Relief blended with shock in Toronto as word spread Monday that a 15-year-old boy has been charged in a weeks-long string of stranger-on-stranger sex attacks that left women in a downtown neighbourhood frightened, wondering when the next incident would occur.
The charges appear to have no recent precedent anywhere in Canada. Sexual assault involving juveniles is not rare in this country, statistics show. Overwhelmingly, however, the crimes entail attacks on other young people, notably siblings, and more often than not the offence is a one-off, directed at someone the youth knows.
In this instance, the boy is accused of targeting 16 different women, all strangers walking in the Christie Pits neighbourhood, between Aug. 16 and Oct. 20. Fourteen were sexually assaulted – groped from behind – and two were criminally harassed, charges allege.
"It's a fairly rare modus operandi in the first place because the probability of getting caught or identified is pretty high," said behaviour therapist Bill Marshall, who as director of the internationally acclaimed Rockwood Psychological Services in Kingston has treated thousands of sex offenders over the past 40 years.
"Among juveniles even more so. I've never seen a juvenile with that kind of history. And if they are [repeat offenders], it's usually with other kids."
University of Toronto criminologist Rosemary Gartner, whose expertise encompasses domestic violence, including crimes by juveniles, concurred.
Sex attacks of this type, which involved groping rather than the more serious types of assault, still often go unreported, she said.
At the same time, however, she said, "I have to admit I've not heard of something like this before."
Arrested on the spot late Saturday night after he allegedly groped a decoy undercover police officer near the corner of Bloor Street West and Roxton Road, the boy appeared briefly in youth court Monday morning, charged with committing a series of sexual assaults that terrorized the west-end neighbourhood through the summer and fall.
In some cases, the assaults followed each other in quick succession. During the Thanksgiving weekend, two women were targeted within five minutes of each other, near Montrose Avenue and Harbord Street, and a third was attacked nearby the next night.
On Aug. 19, a woman was assaulted around 12:40 a.m., near Bloor Street West and Clinton Street. Less than 24 hours later, another victim was assaulted just two blocks west.
At rallies during the summer and fall, hundreds of people gathered to share information and glean what details they could from police.
"Fear, particularly among women, and their sense of safety in their own neighbourhood was taken from them as a result of these crimes," Police Chief Bill Blair told reporters.
"Our people were out in large numbers. It had been the case for weeks and months ... We also had women in our service who put themselves in harm's way."
The arrest was announced Monday morning after detectives executed a search warrant.
The identity of the youth, whom Chief Blair described as "not very well known" to police, remains sealed under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The principal suspect in the attacks has been previously described as a black male, with a heavy build and short hair, who accosted victims from behind, molested them and then fled.
"To me it was stunning. It was the last thing I expected," said Jennifer Hunter, who heads the Seaton Village Residents' Association, referring to the age of the accused.
"I think people will walk around a little more comfortably, and for me, as a mum, a woman and a citizen I hope this makes me a bit more compassionate – I hope this is an 'aha' moment where we look out for our community.
"But it's also so sad. This is one of those moments where you're relieved for about a second because it is just so sad."
Some critics rebuked police for not providing more information about the investigation, but Ms. Hunter said she understands why detectives were reticent.
"They explained it really well [at public meetings] and were extraordinarily sincere in their efforts."
Sex offences among juveniles are far from unusual. Statistics Canada data show that among boys aged 12 to 17, the rate is is actually higher than among the rest of the population, and more than twice the rate of people 35 to 44 years old.
But a pattern like this "is not something we often encounter," said Staff Inspector Mary Lee Metcalfe, commander of the Toronto police Sex Crimes Unit, which led the investigation.
Jim Van Allen, a retired criminal profiler with the Ontario Provincial Police and now a consultant with Behavioural Science Solutions Group Inc. in Vancouver, described the alleged offences as "worrisome" and highly unusual.
"It's the combination," he said.
"Age, hands on, and the frequency, because he's coming back so many times, out in the public against strangers – he wouldn't be doing this unless it was gratifying. It's good they apprehended him before it went further."
Like Mr. Marshall, Mr. Van Allen suggests that because of his age, the youth may not be beyond redemption.
"Maybe there's some hope he will respond to some treatment," he said.