By Megan Dooley
A handful of River Forest residents are refusing to take crime and violence sitting down. By all appearances, the village is a relatively safe place to live. Weekly police reports consist mostly of minor infractions, along with the occasional theft or burglary. But two violent crimes shook the village this summer, and several residents are rallying to take action against any future incidents.
"We're all new to this. We've never done anything like this before," said Pia Menon, a resident of the village and one of the main organizers for a community safety meeting scheduled for Friday, Sept. 16. "We're just like all of those other residents who just think life is beautiful, until something like this happens."
Menon is referring to an Aug. 11 attempted kidnapping, in which a River Forest woman was attacked by a registered sex offender in broad daylight on the street. The man violently forced the woman into his car and, had she not fought back, may well have made a getaway with the victim in tow. The suspect, who is now in custody for the attempted kidnapping, had previously served a hefty prison sentence for the violent sexual assault of another victim in the early 1990s.
Exactly one month before the kidnapping attempt, on July 11, a 29-year-old Chicago woman was shot to death in a Priory Park parking lot, the victim of an alleged murder-for-hire scheme. The three suspects were swiftly apprehended and charged, but the violent crime came as a shock to the village, which hadn't seen a murder in more than five years.
"We are concerned about safety, obviously," Menon said. "[River Forest is] a wonderful area, but you have to be aware of your surroundings and you also have to know what you would do if something like this happened to you."
That's the point of the meeting, Menon said. That, and to increase awareness within the village. For every person shocked and frightened by the news of such crimes, there were others for whom it barely even registered.
Menon said a couple of her neighbors called in response to the bright yellow flyers she's been distributing around town to advertise the public safety meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m. at the Keystone Montessori School gym at 7415 W. North Ave. "It's really strange," she said. "They weren't even completely aware of what transpired."
Again, she was referring to the kidnapping attempt. That woman's actions, Menon said, should be the model for others. "When something like that happens, you've got to scream," she said. "She was not submissive, she was not afraid. She decided that she would fight...That's the only reason she escaped."
But that fighting instinct alone is not enough, and Menon said there are other ways to decrease the chances of crimes occurring. Proper lighting in certain areas, for instance. Cutting back trees and hedges in remote areas that might make perfect hiding spots for a would-be assailant. Or initiating a village-wide emergency notification system, as many other municipalities across the country have opted to do.
All of this and more will be up for discussion at the meeting, where River Forest Deputy Police Chief Craig Rutz is slated to speak and answer questions. He was involved in both the attempted kidnapping and murder investigations this summer, and is eager to join residents in brainstorming new ideas for safety.
"He really was the mastermind behind this as far as I'm concerned," said Menon. "He really supported us. He wants to talk to the residents that are concerned."
Menon hopes other village departments will get involved as well, in any ways they can.
There's no organized committee heading the event, and Menon described it as a bit of chaotic arrangement as of now. But she's hoping it draws some needed attention to serious safety issues.
"The community, the residents have got to start looking around, be aware of things, and have got to work with the village," Menon said. "Things don't happen just by miracles. It happens when you ask for it."