Harvard area security upped after two rapes

Residents in the area say they do not feel safe; detectives are investigating

CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University is on edge and security has been increased after two rapes were reported on its normally serene campus area on Aug. 10 and Aug. 14.

“It’s crazy. You think that a location like this, you’d feel safe,” said Lauren Kim, 29, a graduate student at Harvard, as she walked past the campus to her home. “I don’t feel safe.”

Last Friday, historic Harvard Yard bustled with tourists taking pictures, residents cutting through, and students gearing up for the beginning of the semester, but several people enjoying the late-afternoon sun said the rapes were on their minds.

“I just heard about it [last Thursday night],” said Mara Smith, 21, as she crossed the Yard on her way to her boyfriend’s house in Somerville.

Smith, who regularly visits from Rhode Island, will not be walking through late at night, she said. “You wouldn’t ever think that it would be a place where you would feel threatened.”

On Aug. 14, a woman was raped sometime after 11 p.m. in the area of Oxford and Kirkland streets, near the university’s science center, according to university police. The victim reported the rape to Somerville police. Harvard University and Cambridge detectives are investigating.

The attack came just four days after another woman reported being raped in Harvard Yard.

The earlier alleged rape occurred early on Aug. 10, around 3:05 a.m., as the woman entered the Yard through Johnston Gate.

Kim, who lives just blocks from where the rapes were reported, said she has always felt nervous walking home alone because the university frequently sends alerts about crimes nearby.

She spends late nights studying on campus, and her three-block walk home has become harrowing.

“I actually run sometimes,” she said.

Last Friday, there was a noticeable police presence on campus, with cruisers stationed at the outskirts of the Yard. Harvard has increased uniformed and plainclothes officers, along with uniformed security guards, in the area, which sits at the center of Harvard Square.

Two rapes in two weeks are unusual for the university.

“That [the Aug. 10 attack] was the first stranger rape we reported in over 12 years,” said Steven Catalano, public information officer for the Harvard University Police Department, referring to a sexual assault by someone unknown to the victim.

Neither woman was affiliated with the university, he said, and the attacks do not appear to be linked.

“We’re in the preliminary stages of the investigation, but the suspect descriptions do not match,” he said.

The attacker in Aug. 14’s attack was described in a Harvard University police advisory as a white male, 5 feet 6 inches, thin, with dark, spiky hair. The offender in the Aug. 10 attack was described as a “very tanned” man in his mid-20s with a medium build and dark hair.

Catalano said the advisory had been emailed to all students, faculty, and staff at the Cambridge campus. It cautions anyone walking through campus to do so in groups, and to remain vigilant and avoid distractions such as cellphones or iPods.

“The Harvard University Police Department wants to remind students, faculty, and staff that we are located in an urban setting and share many of the crime and safety issues that exist in any city,” the advisory states.

“Any time you’re on a college campus where there are likely to be young people walking around by themselves there are going to be people who are going to try to take advantage; it’s an unfortunate reality,” said Kyle Crabtree, 27, as he walked through the Yard. “You don’t blame the victims, of course, you blame the people who are putting themselves in a position to take advantage of people.”

Crabtree said he had just moved to Boston from Illinois two weeks ago to start his post-doctoral work at Harvard. He will be keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior, he said, for his safety and for that of the people around him.

Despite the ramped-up police presence and the heightened awareness on campus, some said they would be avoiding the area when possible.

Liyang Xu, 23, said she used to go running late at night from her home in Somerville through the Harvard campus. No more, she said.

“Nowadays, I feel so insecure,” she said, standing in the middle of Harvard Yard. Xu said she is in the process of applying to Harvard, but is not yet a student.

She stopped running late at night a few days ago, she said, after hearing of other crimes in the area. When she learned of the rapes, she decided not to start up again. She will not be walking alone or after dark in the Yard, either.

“I thought the campus is very safe,” she said. “It’s on campus, it happened twice. That’s not normal.”

Anyone with information is urged to contact Harvard detectives at 617-495-1796 or Cambridge detectives at 617-349-3370.