The frightening text message popped up on Troy Howard’s cellphone around 3 a.m.
“There’s a weird man in my room,” his 13-year-old daughter wrote from the opposite end of the house.
A stranger had lifted an open window and slipped into the girl’s bedroom on the side of the family’s Northeast Portland home. The man reached up to try to touch her as she slept on a loft bed.
Stunned awake, the girl leaned away from the stranger, grabbed her phone from a bedside shelf and rapped out the text.
In the meantime, her 12-year-old sister, asleep in the same room, had woken up and managed to run out to also alert their father.
Howard called 911. A Portland police officer responded, but the man had climbed back out the window and run off.
Within a day or two, a police detective was assigned the case. Police dusted for prints. A sketch artist made a forensic drawing of the suspect using the 13-year-old’s description, but the teen said the drawing didn’t really look like the stranger and it was never distributed publicly.
“And that’s all we heard from the police after that,” Howard said of the March 7 break-in. “I called them a few times and never got a response.”
It would be another seven months before Howard and other neighbors who also had reported a stalker to police found each other. They banded together to try to identify the man and literally chased him down on their own.
“What (police) don’t understand is there’s a psychological penalty being placed on the people of this community and it’s destroying their quality of life.”
Jack Levin, Northeastern University criminology professor emeritus
Over summer and into fall, residents in Rose City Park and North Tabor had posted flyers on street poles, hidden in cars overnight in stealth sting operations, even set up homemade detection devices. One woman, armed with a flashlight that doubles as a stun gun, went on nightly patrols.
They had to do the investigative work themselves, they said, because police didn’t or responded too slowly — an increasingly common complaint from crime victims throughout the city during an unprecedented time of turbulent street protests that consumed police attention, a record number of officer retirements and millions of dollars in budget cuts.
A single detective was left to handle all burglary investigations in Portland during much of the summer; a second detective joined him only in the last couple of weeks.
Police two years ago had a team of six detectives to handle residential and commercial burglaries – a prolific crime with more than 5,500 reported in the past year, including almost 140 in the two neighborhoods where the stranger was lurking.
With that many reports – most likely handled by different officers and possibly put into different categories — it’s hard to manage, let alone quickly recognize associations, said police spokesman Lt. Greg Pashley.
“For the victims it can feel like they’re being ignored,” Pashley said. “For a detective to be somehow responsive, with one person in a city this size, it’s sort of a herculean effort and really nearly impossible.”
Police response times to calls also skyrocketed this year. From June through October, it took an average of 13 minutes to get to emergency calls, 44 minutes for mid-range calls and 102 minutes for low-priority calls – far above the citywide goal of responding to high-priority calls in five minutes.
“We really join the community in the frustration they feel,’’ Pashley said. “It’s terrible for the community, and it’s terrible for the detectives.’’
Howard said he finds that message outrageous. He was among the thousands of people who protested racial injustice and police violence through months of demonstrations downtown.
“We’re literally protesting the police every night, and now we’re having to be the police,” he said.
Officers clearly should have intervened sooner given the fear and anxiety among residents, said Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University and professor emeritus of criminology and sociology.
Police can use the protest movement and budget woes as reasons “for providing a minimal response,” Levin said, but “what they don’t understand is there’s a psychological penalty being placed on the people of this community and it’s destroying their quality of life.”
With little help from police, Howard and other neighbors eventually identified 11 alleged victims of the neighborhood harasser who would stare into bedrooms, masturbate and groan outside windows or sometimes open the windows. He also followed some women home from nearby parks.
They got video footage and figured out who they thought it was.
All lived in fear, never knowing when the man would return.
Howard made sure all windows of his house were locked at night. He bought a security camera. Five more times, he said, his girls reported that they heard tapping on their window in the middle of the night.
“We would expect the police to connect all these reports, but they didn’t do that and didn’t tell the community this was happening,” he said.
Resident Ona Sapinski and her two daughters distributed this flyer after their security cameras caught the stranger lurking outside their home, staring into their windows at night. Courtesy of Ona Sapinski
A few days before the break-in at Howard’s house, Ona Sapinski and her two teenage daughters pulled up to their duplex about 11 p.m.
The three spotted a man in their front yard, leaning against a window.
They lived about eight blocks from Howard, near Northeast 60th Avenue and Clackamas Street.
The stranger quickly walked off as Sapinski parked.
Sapinski didn’t think much of it until three nights later on March 6.
About 2 a.m., her 18-year-old daughter, a towel wrapped around her and her hair wet, rushed into Sapinski’s room. While taking a shower, her daughter had heard noises on the rear patio outside the bathroom window.
Sapinski went outside to check. She found the bathroom window open.
“Why’d you open the window?” she asked her daughter. The teenager said she hadn’t.
Sapinski called police the next morning. An officer walked around the property with her. She soon installed pins and locks on all her ground floor windows and put a chain and padlock on a side gate.
But that didn’t end the harassment.
Her daughters reported seeing the same stranger outside their windows on multiple nights, usually between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Three times in April, they saw him outside masturbating. Two of those times, they called the police nonemergency line.
One early May morning, Sapinski’s 19-year-old daughter heard strange sounds outside her bedroom window, moved the Venetian blinds to look out and saw the same man standing right outside. She banged on the window to scare him. Police were called, but an officer arrived after the man had left.
By mid-June, Sapinski installed cameras and motion detector lights outside. Soon, she captured still images and grainy videos of their trespasser and made flyers to post around the neighborhood.
“DO YOU KNOW THIS PERSON?” the flyer read with three photos of the stranger. “He has been peeping Tom, stalking, harassing us for months in the vicinity of NE Halsey and 60th. The police are involved, but we need your help to identify him.”
By summer, the girls had grown anxious. They felt they needed to do more, their mother said.
So they started their own stakeouts, doing surveillance in their car from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.
“They would drive the car and park it in different places to have a vantage point from different places and watch for him,” said Sapinski, 57. “They felt like they had to take some sort of action and not passively wait for him to come to us.’’
Some nights their mother joined them.
About 1:50 a.m. on July 26, they saw the man masturbating beside a telephone pole near their home. The 19-year-old ran after him with pepper spray as Sapinski called police. Two police cars came, but the man was gone by the time officers arrived.
The heading of one of Melissa Clark’s online police reports about a “suspicious person” outside the family’s home on multiple nights during the summer. Screenshot by The Oregonian/OregonLive
‘THERE’S SOMEBODY STANDING IN THE DRIVEWAY!’
Before she’d go to bed, Melissa Clark would head out on a neighborhood patrol, armed with her cellphone, a flashlight that doubles as a stun gun and sometimes garden shears.
It had become Clark’s evening routine since shortly after her 18-year-old daughter in May heard someone whispering “pssst….hey” and breathing heavily outside her bedroom window. Her daughter’s window was open but it had a screen that served as a barrier.
Another night, her daughter heard someone rustling the river pebbles beneath her window.
The next night, the mother and daughter put some clearly identifiable white stones in a pattern amid the pebbles as a marker.
The stones lay undisturbed for weeks.
Then in early July, while Clark, her twin 14-year-old daughters and 10-year-old son stayed up late in the living room playing on their new Nintendo Switch, one of the girls looked out and blurted, “There’s somebody standing in the driveway!”
Clark turned and saw a man.
She went out, summoned her “Mama Bear voice” as she put it, and asked, “What the (expletive) are you doing? I don’t know what you think you’re doing!” She pressed on the trigger of her stun gun, so the stranger could hear the buzzing sound. The man ran off.
Then on the night of July 31, the young woman who lived next to the family on the other side of the duplex found someone outside her window. She opened the curtain and saw the stranger.
She asked what the man was doing and he responded: “I’m masturbating,” Clark said the woman told her the next day. Clark filed an online police report this time and described all the previous encounters.
Within an hour, an officer called Clark. She told Clark the incident wasn’t isolated, that there was another police report with almost identical circumstances from a neighbor. But the officer said she couldn’t say who or where, according to Clark.
The officer instructed her how to make a citizen’s arrest, noting police were too tied up handling protests downtown, Clark recalled.
She made flyers and left them on people’s doorsteps. Soon, she heard of similar stories.
Residents of a duplex who had seen a man peering into their windows or masturbating outside on multiple nights created and distributed this flyer to alert their neighbors. Courtesy of Melissa Clark and neighbor
‘I ALMOST LOST IT’
In early August, Sapinksi discovered one of Clark’s “Dear Neighbors” notices on her doorstep.
Until then, Sapinski hadn’t known others were experiencing the same thing.
“It was validating for all of us,” she said. Her elder daughter knocked on doors and found Clark, and both families traded accounts and decided to work together.
Later in August, as Sapinski’s daughters were waiting for a bus on Halsey, they spotted the stranger outside the Plaid Pantry at 60th and Halsey. He was in his 20s to 30s, about 5-foot-8 with shoulder-length dirty blond hair.
They texted Clark, who ran out to the convenience store with her cellphone.
She approached the man, her phone video running. She got the first clear daytime images of the man, who denied he had caused any problem. “It’s not me,” he told her.
Clark sent her video to police and updated her online police report. “I heard nothing,” she said.
That same month, Sapinski’s eldest daughter learned from a clerk at the Plaid Pantry that the man she and her family were concerned about had shown an ID with the name “Brandon James” when buying cigarettes. The daughter had asked to post one of their flyers with the man’s photo in the store, and the clerk recognized the man, Sapinski said.
But a Google search on that name produced little information, Sapinski said.
Clark and Sapinski submitted all their video footage and photos to police this fall.
“This stuff just went into an abyss,” Sapinski said. “We never heard anything back from the police. We never were informed others were being victimized. There was no community notice. We were just calling the police and nothing.”
Sapinski’s daughters headed off to college early. They weren’t comfortable staying in their own home.
Then on Oct. 11, as Sapinski scrolled through the Nextdoor app looking for yard sales on a Saturday morning, her eyes stopped on a message with photos of what appeared to be the same stranger who had harassed her girls.
It was a repost of a Facebook message from Howard.
Howard was trying to identify the man who had broken into his daughters’ bedroom in March. He said he had just caught the same man on a home security camera nosing around again.
“I almost lost it,” Sapinski said. It looked like the same man she and her family had seen, she said.
Sapinski alerted Clark and they talked for the first time with Howard. They learned there were nearly a dozen women who had responded that they, too, had been followed from Rose City or Normandale parks by a similar-looking man, spotted him lingering outside their houses at night or masturbating in public.
Troy Howard’s security camera caught a shadowy figure who ran from the side of his home, crossed his front yard and rapidly walked across the street about 2 a.m. on Oct. 7. Courtesy of Troy Howard
Howard’s message on Facebook had begun: “DO YOU RECOGNIZE THIS CREEP?”
“Guys, I don’t know what to do here,” he wrote. “I’m never going to get solid enough evidence to catch him. Cops are way too slow. … It’s been 7 months of being unsure if we can feel safe or not.”
His security camera had caught a shadowy figure who ran from the side of his home near 60th and Glisan Street, crossed his front yard and rapidly walked across the street about 2 a.m. on Oct. 7.
Howard did what police earlier told him to do: Call 911. But the dispatcher told him that it wasn’t an emergency because the stranger had left and directed Howard to the Police Bureau’s nonemergency line. He got a callback about 5:30 a.m. from an officer.
Howard figured he shouldn’t wait around for police to follow up, so he found better footage of the stranger from a gas station’s camera across the street and put the images and his video on Facebook.
Once the photos went up, a friend of Howard’s identified the man by running the photos through a reverse image search on a facial recognition app called Pimeyes.
Howard and his friends learned through public records that the man had a warrant out for his arrest for failing to appear in court on a public indecency allegation brought in January.
On Oct. 14, another woman near 60th and Halsey reported on Nextdoor that a man had been trying to open her bedroom window about 9:30 pm. and she believed it was the same person who had followed her home from Rose City Park.
Five nights later, Howard and six other friends staked out a residence in Southeast Portland where they learned their suspect was staying. They tailed a car he got into and then got into a high-speed chase through downtown Portland.
They alerted police as they pursued the man. Officers arrested Brandon James Pirkey at 12:46 a.m. Oct. 19, cornering him at Southwest Naito and Morrison Street, and booked him into jail at 2:21 a.m.
Later that morning, Howard broadcast the news on Facebook.
“GOT HIM!” Howard wrote. “This is thanks to our amazing community team putting themselves in harm’s way, doing whatever it took to bring him to justice.”
Said Sapinski: “I totally thought the nightmare’s over.”
Troy Howard alerted neighbors about the man who he believed had been lurking around his home and others in North Tabor and Rose City Park after he was spotted on his property on Oct. 7. Courtesy of Troy Howard
‘WE WORKED SO HARD’
Their euphoria was short-lived.
Pirkey, 26, was in jail less than 11 hours, released on his own recognizance at 1:08 p.m. later that day.
He was told to report to court Nov. 30 for the January public indecency charge. He didn’t show for court.
The charge stemmed from a complaint that he was staring at an employee of a Plaid Pantry in Southeast Portland while masturbating, prosecutor Sean Hughey wrote in a probable cause affidavit.
Pirkey told police at the time that he knew masturbating in public was wrong and said he’d been arrested in the past for the same conduct in Florida, according to the affidavit. In fact, he had an outstanding warrant for violating probation on an indecent exposure conviction in Florida, police found.
Pirkey also was convicted in Portland in September 2019 for exposing himself and masturbating the year before in front of two female students from the Pacific Northwest College of Art near the Northwest Park Blocks. He was placed on two years of probation and ordered to undergo drug and alcohol treatment. He also was ordered to get a sex offender evaluation and follow any recommended treatment.
Pirkey so far faces no charges from the months that the Rose City Park and North Tabor neighbors believe he was the one harassing them. Police are continuing to investigate.
Police described Pirkey without a permanent address. He couldn’t be reached for comment. His court-appointed attorney, Edward Leclaire, declined comment on the residents’ allegations.
“I really feel like someone could have put two and two together,” Sapinski said. “Instead, now we have a lot of traumatized victims, including my two daughters.”
Howard said he was livid when he found out Pirkey was back on the street. “How do you let the guy out after we worked so hard to get him?” he said he asked the detective on the case.
On Oct. 22, three days after Pirkey’s arrest and release, Detective Darren Posey, assigned to Howard’s case, scheduled an interview for Howard’s 13-year-old daughter with a representative from CARES Northwest. The agency conducts evaluations that can aid police in criminal investigations of child abuse.
The hope is to present a new case to a grand jury against Pirkey, Howard said the detective told him.
The day before Thanksgiving, the detective visited Howard’s home to see if his daughter could point out the man who entered her bedroom from a number of photos he shared.
She picked Pirkey’s photo, Howard said. He noted that she hadn’t seen the surveillance photos that he had posted on social media.
The detective presented his investigation, largely based on the sleuthing by Howard and the other residents, to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“We are now in the very early process of reviewing the police reports,” said Brent Weisberg, a spokesman for the district attorney.
A neighbor confronted this man, who denied causing any problems. “It’s not me,” he told her as she recorded their conversation on her phone. Courtesy of Melissa Clark
‘I’M NOT HOLDING MY BREATH’
It’s not surprising that the neighbors connected the dots before police, said Pashley, the bureau spokesman.
Citing the thousands of burglaries reported in the city, Pashley noted, “If you’ve got that many dots coming in from the city in this category, it’s likely they’re not going to receive service in the speed that they desire it.”
Some of the neighborhood harassment cases also might not have been classified as burglaries and their calls likely were handled by different patrol officers, while some others came into the bureau through online reporting, he said.
The city also recorded a spike in commercial burglaries during the pandemic, police said.
This case remained a priority for the detective, Pashley said, yet it took time because he didn’t have any help and he was taken off his primary job for some of the summer.
Almost all of the bureau’s detectives, including Posey, were detached to do follow-up investigations on civil disorder cases from the protests, Pashley said. They were pulled from this case and many other important investigations, he said.
While the bureau a decade ago had its own burglary task force of up to 12 detectives and two sergeants focused on identifying serial criminals, there are now two burglary detectives, still reached by the task force’s number, 503-823-BURG.
The Police Bureau now has a total of 77 detectives, a drop from 90 last year and 95 in 2018, Pashley said.
“We are continually evaluating the number and types of cases coming into detectives and reallocating our resources – felony person crimes are a priority,” said police spokeswoman Officer Melissa Newhard. This year, for example, the bureau pulled two assault detectives to help work homicides after a big increase in killings, she said.
The community collaboration that helped piece this case together is a positive result, Pashley said. He did caution residents who choose to do surveillance, chase suspects or make citizen arrests to be careful. They should never approach someone who they believe may be armed and should still call 911, he said.
“We do in some ways want to rely on communities to get together like this and share information so they can help themselves and provide information to the police,” he said. “That’s a great community response to a terrible series of events.”
Howard said he’s not done.
He wants Pirkey to face a charge of attempted first-degree sexual abuse for the alleged attempt to grope his daughter.
A conviction would carry the requirement to register as a sex offender, and Howard said he wants the man to get the treatment or help he may need.
At the least, Howard said, prosecutors should file a burglary charge for the break-in.
The detective told him that burglary or unwanted contact or touching would be the more likely charges that could result from the investigation, Howard said.
Given everything that’s happened, he remains discouraged. The other women affected said they haven’t heard back from police in recent months.
“Now we’re waiting for the DA to bring this to a grand jury,” Howard said. “I’m not holding my breath on that.”
— Maxine Bernstein
Email at [email protected]; 503-221-8212
Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian
Subscribe to Facebook page