GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids police say that within hours of putting out a call for help from the public, tips led them to a suspect wanted for multiple child abduction attempts.
The Grand Rapids Police Department said the suspect was arrested around 7:45 a.m. Tuesday. Sgt. John Wittkowski said the arrest was “uneventful” and that the man was unarmed and cooperative.
Police said there were five abduction attempts between Thursday and Monday. The incidents happened in the area of Alpine Avenue and Richmond Street on the city’s northwest side. Two of them happened in Richmond Park and near Harrison Elementary School.
Investigators say the suspect tried to lure boys between 5 and 13 years old by asking them to help him find his lost dog. He implied he had a weapon at least one of the times.
Most recently on Monday, a minor was actually physically assaulted in Richmond Park. Wittkowski said he couldn’t say much about that child’s injuries, but indicated they are not serious.
“Certainly, we have to talk about the injuries psychologically and emotionally, not just physically, and that remains to be seen,” Wittkowski added.
In every case GRPD is aware of, the boys ran away and told an adult what happened, then gave police a suspect description. Each of those descriptions matched images of the man shown in surveillance photos from the area.
The Monday assault made the investigation much more urgent, Wittkowski said, and GRPD had “practically every unit” working on the case in some capacity. Police put out the surveillance images and a request for help identifying the person just before midnight.
“We rely on 200,000 citizens and their eyes on the street. Somebody knew this guy, somebody recognized this guy, without a doubt in our minds, and that’s why we put it out there. The photos weren’t great, but pretty distinctive, so the thought was — and very correctly — ‘Hey, we need to get this out to the community,’ and it definitely paid off,” Wittkowski said.
Within eight hours, investigators had gotten the information that led them to the suspect, who was found in the area of 4th Street and Broadway Avenue NW, a little more than a mile from where the assault happened.
SUSPECT IS ON SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY
Police said the suspect would be interviewed by detectives and the case would be forwarded to the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office for charges to be issued. While the suspect’s name has not been released pending those charges, Wittkowski noted he lives in the area and has had previous contact with the justice system.
News 8 confirmed the suspect’s identity through someone who called 911 to report him and through court records indicating he was arrested by GRPD Tuesday on a felony sexual assault charge. This report is not using the suspect’s name because he has not yet been charged with the attempted kidnappings.
The suspect is on the state’s sex offender registry after pleading guilty in 2005 to second-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person under age of 13. He was 22 at the time. He is now 39.
Kent County Circuit Court records show the arresting officer in the 2005 case said the suspect had been seen on top of the victim trying to remove the victim’s pants. The man told detectives that several people heard the victim screaming and ran to his aid. The 13-year-old victim, he said, had been his friend for a couple of years.
The suspect was released from prison in May 2020 after serving 14 years. The state supervised him until December 2020 after which he was released from probation.
A mental health evaluation says the suspect said he had been sexually abused when he was around the age of 13 and had been beaten by his parents.
“(He) could not explain why he committed this crime against a 13 year old when he did not like being sexually molested when he was a 13 year old,” the evaluation reads.
The documents note that he has an attention deficit disorder diagnosis and had spent some time in a mental health hospital as a preteen. They added he went to a special education school and only completed his education through the ninth grade.
SISTER FEARED SUSPECT WOULD HURT MORE KIDS
The suspect’s sister said she’s relieved he’s behind bars and can’t hurt any more children.
He was homeless and lived in a tent near 4th and Broadway, not far from his sister’s house.
She told News 8 her brother had been drinking heavily and she had tried to get him to stop because she feared it would lead to him sexually assaulting another child.
She also noted he maintained a Facebook page where he’d friended hundreds of boys, something she also urged him to stop.
The sister didn’t realize he had reoffended until she saw that police were looking for him. She said she was prepared to turn him in, but a neighbor called police before she did.
The sister, who did not want to be identified, said her brother had been emotionally troubled since childhood, especially after being sexually assaulted himself as a young teen.
“He’s troubled and he needs help,” his sister told News 8, explaining he’d been kicked out of Mel Trotter Ministries after breaking a window at the homeless shelter.
“I feel good that he’s not going to hurt any other kids,” she said, referring to his arrest Tuesday morning.
TIPSTER: FAMILY HAD WARNED ABOUT SUSPECT
Larry Allred said he’s the person who called in the tip about the suspect, pointing to the tent where he’s been living for about a year now. He said he recognized him right away after seeing the images police released.
“This morning, I woke up and I saw the news coverage that he was wanted and I quickly took pictures of where he was at and sent them and called the police,” Allred said.
Neighbors say they were aware of the man’s criminal past after the suspect’s family reached out last year, warning them to be on alert.
“We found out that he was a pedophile and I asked him to move on, so he moved to the other side of the building, to the other side of the street,” Allred said. “You could see it in his eyes: the darkness, the evil.”
Allred said that after arresting the suspect, police called him to thank him for the tip.
“(Neighbors are) all shocked. His family even contacted me and thanked me for calling the police. They’re relieved. People are probably relieved,” Allred said. “I’m relieved and I don’t even have children, so I can only imagine the victims’ families and what they’re going through, so it’s heartbreaking.”
In a release, Chief Eric Payne thanked the community for helping to solve the case.
“It is this cooperation that makes Grand Rapids a safer place. We rely on the communities help to solve crime and this is a perfect example of how that can happen,” Payne said in a statement.
“We need community’s help and we cannot do it alone,” Sgt. Wittkowski added, speaking to reporters outside police headquarters Tuesday morning. “This was a very good day. This got somebody that needed to get off the street off the street, prevented further incidents from happening and, hopefully, will be a springboard for greater community-police interactions and cooperation.”
Anyone with more information about the case or anyone who knows of any other incidents is asked to call Grand Rapids Police Department at 616.456.3400 or Silent Observer at 616.774.2345.
PROTECTING YOUR KIDS
While Wittkowski noted that abductions are very rare, he advised parents to check in frequently with their kids and talk with them about what to do when something doesn’t seem right.
“Teach your children to react,” Wittkowski said. “Run, scream, kick, fight, knock on a neighbor’s door — just do whatever they can to get away from those types of situations.”
Irene van der Zande, the founder and executive director of Kidpower, an online resource for information about child safety, said preparation is critical to keeping a child safe when they are out in public alone.
She said to teach kids to always pay attention to their surroundings and stay aware of what’s going on around them. The instant they think they may face danger, they should immediately react by running away, making a scene or fighting to escape.
For more information, including a safety checklist, go to www.kidpower.org. Wittkowski added that area police agencies would be happy to offer parents resources.
—News 8’s Jacqueline Francis, Susan Samples, Michele DeSelms and Aaron Jordan contributed to this report.