Heather Pruitt said she can't be fearful in the town she has spent all of her 25 years. Her kids play outside all the time. Her neighbors would certainly notice if something wasn't right.

"When I go out, I go out with a couple of friends, but it's just because I don't like being alone," she said. "I'm really not worried about it at all. Besides, I have three big dogs."

Some women said they were bothered by feeling limited. They don't like feeling uneasy. Men don't have the same fear, they said. But with a serial rapist out there, they can't. Even in Simi Valley.

"Anywhere you go you're not safe any more," said Milagro Saldivar, as she watched her child play at a park. "I guess it's just another reason we women have to be more careful."

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