Harleston Village resident Bailey Peters said she and her female roommates shared one key to their place until last month when a man broke into her neighbor's house and tried to rape a young woman.
They just left the front door unlocked. But things have changed, said Peters, 19, a Clemson University student. Now, Peters and her three College of Charleston roommates each have keys so they can secure the house, and the living room curtains that once stood open are drawn closed, she said.
"It really scared us. We definitely started locking our doors," Peters said. "We're all looking out for each other now."
Smith Street, where the May 27 burglary occurred, is filled with young college students, many living together in groups in charming old homes or red brick cottage houses.
In Radcliffeborough, the next neighborhood over, a 20-year-old woman was raped inside her Radcliffe Street home Saturday morning after a burglar broke through the back door.
"All the young girls living here are naive. We're used to being safe," Peters said. "I think that's why it's been so easy for him."
Charleston police say the descriptions match in the cases, which both occurred from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. The intruder was black, 6 feet or taller, age 25 to 30, heavy set with a shaved head or short hair and puffy cheeks.
On Radcliffe Street, he wore blue jeans, a dark polo shirt with a white tank top underneath and black shoes. On Smith Street, he wore a bright yellow or orange shirt, and dark pants. He stole the woman's black Hobo-style purse worth $150.
"The subject had bad body odor (like an unclean person)," one police report reads.
Suspect sketches that Charleston police released Wednesday were not suitable for publication. They both depict a large black man with heavy wrinkles in his forehead.
Mike Robertson, director of media relations at the College of Charleston, said that the victim on Radcliffe Street was a roommate of a student and that the victim on Smith Street was a student who graduated this spring. Because of the connection to the campus, the school sent out e-mails shortly after both incidents.
Police in an e-mail Tuesday night warned people who live in the area to watch out for each other.
"Particularly vulnerable are homes occupied by female college-age residents, whom the suspect may view as less of a threat," wrote Sgt. Trevor Shelor, the city's Crime Prevention Officer.
Police on Wednesday would not address whether there are more, similar cases.
"With any crime ... we always go back and look for similarities, and that's what we're doing," said Charles Francis, police public information officer.
Francis also wouldn't address whether Charleston police were working with other local agencies about any similar cases in other jurisdictions.
There was a burglary and rape of a 24-year-old woman reported about 5 a.m. Monday at a home in the McMillan Avenue area of North Charleston. The suspect in that case was a dark-skinned, black man in his early to middle twenties, about 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 230 pounds. North Charleston and Charleston police said they don't think the North Charleston case is related to the downtown incidents.
Charleston police blacked out much of the detail in their police reports about the downtown cases. That was necessary because the redacted information is critical to the ongoing investigation, Francis said.
The Post and Courier requested copies of the 911 calls from both homes. Francis said officials planned to review the tapes today and consider that request.
The South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault strongly encourages the release of information about sexual assaults by strangers as soon as it is available.
"Informing the public is important," Executive Director Vicki Bourus said. "There are ways you can report on these crimes that are ethical, appropriate and helpful."
Meanwhile, it is wise during this time of year to resist the temptation to leave windows open or unlocked, both at home and while driving.
"Sexual assault cases always go up in the summertime," said Melonea Locklair, the executive director of People Against Rape, a local nonprofit that helps rape survivors. "You almost have to be hypervigilant."
Researchers in the United Kingdom noted that sexual assaults are more frequent during warm weather and on weekends, according to a 2007 report in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. Locklair said she's seen the connection with high temperatures documented in several studies.