By Emily Mieure
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Cold air filled Sgt. Russ Ruschill’s unmarked car Saturday night during a shadowy cruise down East Kelly Avenue.
His window down, the detective explained, “I’m listening for anything that’s out of place. People screaming or dogs barking. If someone is creeping down a back alley the dogs will give him away.”
It was just after 10 p.m. on Halloween.
The sergeant over the Jackson Police Department’s investigations unit, Ruschill was out on special assignment, part of new efforts to find a man believed to be sexually targeting women in unlocked east Jackson houses.
Some residents have been on edge ever since news broke in September of a possible prowler peeking into women’s windows and crawling into their beds late at night, touching them inappropriately.
There has been some recent criticism of the department from activists and nervous east Jackson residents, who wonder what detectives are doing to stop the suspect from hurting more people.
Grassroots group Act Now JH said in an October news release that they have seen “a lack of a successful public safety response” to the attacks.
On Labor Day weekend there were two reports of women who woke up to a strange man in their beds. Those incidents happened in the same area of E. Kelly Avenue, police said, and around the same time.
Then there was a report of a man masturbating outside a woman’s window.
And another report of a man following a woman late at night.
Those cases are being investigated as voyeurism and sexual battery and are similar to crimes committed in 2013 and 2014 in the same area.
In August 2013 at least three women reported waking up to find a stranger in their homes. In two of those cases the victims said the man was touching them inappropriately.
The reports stopped, but in October 2014 a woman reported waking up to a stranger fondling her. The suspect, or suspects, in those cases was never found.
Police aren’t sure if they’re looking for the same person but have said any information is better than none.
“Sooner or later someone will remember something or something will happen at 1 a.m., and they’ll call us, and it will be our guy,” Ruschill said.
In the meantime, the police department has dedicated Ruschill and Detective Jason Figueroa to the case. They’ve interviewed at least one person of interest but haven’t made any arrests.
Ruschill said the reason some residents might think their response to the investigation is lacking is because they don’t share every detail with the public.
“People want to be on the inside because they have a thirst for knowledge, and they all want to be informed about everything,” Ruschill said, “but if I over-inform, then I risk jeopardizing the investigation.”
He called it balancing public safety and the integrity of the investigation. In this case, he said, more information has been released than hasn’t.
“We have to think about what is most important,” he said. “Do we hide it and potentially have another victim when we had knowledge of it? Or make people aware and hopefully increase people’s safety?”
Since mid-September they’ve received nearly two dozen tips about suspicious activity in east Jackson. There have been calls about a man peering into windows late at night with a flashlight and a few calls about doors mysteriously opening in the middle of the night.
On patrol Saturday night, with a News&Guide crew in tow, Ruschill parked near one of the victim’s houses and turned off the headlights.
With a Halloween party going on, some activity that would be suspicious on another night isn’t so much tonight.
Still, Ruschill keeps his window down.
“You will hear things way before you see them,” he said.
Parts of this investigation have been frustrating for investigators — like getting calls about suspicious activity a day or two after it happens.
“We have officers out in east Jackson,” Detective Figueroa said. “The sooner they call, the sooner we are there. We can stop any individual just to do an interview in the field.”
Ruschill and Figueroa have a board to keep track of tips and leads.
Some of the more unusual — though possibly not related — calls over the last few months have been about dead animals and vegetables.
In late September a woman found a “mutilated raccoon” in her yard, something the woman and police suspect was done by human hands. All four of the raccoon’s feet were missing, reports stated.
That same week residents on E. Kelly reported finding vegetables on their windshields. No one knows where they came from.
These types of reports, Ruschill said, might not be related to the east Jackson prowler case, but it’s too soon to rule them out.
The location of all the events is what they have in common.
“I’ve been a cop here 18 years,” Ruschill said Saturday. “Most of what we do is not on East Kelly.”
Police recommend residents continue to lock doors and windows and consider closing their blinds now that it’s getting dark in the early evenings.
The most important, Ruschill said, is for residents who see something suspicious to call right away.
“Don’t worry about bothering us,” he said. “We are a 24-hour agency, and our nightshift crews would love to catch this guy.”