NORTHFIELD — Gabby Pille isn’t a regular visitor to Birch Grove Park, but she said she knows enough about such places to never venture on the trails alone.
“I don’t go anywhere by myself,” Pille, 22, of Pleasantville, said Wednesday afternoon as she prepared for a brief walk in the woods with her mom, Valerie, and 18-month-old nephew Remy. She said she always walks with her dog, a friend or a group of people.
Pille had heard about last week’s attack on a lone woman jogging on a trail in an isolated part of the 271-acre park.
“You should have a buddy system,” said Pille.
That’s exactly what police and city officials are saying in the aftermath of a second attack in two years on a lone woman using the trails.
Mayor Erland Chau said some people don’t realize how isolated part of the trail system is there.
“In some areas it is so secluded, you could be the only one walking there,” said Chau. “The recommendation from the Police Department is, if anyone is jogging or plans to go into a wooded area, to not be alone.”
The area around the entrance road to the park includes heavily used areas like the sports playing fields, parking lots, playground, picnic area, stocked fishing ponds and 50-site campground.
On Wednesday, there were about 20 cars in the lot, with many people fishing, taking their kids to the playground or just sitting in their cars taking in the scenery of the ponds.
But the trails that lead away from there go deep into the woods, where hikers rarely encounter other hikers. Those there Wednesday said they were not venturing that far on the trails.
About 4:30 p.m. May 7, a 28-year-old female jogger reported that a man dropped his pants, masturbated and lunged for her collar. She pushed him away, fled and called police.
Police said “a perimeter was set in place,” but the attacker was not found.
In December 2017, a 26-year-old female walker said a man grabbed her from behind and grabbed her crotch before she scratched his face with her keys and fled.
In both cases, the man was described as white or Hispanic, in his 20s or 30s with dark hair, 5-foot-10 to 5-foot-11 and wearing gray sweatpants.
Chau said the city, which owns the park, may increase use of security cameras there.
Councilman Greg Dewees is working on a report on the surveillance system and changes that may be made to it with the Police Department and the park committee, said Chau.
There are some cameras in the area of the snack bar and playground, but none on the wooded trails, said Chau.
“My concern is feasibility and practicality. Obviously it’s a densely wooded area,” said the mayor, who said attacks can happen anywhere on or off trails, so it would be difficult for a camera system there to be effective. “Also the cost. It could be a substantial amount.”
Mainland Regional High School freshman Lucas Orquiza, 14, was hiking solo at Birch Grove on Wednesday, but he said he didn’t go far into the wooded area but stayed closer to the more populated area near the entry.
“I’m a lot more cautious, definitely,” said Orquiza, since hearing about the attack. “A couple of times I have gone to that (more remote part of the park) with a friend. But even in a group, I won’t go now. Someone could have a gun, and that would make him stronger than all of us.”
Valerie Pille said she often walked the trails with her three daughters when they were growing up, and she isn’t afraid to do so now.
“We always go in groups,” she said.