By Michael Moore Jr.
When the student got into the elevator on the ground floor of the university parking garage one afternoon last year, a man she did not know was already there.
As the elevator began ascending, she told police, she felt uneasy. And when she turned around, she saw that the man behind her was masturbating with one hand and holding a cell phone with the other.
When she got out of the elevator on the fourth level, a police report says, she “felt a breeze behind her and something wet touch her buttocks area.” Security video later showed the man bending behind the woman, “possibly recording her personal groin area … and lifting her dress from behind.”
“What the f—,” the furious woman shouted as the smiling man pressed the close-door button.
Now, 18 months later, the incident is the focus of a lawsuit that the woman – called “L.E.” in the suit – has filed against the university and campus police.
She contends that she was “sexually assaulted” by the man, who eluded capture for a week, and that USF and campus police failed to protect her.
In her suit, filed June 5 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, she contends the parking garage and area around it had seen “numerous prior criminal acts.” The university failed to warn her of potential danger, she says, and failed to provide adequate security and “adequately trained personnel.”
Citing university policy, David Hendry, the chief of USF St. Petersburg police, said he could not comment on the pending lawsuit.
But a police report he provided The Crow’s Nest shows that his officers quickly identified the man as Willie Fudge III, 24, a non-student who lived near campus, and arrested him seven days after the incident.
He was charged with one count of exposure of sexual organs, a misdemeanor, and four counts of battery, for touching a person against her will. Two of the battery charges were third-degree felonies, each punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Fudge served nine months in the Pinellas County jail later in 2016. Earlier this month, a judge sentenced him to 18 months in state prison for violating the terms of his probation.
Asked what he would tell the students, staff and faculty who use the parking garage, Chief Hendry said that “USFSP is committed to the safety and security of our community.” University police are “thankful for the assistance of the campus community, which was absolutely pivotal in the quick identification of this person and led to his arrest on these charges.”
He also offered these safety recommendations for people on campus: Be alert to your surroundings. Avoid distractions. Walk with others where possible. Always have a plan. Trust your instincts. Secure belongings. Report suspicious persons and incidents.
Although the victim in the parking garage attack is identified as “L.E.” in the lawsuit, a document filed with the suit identifies her by name. According to social media, she apparently graduated from USFSP earlier this year. The Crow’s Nest does not name victims of sex-related crimes.
The attack in the parking garage elevator happened about 4:20 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2016, as the woman was preparing to leave the campus after a class, according to the report by university police.
In the lawsuit, L.E. says she “suffered bodily injury and resulting pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, mental anguish, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, expense of hospitalization, medical and nursing care and treatment, loss of earnings, loss of earnings, loss of ability to earn money, and aggravation of a previously existing condition.”
Her attorney, Damian B. Mallard of Sarasota, did not return telephone messages seeking his comment on the suit.
According to police records, L.E. was not the only woman who encountered Fudge.
While university police were interviewing the victim and searching the parking garage and surrounding area for the attacker, a second woman came to the police office to report she was walking near campus when a man approached her to ask the time.
The man then asked her a vulgar question and extended his hand to shake hers, police said. When she reached out, he pulled her hand into his groin area. She pulled her hand away and shouted “f— off,” and the man ran away.
Meanwhile, security footage showed that a third woman who had used the north stairwell “was completely unaware that Fudge II was behind her and masturbating,” according to police. That woman did not come forward.
Within a couple of hours after the initial attack, police had identified Fudge as the suspect and begun looking for him. But he was no longer living at two previous addresses, police said.
On Feb. 24, a day after the attack, police issued a crime alert bulletin titled “Lewd and Lascivious Incident” with three security camera photos of Fudge in the parking garage.
That same day, a fourth woman called them to say a man had followed her up the north stairwell of the garage.
“She knew someone was very close behind her the entire time going up the stairs,” the police report says, and when she left the stairs on the fifth floor he “followed her to her car pretending he thought it was his car.”
He left when she got in the car, said police, who said they could not find the incident on security video.
On March 1, a week after the first parking garage incident, university police caught up with Fudge after St. Petersburg police arrested him on a charge of domestic battery involving his former girlfriend.
Court records show that the domestic battery charge was dropped. But the parking garage charges – plus an earlier conviction for grand theft – landed Fudge in the Pinellas County jail between May 27, 2016, and Feb. 27, 2017.
Records show he was booked into the county jail again on July 3 for violating his probation on the two felony battery charges at USFSP and the grand theft conviction.
On Aug. 11 he was sentenced to 18 months in state prison, with credit of 311 days already served in county jail. Florida Department of Corrections records show he began serving the prison sentence last week.