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Inside the mind of the night prowler stalking Etobicoke

Security camera image of suspect in Etobicoke break-ins and sexual assaults.

Toronto Police handout

At 8 o'clock on a summer weeknight, Enfield Avenue, in southwest Etobicoke, is bustling.

Residents walk dogs, kids bike up and down the street in full gear, people play Frisbee in the middle of the road.

But after dark – the day's gardening done and the garbage bins dragged out and ready for pick-up – something feels different.

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"Everybody's just locking up tight," said Joyce Champagne, a resident of Enfield Avenue, one of two streets where an intruder broke into a series of homes last weekend. For the third straight summer, neighbourhoods in south Etobicoke have been on edge as a prowler roams their streets, entering residences through unlocked doors and windows while people are sleeping.

After the latest spate of break-ins, Toronto police are taking a new tack, enlisting an OPP criminal profiler. Police would not disclose who the profiler is or get into the profiler's opinion on what kind of person might be behind the crimes. However, when asked for his expert opinion, Jim Van Allen, the retired manager of the OPP Criminal Profile Unit, told The Globe he's seen this before, and the suspect won't stop until he's caught.

"Clearly he's been doing it enough to satisfy me that he's enjoying it, and that enjoyment is going to contribute to his decision to keep doing it," he said.

South Etobicoke has seen as many as 23 break-ins, some of them including sexual assaults, since 2012.

Investigators are evaluating 10 of the incidents where similarities have been found in the suspect's description and MO to determine whether it's the same man committing the crimes.

"There are certain similarities in the crimes [and in] the suspect that would lead us to believe that they may be related," said Detective Steve McIlwain from Sex Crimes, one of the lead detectives investigating the incidents.

In most cases, residents wake to see a strange man standing at the foot of the bed before he flees. Less than 10 of the 23 break-ins also involved sexual assaults. In 2012, a 62-year-old woman and 70-year old woman were both sexually assaulted after a masked man entered their homes on the same night near Bloor St. W and Islington Ave., and Royal York Rd. and Norseman St. The most recent break-in and sexual assault occurred in June, according to Det. McIlwain.

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Police have described the intruder as darker-skinned, tall and skinny, wearing dark clothing and a white bandana over his face. In the most recent slew of break-ins last weekend, police chased a suspect by foot and helicopter, but he managed to elude capture, according to Constable David Hopkinson, corporate communications officer for Toronto Police.

"I woke up and this man was standing right at the side of my bed, staring at me, and I just started screaming," one victim of last weekend's break-ins, Maeve McCarthy, told the CBC.

Based on more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement and 15 years of heading the OPP's criminal profiling department, Mr. Van Allen provided The Globe with his opinion on what kind of person Toronto police could be dealing with.

Mr. Van Allen said the fact that the suspect keeps coming back to the same spots and protects his identity with a mask indicates he likely lives in or near the area.

"He's really close in that neighbourhood, we're talking a stones throw away, let's say a good chip shot … If you put all the occurrence locations on a pin map, he would be probably be right in the middle of it," Mr. Van Allen said.

The neighbourhoods that the prowler's been active in since 2012 covers about a 5-kilometre by 5-kilometre area that spans Lake Shore Boulevard West W. to Bloor Street West, Park Lawn Road to Brown's Line, often hitting two or three homes in close proximity to each other on the same night.

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Still, Mr. Van Allen believes, the perpetrator is not somebody a lot of neighbours are going to know personally: He's shy, lacking in social skills, and single – either living with a relative or by himself in a rented room.

"You're looking for a real nondescript kind of guy," he said.

Despite his withdrawn nature during the day, the prowler is likely out testing doorknobs almost every night, likely peeping through windows and selecting his victims in advance, largely because he doesn't know how to go about initiating a mutually beneficial relationship with an age-appropriate female.

"These guys fantasize about being in a relationship with a woman. He wants to be close to women and this is the only way that he can do it," Mr. Van Allen said.

Normal for a repeat offender, the prowler's confidence is growing and so will the comfort zone of where he operates, said Mr. Van Allen.

Joe Cestnik lives next door to one of the houses hit last weekend on Gort Avenue, and never imagined this would happen on his street.

"[My wife] told me we should be extra cautious about closing doors and windows because we might have a repeat of what happened at Royal York and Bloor [in June], and I said there's no way, not here of all places. Guess what? A couple days later, we get hit," he said.

Although police say no weapon has ever been seen by victims, Mr. Van Allen believes the prowler could become violent if interrupted or if somebody tries to apprehend him.

"Another danger is the fact that these guys don't deal well with stress … If they encounter some aggression or active resistance, they tend to panic and they might be inclined to use violence against a victim at that point," he said.

Indeed, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair told CityTV last week that the suspect is becoming increasingly brazen.

With a cool summer so far, people might be keeping windows open instead of blasting their AC, but both police and Mr. Van Allen said the best protection against this type of criminal is to keep doors locked and windows shut.

"It's the start of summer. We've got a lot of summer to go that this guy could still be active in," Mr. Van Allen said.

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