Friday, October 14, 2011         N.Y./Region

Complications of Groping Inquiry Underscore Diverse Nature of Serial Molesters





GROPER-popup.jpgThe police have called it Pattern No. 9: a dozen sexually oriented attacks that have sent fear across several Brooklyn neighborhoods, and wrought responses by grass-roots organizers and political and religious leaders aimed at stopping or catching the serial gropers.

But efforts to solve the crimes have been complicated by the varying nature of the assaults.

Though many of the cases involve an assailant grabbing a woman under her skirt or dress, some of the episodes went further: one victim was raped, the police said, and several others fought off rape attempts. The police believe that as many as three people may be responsible for the attacks, and they have now released six different sketches of suspects.

The uncertainty of what detectives know or whom they are seeking underscores the diverse makeup of serial molesters, who can come from all walks of life, with all manner of psychosexual drives.

What motivates a groper is different from what motivates a rapist, said Scott A. Bonn, an assistant professor of sociology at Drew University in Madison, N.J. “The rapist is driven by a desire to control, dominate and even sometimes seriously injure a victim, whereas a groper’s motivation is for sexual gratification through inappropriate touching and violating the victim,” Dr. Bonn said.

Vernon J. Geberth, an author and a former New York Police Department homicide squad commander, said gropers were found among the rich and famous — politicians, athletes and actors — as well as among the anonymous. “The personality can run from introverted and reclusive to gregarious and extroverted,” he said. “In some cases, they feel entitled, and in other cases it is a substitute for normal sexual satisfaction.”

Mr. Geberth said that one emerging spur to groping was an Internet awash in pornography, opening a portal for people to “visualize their fantasies through digital media.” After a while, he said, the virtual fantasy is not enough.

“And so they think, ‘If I touch it,’ then the mere fact that they touched it triggers a response in the brain, and they fantasize on it,” Mr. Geberth said. “I can’t tell you if every panty thief, Peeping Tom, voyeur or groper will become a serial rapist, but in every lust murder or serial murder I have researched, there is a background of that activity in each offender’s history.”

Some gropers, Dr. Bonn said, are deviants who strike to carry out a sexual fetish or to satiate “an inappropriate pleasure driven by immature fantasies.” “They touch and run away,” Dr. Bonn said. “They often masturbate after their groping attacks, so the inappropriate touching is a thrill-seeking act. It becomes addictive, so they become serial gropers.”

Though gropers may be moving to humiliate a victim, or exhibit power over one, they choose “a sexual methodology to carry out that plan,” said Jim Clemente, a former profiler who retired from the F.B.I. in 2009. But offenders fall along a spectrum of “behavioral typologies” between two extremes, he said. Some focus compulsively on the act and develop techniques for carrying it out, and others act out impulsively because of emotional or situational factors, sometimes with inhibitions lowered by drug or alcohol use.

In urban areas, gropers’ hunting grounds can be a crowded subway station, Mr. Clemente said. Indeed, several of the cases now under investigation as Pattern No. 9 involved transportation hubs in Park Slope, Windsor Terrace and Greenwood Heights.

“We are very concerned as a community, and we don’t want to be afraid,” Councilwoman Sara M. Gonzalez said on Thursday. “Even if this ends tomorrow, and they get each and every person responsible, we still have to live with prevention.”  Ms. Gonzalez said she could not address whatever social or environmental factors were behind the violence, saying, “I don’t know what’s driving it.”

But part of the problem in discouraging such attacks is that their very nature depends on a public interaction. Groping “cannot be private,” Mr. Clemente said. “It is out in the open; it is by definition a public event.”

Cases in which no strands of DNA are left behind can be difficult for the authorities to investigate and prosecute, said Linda A. Fairstein, who spent a quarter-century as Manhattan’s chief sex-crimes prosecutor.

However, she said, some assailants may work themselves into such a heightened state of arousal just prior to grabbing a woman that afterward they may leave potential biological evidence.

Others, she said, carry out frottage — rubbing for the sake of sexual gratification — particularly in crowded places like Rockefeller Plaza at Christmastime.

“If I had a dollar for every guy that stood in those crowds, and stood behind an adult woman rubbing against her, an adult-groper-frotteur, I’d be a very rich woman,” Ms. Fairstein said. “It is incredibly common behavior that I think most people don’t realize. Those places are magnets for people with that kind of sexual dysfunction.