The first time the stranger followed the woman toward her home in west Toronto's Junction, she noticed him because when she zigzagged across the street, so did he. He was white, in his 20s, of medium height and build, wearing a blue baseball cap, with a highly distinctive tattoo on his neck. That was Sept. 3, a Saturday, in the early evening.
Her second encounter took place three days later, again when she was en route home from work, and was more unnerving.
It was dark and the man was so close behind her, less than two metres, that she could hear him breathing. She and a co-worker banged on the door of a nearby house and waited until he had walked past them.
Then, on Monday evening this week, the stalker struck.
On Keele Street north of Dundas Street West, just beyond the overhead railway bridge at Junction Road, the 20-year-old woman was walking alone to her part-time job at one of the big-box stores that dot the former stockyards area. This time, the man was with a companion.
They grabbed and groped her. "I'm going to get some of that later," the first man said, as he pulled at her clothes. Then the pair fled north on foot up busy Keele Street and disappeared.
"It was criminal harassment, now it's turned into sexual assault, and it's progressing," said Detective Theresa Monaghan of nearby 11 Division. "That's why we're concerned."
Stranger-on-stranger stalking incidents that escalate to sexual assault are highly unusual. Last year, 11 Division – one of Toronto's smaller police districts – saw 68 instances of sexual assault reported, 73.5 per cent of which were solved.
The Junction is a neighbourhood in flux – fast being gentrified, though still with plenty of rough edges – but as in most jurisdictions, the great majority of those 68 incidents involved people who knew each other or had at least been introduced. Seemingly random attacks are rare, and repeat incidents still more so.
Det. Monaghan is unsure how much planning preceded any of these three encounters, all of which took place on the woman's normal route back and forth from work: South on Keele Street, west along Vine Avenue, south on McMurray Avenue, then west along Dundas West toward her home.
While it seems evident the predator targeted his victim, "I think it's an opportunity [crime]" Det. Monaghan said. "He's drinking in the area, or he's working in the area."
What's certain is that until this happened, the victim had never before seen either of her assailants, and that events have left her badly shaken. Petite in build, never in trouble with the law, she lives with parents and siblings and is completely credible, Det. Monaghan said.
"And now she has to be driven everywhere. She's changed her habits, her lifestyle's changed quite a bit."
Also revised is her employer's former practice of displaying employees' names and work schedules, posted near the front entrance. Not a good idea, police advised.
Equally clear is that neither of the suspects are residents of the nearby federal halfway house for ex-prisoners at Keele and Dundas Streets, a stone's throw from the old 11 Division station ( which marked its last day of operations on Friday, replaced by a brand-new $29-million building on Davenport Road). Over the years, the halfway house's safety record has been almost flawless; it is, nonetheless, often a target of local suspicion whenever a serious crime in the neighbourhood takes place.
"We checked out everyone there," Det. Monaghan said. "It's the first place we always go."
For now, all that police have are descriptions
The first suspect was wearing a blue baseball cap, dark Dickies-brand construction pants and a dark T-shirt. He had a thin "chin-strap" beard and a big tattoo that resembles a kind of claw on the left side of his neck. He has no other visible tattoos.
His companion, glimpsed just once, is described as possibly aboriginal, 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-10, with droopy eyelids, black hair and a skinny build. He too was wearing dark, baggy pants and a dark T-shirt.
Police routinely seek the public's help when an unidentified criminal is at large. But in this instance there is added urgency to the appeal for tips, which can be relayed anonymously through Crime Stoppers, via phone or text.
"I just don't want this to progress to an attack that's worse than what it has been," Det. Monaghan said.