Police arrest suspect in backpage-linked attacks

At least two women have reported being sexually assaulted and stabbed by a suspect they met on backpage.com, and Summerville police are investigating whether more women were attacked.

Investigators have arrested a suspect in the two cases, but the person’s identity has not been publicly released to avoid “jeopardizing the active and ongoing investigations,” Capt. Jon Rogers said. “During the course of the investigation, we have identified several victims throughout the area that were victimized over the last 18 months,” Rogers said.

It’s too early in the investigation to determine whether all of the women were assaulted by the same person, he said. Police ask that women contact investigators if they, too, were assaulted under similar circumstances.

On any given day, backpage.com carries 200 or more advertisements for sexual services in the Charleston region — as many as major cities such as Seattle or Atlanta, a Post and Courier report found.

The classified site has grown into a hotbed for prostitution and sex trafficking because it allows sex traders to reach a wide audience while remaining anonymous. Vulnerable children and young adults are at times forced to sell their bodies on the site while being deprived of food and sleep and sometimes beaten until they meet a quote of men to service.

Details surrounding the alleged Summerville assaults were few Wednesday as police withheld the suspect’s identity and photo.

Investigators are in the process of questioning multiple potential victims, Rogers said. Identifying the suspect and releasing a mug shot would prevent police from furthering their investigation through photo lineups, he said.

Rogers would not say how many women have come forward in the case, what charges the suspect faces, when the suspect was arrested or when the assaults allegedly occurred. He said he didn’t know whether all of the women had been on backpage.com prior to the alleged assaults. He would not say whether they had been raped.

Incident reports that would provide some insight into the women’s statements to police were also withheld.

“We will release the reports when the investigation allows, as described under state law,” Rogers said.

Columbia attorney Jay Bender, who represents several news media organizations, including The Post and Courier, said redacting the reports in full would be a violation of the state Freedom of Information Act.

Another Summerville-area woman was found dead last year after going on a date with a man she met online through the Kik phone app.

Edward Bonilla, 31, of Mabeline Road in Hanahan, faces murder and obstruction charges in connection with the death of 28-year-old Ashley Pegram.

Pegram’s family told authorities she disappeared April 3 after leaving with a man in a slate-blue 2005 Hyundai Sonata. Pegram’s sister tracked down Bonilla’s identity through messages on a cellphone the sisters shared.

Bonilla told Dorchester County sheriff’s deputies he dropped off Pegram near her home off U.S. Highway 78. He was charged with murder after investigators found Pegram’s blood in the trunk of his car.

Criminal charges in that case are still pending, Dorchester County court records show.

To contact Summerville police about recent assaults through backpage.com call 843-871-2463.

Reach Christina Elmore at 843-937-5908.