Memories of a series of unsolved violent sexual assaults that took place at the University of British Columbia a few years ago came flooding back to Louise Cowin as she prepared to field media questions on Monday about the latest attack on campus.
The RCMP reported Saturday that on Friday night, a man jumped a 20-year-old female student from behind, shaking her violently, striking her on the side of the head and "forcing the woman to the ground face first," before she fought him off and he fled.
"It was very disturbing and most troubling," Dr. Cowin, UBC's vice-president of students, said of the attack, which sent shock waves through a university community already struggling with sexual-assault issues.
"I was reflecting, driving in today to speak with the TV [reporters], that I stood before those cameras in 2013, following the stranger assaults on campus," she said in an interview. "So it's particularly disturbing that we find ourselves back facing a similar experience."
Three years ago, a man who was never found by police perpetrated a series of six chilling assaults in which he attacked women from behind, often striking them on the head and knocking them to the ground.
Those attacks – and the description of the assailant – bear an unsettling similarity to the incident Friday, in which a woman was attacked from behind while she walked alone in the 3200 block of Westbrook Mall at about 10 p.m. The attack came after incidents earlier in the week of an intruder checking for unlocked dorm room doors and bathroom stalls.
The 2013 assailant was described as Caucasian with a slightly darker, possibly tanned, skin tone. He wore a black hoodie, was thought to be in his mid 20s, had a thin build and was between five-foot-eight and six-foot-two.
The man who attacked the student on Friday was described by police as "darker skinned, mid to late 20s. He is approximately five feet 10 inches with a slender build, and was wearing dark clothing, possibly a dark-coloured hoodie, and smelled of tobacco."
The RCMP's UBC detachment spokesman was not available to comment on Monday.
Dr. Cowin said she doesn't know if there is any connection between the 2013 attacks and the most recent incident. But she is drawing a link between the Friday night attack and the incidents that took place Wednesday and Thursday nights, in which a man was seen lurking inside two UBC residence buildings.
"If one pays attention to the description, it does sound like the same person [in the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday incidents]," she said.
Dr. Cowin said the administration "sent out an e-mail blast" on Thursday, putting the 4,000 students who live in residence on alert. "What we thought we were dealing with on Wednesday night and Thursday night was a voyeur in two specific buildings on campus," she said, when asked why the warning hadn't gone to the broader university community. "We thought we were dealing with a pattern and we thought we took the appropriate measures."
UBC history professor Paul Krause, who has been pushing the university to adopt stronger policies to deal with sexual assault issues, was critical of the university on Sunday for failing to issue a general warning about the prowler. He said it was troubling that UBC hadn't issued a wide alert following the incidents at the residences.
"As soon as we realized we were dealing with something more sinister [than just a prowler], that jumped up the level of alert to a campus wide e-mail," Dr. Cowin said.
The e-mail warning to resident students on Thursday informed them that an intruder had been observed "checking doors for unlocked residence rooms and unlocked bathroom stalls last night." The alert cautioned them to be vigilant, to report any suspicious activity, to lock their bedroom doors and to be careful not to let anyone "tailgate" behind them when they entered or left the buildings.
"Thursday night in those two residences, we had increased campus security and the RCMP had increased their presence as well, only then to find out by Friday night he had attacked in a completely different place," Dr. Cowin said.
On Saturday, the administration issued a campus-wide alert, advising of the attack and linking to the RCMP report.
UBC has had to deal with a number of sexual assault issues in recent years, including complaints from several students in November that the school had been slow to act on multiple allegations of abuse against a PhD candidate, and an incident in 2013 in which some students sang "rape chants" at first-year orientation events. There have also been 22 sexual assaults reported to campus security from 2013 to the present.
After the 2013 attacks, UBC established a safety committee that called for a number of changes, including better lighting, an increased number of emergency phones placed around campus, more security cameras and more support for the Safewalk program run by the students' Alma Mater Society.
The committee is continuing to develop strategies and is meeting Tuesday morning, as students return from the Easter weekend to find the campus plastered with safety alerts and an active police investigation under way.