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In the light of several recent battery incidents in which women reportedly were groped by a man on the Old Plank Road Trail, the Frankfort Police Department is urging community members to report any suspicious behavior they witness as police continue to investigate the case and work to identify the alleged assailant.
About five dozen residents, Village officials and law enforcement members attended a community meeting held Nov. 12 at the Frankfort Village Administration Building to discuss the latest updates on the case and ways to stay safe on the trail.
On Oct. 23 and Nov. 6, two women reported an unknown man grabbed their buttocks while they were on the Old Plank Road Trail. The second woman described the man as 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-10, athletically built, black and dressed in a stocking cap, a tight red and grey shirt and black spandex pants, and police released an image of a man matching this description captured by a surveillance camera in the Breidert Green area.
Both of these incidents took place between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon, Frankfort Police Chief John Burica said, adding police were also aware of a third incident that took place in the evening of Sept. 10, but it was not yet clear if that incident was linked to the most recent two incidents.
Burica told The Station there were zero incidents of this nature on the Old Plank Road Trail last year. This year, police have received four reports: the aforementioned batteries and a fourth incident in which a woman was knocked down and the perpetrator was caught immediately afterward, Burica said.
During the community meeting, Burica said investigating these incidents has been a priority for the police department, though he stressed it would take time to complete.
"One of the great things about this community is that when something happens, people do turn out," he said. "In order for the police department to work its best, what we need is our people. We need the support from you guys."
Sgt. Leanne Bender, who is in charge of the police department's investigations division, said the department received multiple tips and leads after disseminating information about the incidents to other law enforcement agencies.
"They have to sort through everything, they have to follow up on every single lead that we do get, and we're hoping that this is fruitful for us," she said. "So, we are currently investigating it actively. There's not much more I can share because we don't have anything solid that we would share at this point, but they are following up on all of those leads."
While the Old Plank Road Trail extends 22 miles, the portion that runs through Frankfort stretches just a few miles. Frankfort police do patrol the area beyond those boundaries, but it is primarily the jurisdiction of the Will County Forest Preserve Police Department, Burica said.
Between June 1 and Nov. 12, the Frankfort Police Department conducted 586 patrols of the trail, an average of three to four a day, which involves officers walking, cycling or using ATVs along the trail, Burica said.
He encouraged residents to contact the police immediately if they see any sort of unusual or suspicious behavior, adding callers can choose to remain anonymous. While emergency matters should be directed to 911, residents calling about less urgent matters should dial the police department's non-emergency dispatch, (815) 485-2500, Burica said, further suggesting residents add this number into their phones to allow them to dial it quickly.
"A lot of times they don't call right away," Burica said. "They feel like they're going to bother us or somebody else. We want you to call the police right away ... It's the quickest way for us to figure out if something's right or wrong."
Burica also noted members of the Seniors on Patrol program were frequently out on the trail, adding the police department always welcomed residents interested in participating.
Frankfort Mayor Jim Holland described the Old Plank Road Trail as "one of Frankfort's greatest assets" and said he and his wife planned to do their part to keep the area safe by walking along the trail once the weather warms up.
"It brings people from all parts of our community to other parts of the community and to our downtown," he said. "We love the Old Plank Road Trail that goes through Frankfort, and we expect it to be a safe place for all of our residents to enjoy."
Holland later added the Village could look into increasing the number of mile markers along the trail, as one resident suggested during the meeting. The existing mile markers were established through Eagle Scout projects, he said.
"This is our trail," he said. "This is something that all of us want to take responsibility for and want to make sure it's a safe place. ... We want your help. We want anything that doesn't look right to be called in to the police. That's what we need to be doing. Let's work together with our police to correct this situation."
Mike Barr, president of the Frankfort-New Lenox Running Club, told The Station he thought police were doing an effective job of addressing residents' concerns and working with the limited information they had on the case.
"They can't have 100 percent coverage of the trail," he said. "It is up to people to report. A lot of times things don't get reported. And I think in general Frankfort's a safe community, and we just want to keep it that way."