OWATONNA – A concerning incident over the weekend has elicited fear in the Owatonna Facebook community as well as leading the Owatonna Police Department to issue a Public Safety Bulletin.
Jena Erickson of Owatonna said she was watching through a window her four children, ages ranging from 7 to 11-years-old, play with their friends in the playground area of the Willow Run Townhomes on the northeast side of town on 26th Street. Erickson said she went into her bedroom for only a second to get her water before she returned to a parent’s nightmare.
“By the time I got back my kids were running and screaming towards me,” Erickson told the People’s Press. “He saw them go in my house.”
According to Erickson, her oldest daughter said she observed a man she did not recognize watching the group of kids from the bushes. When the girl told the rest of the children and they began to leave, the kids report that the man dropped a backpack and chased them until he saw another adult.
Erickson said that her boyfriend and another parent found the backpack the children spoke of along the bushes, which was collected by police as evidence.
According to the Police Safety Bulletin, which was released on Monday, a citizen reported suspicious activity at the Willow Run Townhomes at 6:45 p.m. on Sunday, stating that a white male was looking into parked vehicles. He was described as 5’7” to 5’9”, blonde hair in a ponytail, 20-30 years of age, and wearing a tank top, shorts, and no shoes.
It was two hours later when the children saw a man with the same description hiding in the bushes. It is important to note that the unknown male did not catch or touch any children. One adult was witness to this activity, according to the OPD.
“The responding officer investigated and took custody of his belongings,” said Captain Jeff Mundale with the OPD, adding that the contents of backpack included wrappers, garbage, a toothbrush, and burnt up papers. “At this point he has not been identified, no identification was found in the backpack.”
Police are cautioning parents to supervise children when outside and to report suspicious activity by calling 911.
For Erickson, she said she hopes people realize that incidents like this can not only happen anywhere, but could end up much worse.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘we live in a small town, it can’t happen here,’” she said. “But it can happen anywhere and in a blink of an eye. Who knows how long this man was watching my kids, targeting that specific group when there were other children around.”
A Facebook post recounting the event had been shared over 750 times within 24 hours of the incident. People commented that they feel afraid to bring their kids to public and crowded places at this time.
“It’s an isolated incident,” Mundale stated. “We don’t know what the man’s motive was until we can locate him. We don’t know if his motive was to scare or to harm the children. Parents just need to be watchful and supervise their children. It’s good to be alert, and it’s important that we get community support and for them to report any suspicious behaviors.”
Mundale told that People’s Press that while they already perform a surplus of park checks and consistently patrol the parks during the heavy-traffic time in summer, the OPD will be adding extra patrol specifically in the area of the incident.
“I can see that these incidents are really concerning to families,” Mundale said. “We want to make sure it is handled correctly, we don’t like to wait for the crime to happen.”
The OPD is urging anyone with information about the suspect’s identity to notify them at (507) 444-3800.