The hand-drawn sign seemed to stare Jennifer Rivera down.
This was a familiar trail to her, a wooded singletrack in Stratton Open Space, near North Cheyenne Cañon. She ran it regularly. Usually alone.
This gruesome marker was new.
"RAPE," the yellow graffiti read. An arrow pointed ominously up Ridge Trail. Rivera and hiking partner Janet Kerr followed the arrow, their hearts sinking. Farther up, a rock along the trail had the same marking.
A crude arrow pointed to a field with some bushes.
"I said, 'Janet, there's another sign,'" Rivera remembers, "and she said, 'Oh, my God.'"
It was a twist of fate that Kerr and Rivera would find this grisly graffiti on June 7. Rivera is a licensed clinical social worker and an independent contractor for TESSA, a local nonprofit fighting sexual and domestic violence. Rivera testifies in court cases across the state, explaining to jurors why victims of sexual assault do the seemingly odd things they do — like not immediately reporting a crime to police, or showering and thereby destroying the evidence of the assault.
Kerr, meanwhile, is a licensed professional counselor and the former executive director of TESSA.
Both women were overcome with a sense of sadness staring at the sign.
Who had done this? Perhaps a victim desperate to express her anger at what happened to her at that spot?
Could it have been a woman hiking with a trusted friend who turned on her? A runner attacked by a stranger? A high school kid lured up to the woods to drink with the guys?
The last scenario seemed especially striking because Cheyenne Mountain High School is located near the base of the trail.
One thing was certain: The sign was frightening.
"I have a right to walk this world freely," Rivera says. "But that sign says, 'No, you don't,' or 'You do so at your own peril.'"
An underreported crime
While there are still plenty of rapes in this city, and this country for that matter, numbers are down.
In the first three months of 2009, the Colorado Springs police handled 91 rape cases. In the first quarter of 2010, that number dropped to 78.
Nationwide, reported rapes are dropping steadily. In 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey, there were 0.5 rapes per 1,000 people aged 12 or older in America. To put that in perspective, in 1979 there were 2.8 rapes per thousand people.
All those stats are tempered, however, by the fact that rape often goes unreported. Rivera says that's because many victims feel guilt. They blame themselves. And that's especially true if they know their attacker, which is usually the case.
So even in a swath of open space near the center of the city, all it would take was a quiet hour in the park, and a victim who kept her mouth shut. And checking around, no one seemed to know a darn thing about a rape at Stratton Open Space.
Finally, an answer
Susan Davies, director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, hadn't "heard a word." Police Sgt. Steve Noblitt had no reports on file.
Walt Cooper, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 superintendent, noted that the district has resources for kids who have been victimized, but he hadn't heard of any rapes being reported. In fact, he hadn't even heard any rumors.
The apparent answer to this mystery came at last from City Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services manager Kurt Schroeder.
It turns out the creepy signs probably weren't what they appeared to be and what many hikers and bikers might have assumed.
"There is someone we believe who is very upset when we close off social trails that he seems to think are his own personal domain, and whenever we close them off he moves brush and he is known to spray paint 'RAPE' on a sign with an arrow pointing toward a trail that's been closed," Schroeder says. "We think the same guy is doing stuff over in Red Rock Canyon.
"So, that's the best we know. We see that a lot. We see 'RAPE' spray-painted on our signs a lot."
Social trails, Schroeder says, are those created by local hikers and bikers. They are closed off by the parks department to protect wildlife, natural resources and environmentally sensitive areas. Social trails are also considered a nuisance because they generally lead to erosion and expensive maintenance issues.
So, while it may cause consternation for some locals, Schroeder says those social paths will continue to be closed. And he'd appreciate it if the person writing "RAPE" on the trails would knock it off.
He's not the only one.
While Rivera couldn't be reached to comment on the new information about the graffiti, earlier she was still shaken up. In fact, after seeing the signs on the trail, Rivera said she was rethinking those solo morning jogs at Stratton. She thought she might start bringing her dog along more often.
"I'm going to be twice as apt to take her now," she said of her shar pei. "Because if someone tried to attack me, she'd eat them."
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