A Misadventure on a Trail in Burke

Police advise to always carry cell phone on walks, especially on trails and wooded areas

This story was originally published on Fairfax Station Patch, where Patricia Mandes writes regularly. You can read all her stories .

How many times have you warned your children, “Don’t walk on the trails alone?”  If you’re like me, countless times. Let me tell you a scary story that happened in Burke Centre to a girl I know. Although the event took place in November, it has just been resolved by the Fairfax County Court. 

Wednesday, Nov. 24, began with promise. The students from Robinson Secondary had been dismissed early, the afternoon was free, and Thanksgiving was around the corner. After arriving home, a group of friends decided to hike to the Burke Centre Shopping Center. These teens, all juniors, had known each other for years. The six boys and two girls decided to walk on the trail that led through the woods and exited by The Oaks Community Center.

By 12:45, the friends were strolling along the trail, enjoying themselves and the warm, sunny day. All of a sudden, a tall man emerged from the woods. He stopped them and started “joking around,” described one of the students.

“Why aren’t you in school?” the man quizzed them.  “Ha, ha, ha!  You’re going into the woods to smoke, aren’t you?” 

Unsure what to do, the teens were even more startled when the stranger grabbed a bag of chips from one of the girls and began eating them. 

He started to ask random questions. “What are you doing? Do you know my kids?” he queried repeatedly. 

The other girl was carrying her wallet in her pocket, attached to a lanyard. The man snatched the lanyard, and the wallet, of course, flew out of her pocket and into his hands.  He carefully inspected her driver’s license, which was tucked securely into a see-through compartment on the front of the wallet. 

Then the questions started flying. “Is this really your name? Do you live at that address? How old are you? I can’t see your age.”

Not willing to put up with much more aggravation, the girl snatched at the lanyard and snagged her wallet.  With that, the villain in my story seized her arm and started sniffing her arm and shoulder.

“How freaky!” she later commented.

At that point, all the kids seemingly woke up from their trance.  “We left as fast as we could,” my star witness stated.

But that didn’t deter the man, who walked behind them for a few minutes.  “Follow me,” he cried over and over again.  “I’m a good daddy!”

By the time the Robinson students reached Burke Centre Parkway, their would-be assailant had retreated.  The relieved kids enjoyed visiting Safeway, eating lunch at Chipotle and checking out the bargains at Kohl’s. They spent little time thinking about their earlier experience on the trail.

Just to be cautious, however, they decided to return home using a different route. They walked past Fairview Elementary, then turned onto the path near the school. Hearing someone whistle at them, they turned around when an unwelcome, all too familiar voice hollered, “I tried to flag you down. Wait. Wait.”

The Robinson teens broke into a run, determined not to “let that guy get to us again.” Unfortunately, he kept up with them surprisingly well. He chased them along the path, down a steep hill, and across neighbors’ yards, even crawling through a hole in a fence. He was as determined to catch them as they were to escape.

The friends finally reached safety -- a house owned by a person they all knew -- and darted inside. Their nemesis paced frenziedly up and down the sidewalk, muttering to himself.

Curious about the strange event unfolding on this usually peaceful street, neighbors started asking him, “What’s going on?”

 The man’s response was creative.  “I want those girls to come out.  They stole my dog.  And everybody was smoking marijuana!”

Mr. E, who was sheltering the students, stepped outside to set the record straight. Before he had spoken more than a sentence or two, the man gave him a shove. Thinking he smelled alcohol on his breath, Mr. E grew concerned that the violence might escalate. He wisely withdrew to his house and called the police.

As you might expect, the man vanished. One resourceful neighbor who knew his name looked him up online to see if he was a registered sex offender; he was not. When the police tracked him down and questioned him about his aberrant behavior, he asserted that he was about to have a diabetic attack, which might leave him in a coma. The officers’ only choice was to transport him to the hospital.

As other police officers continued talking with the teens and their parents, two facts became clear. The man lived far too close for comfort to Fairview Elementary and to the trail on which many children walked home. In addition, he had recently been released from jail. He had been charged with violating a restraining order, which prevented him from contacting his wife and children.

As soon as things quieted down, the teenager who had been harassed began texting her classmates. She discovered that another girl, walking with a friend that same afternoon on the same secluded trail in The Oaks, had met the same man. He grabbed her wallet and began taunting her until she wrested the wallet from him.

That evening, the girl, her parents and Mr. E drove into Fairfax City to appear before the Magistrate. After listening to their story, the police official agreed to press charges: misdemeanor assault for pushing Mr. E and juvenile misdemeanor assault for bothering and intimidating the girl.

The man was later arrested by the police, taken to jail, charged, and released on bail.  Two court dates in January were also scheduled. That weekend, however, the man saw two of the boys at the shopping center and vowed to “ruin their lives,” just like they had ruined his!

Now what lessons can the teens, their parents, and hopefully everyone else gain from this appalling experience? Always carry your cell phone, the police officers advised. If someone stalks, bullies, and threatens you, tell that person firmly to stop. Then call 911 and take a photo of your tormenter.  Although perhaps you can’t make that call because you’re trying to protect yourself, your companions can.  Be careful when you deal with creepy people like this, but stand up for yourself and your friends.

And remember: whether you live in Burke Centre, Fairfax Station, or Clifton, don’t walk on the footpaths and bridle trails by yourself.

After the Burke resident failed to appear for the first court date in January, the judge ordered his bond to be revoked. He was to be picked up and jailed.

Another court date was set, Feb. 16. That day, the Commonwealth Attorney spoke to the girl and her father at the Courthouse, asking them for their thoughts on an appropriate settlement. She next conferred with the defendant’s Public Defender.

A settlement was reached. Instead of simple assault, he would be charged with the lesser crime, disorderly conduct. He would receive a sentence of 180 days in jail, with 150 days suspended. A restraining order was also issued. If he violated that, he would return to jail to serve the rest of his sentence.

Molly Field March 04, 2011 at 12:11 PM
Why not divulge the name of the offender? He is not a minor, and other people could be at risk.
El Farris March 04, 2011 at 12:21 PM
30 days in jail? That's it? Please supply his name.
Alan Young March 04, 2011 at 12:26 PM
This was an unfortunate incident. I have observed and am aware of incidents similar to this one occurring in shopping centers, behind stores and in public parks. While infrequent, they are incredibly disturbing and rightly provoke our parental instincts to protect our children. Children should travel in groups wherever they are. What is not helpful is generalizing this incident to all "footpaths and bridle trails." Our trails and paths are incredible resources for relaxation and enjoyment. We should not make a bad incident into a warning against using them. Walking and biking our trails are far safer than our roads. We have too much fear in our community already. We need to teach our children to be aware of their environment wherever they are, but not fearful and deal with offenders severely.
El Farris March 04, 2011 at 01:12 PM
You make a lot of good points Alan and by no means do I intend to sequester my children indoors. That said, our society does not deal with offenders severely. Offenders receive a slap on the wrist. Given the Court's expansive reading of free speech rights in the funeral picket case, go ahead and release the name, Burke Patch. You can write an editorial on the state's failure to protect children appropriately from the unnamed offender (whose name I'm going to go look up right now . . . easy enough).
Alan Young March 04, 2011 at 01:28 PM
I have absolutely no mercy for adults who threaten our children, there are no excuses. That said, the description of the adult involved indicates there are mental health issues here. His behavior is abnormal. In Virginia, we have chosen a system to not deal with persons with mental health issues until they are in crisis and threatening us. Its a short term, costly approach, with predictable results, that does not improve our public safety nor deal humanly with our fellow citizens.
Jill March 04, 2011 at 02:39 PM
I have walked those paths many times with my pit bull Tyson in tow. If you don't have a guard dog with you then do not walk those trails. With Tyson, I have been approached on numerous occasions on those trails, but when the dog growls the perpetrators retreat. Who knew that we were buying homes in the Oaks neighborhoods with low income housing at our door step.
Rachael Dickson March 04, 2011 at 03:47 PM
Thank you for the comments. We will be looking into this further, talking to the police and will be doing a follow-up story.
El Farris March 04, 2011 at 04:19 PM
One of the first things that all women learn is to never walk unaccompanied on deserted trails, so I am happy to hear that Tyson protects you well, Jill. Thanks for the follow-up, Rachael.
Megan March 04, 2011 at 04:39 PM
This is something that bothers me very much. I am a young female home owner in the Oaks neighborhood, and I won't even walk to Safeway across the street without my Husband anymore. Too many times while jogging (on neighborhood roads, not even in the paths) I've been cat called at, or followed for a short time. Its really creepy. I'm so glad this incident didn't turn out to be a worse situation.
Patricia Mandes March 04, 2011 at 07:00 PM
My point was to call attention to the dangers that can befall anyone on the many isolated trails in NOVA. The trails in Burke are an incredible asset in the community. However, our children clearly have been raised so well to be polite to others that when a potentially dreadful situation like this one smacks them in the face, they simply do not know what to do. It was also surprising to me that so few parents took action here.
Molly Field March 04, 2011 at 07:10 PM
@Patricia - the laws are so confused and abound to protect the offenders more than the victims these days. I suspect the parents didn't get involved because they probably weren't sure their children had any rights. Mentally unwell or not, boundaries are boundaries and people must respect them -- WHILE being aware of their rights. Who is this individual? And if the courts saw fit to sentence 180 days with 150 suspended, it clearly saw the potential danger. This type of "reporting" clearly advocates on the side of the accused and leaves the doors WIDE open for people to feel threatened and unsafe. Don't do the "reporting" if you're not going to to all the way and tell the whole story. This is soft journalism.
Patricia Mandes March 04, 2011 at 07:57 PM
I agree with you, Molly. I am a "softie." But people got the message to talk to their children about safety and strolling in the woods alone. The fact that a whole bunch of kids were there might have constrained the man to some extent.
Molly Field March 04, 2011 at 08:14 PM
This is classic. Let's concede "soft journalism," talk about and speculate on what "might have" happened than actually discuss the facts. Mission accomplished in that you drove traffic to your site and to your byline. It's also emblematic of AOL management: do anything but go all the way with something. Once I realized this "news" service is owned by AOL, I realized it's just another vehicle for ad revenue. Did all the "journalists" sign contracts to write narratives and not provide real substance or am I missing something...? Don't bother responding, I was being rhetorical.
Rachael Dickson March 04, 2011 at 08:48 PM
The name of the man in question was not included in this story at the request of the parents of one of the students involved. Within days of the incident he already had encountered some of the students and made threats against them. Patricia wrote this opinion narrative story to get out information about what happened while keeping the students safe. We will have a follow-up news story soon looking at incidents along trails in Burke and trail safety. Just to clarify, Aol has no editorial control over Patch.
El Farris March 04, 2011 at 09:06 PM
The name of the man is public knowledge Rachael, unless the court made an extremely unusual decision to seal the records. As a journalist, please report on the news. You could save a life and it is your duty. I understand being a softie but we cannot seek compromise with criminals, especially those who terrorize our children.
Molly Field March 04, 2011 at 09:20 PM
I removed my earlier comment about the "opinion" categorization because the header doesn't show up on my mobile. My apologies. However, it is unfortunate that the content is not thorough. I also can't see how protecting a convicted offenders' name (who received a 6-month sentence!) for the satisfaction of the few is for the betterment of the greater. You all missed the mark on this one. Why bother writing about it at all seeing as how the offender is possibly still at large and most likely a repeat offender? If the identity is protected under legal restraints, that should have been included, otherwise it can imply some measure of collusion or conflict of interest or other undue misapprehension. It's simply not appropriate.
Rachael Dickson March 04, 2011 at 09:21 PM
To repeat, the writer made an agreement with the parents in order to get this story that she would not include the name of the man involved. Burke Patch is not going to go back on that agreement. This decision was not made to be soft on the man nor because of any legal conflicts but with the intention of protecting the students involved.
Rachael Dickson March 04, 2011 at 09:42 PM
I'm going to close the comments on this story for now so that I can research and report on the issues that people have raised. Thank you for your participation.


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