NEW ORLEANS - In the heart of the French Quarter Tuesday evening, musicians performed on sidewalks and tourists browsed galleries. Just behind St. Louis Cathedral, and a block from Jackson Square, the 700 block of Royal Street is bustling.
“This is one of our most heavily visited, densely populated areas, and if you can't feel safe right there, I don't know where you can feel safe,” said Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre' Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
That’s why a recent crime in the area has neighbors on edge. Police say a 30-year-old woman visiting New Orleans was drinking at a bar with friends Friday night when they got separated. She went looking for them, but got lost.
The woman made her way to the 700 block of Royal Street when a man came up and asked if she was lost, said police. That’s when the unthinkable happened.
Police say four men forced the woman into a dark colored SUV. They drove to an unknown location, where the woman was allegedly raped.
A police report says the crime occurred around 11:30 p.m. Friday. The victim was treated the next day at LSU Interim Hospital, where she filed a police report.
“It should be cause for alarm for everybody in the whole city,” said Lousteau.
So far this month, there have been more sexual assaults reported in the French Quarter and CBD than the previous two months combined.
“You have people here from out of town who are visiting for Mardi Gras holiday. You have students who are here going to school who have never experienced anything like this before. It just seems that in the spring we have an increase of sexual assault,” said Pamela Albers, a counselor for sexual assault victims at the Family Justice Center.
The most recent was reported around 8:45 a.m. Monday in the 100 block of Royal Street, according to www.crimemapping.com. Police say that incident remains under investigation. They don't believe any of the crimes are connected.
So far, few details about most of the incidents are available to the public.
“We don't ever want to compromise the anonymity of the victim, but we need to know if weapons were used, if these were happening on the street, if people are being pulled into alleys, if these are happening in clubs or other public places,” said Lousteau. “Without that kind of information it's very hard for us to protect ourselves.”
Some tourists say they're already taking precautions.
“We've realized to always stick together, not go down any alleyways and be cautious about what we're doing,” said Behnoosh Kamali, a visitor from Oklahoma.
“It's quite scary. I was warned when coming down here about security, about keeping safe and making sure you're not traveling by yourself,” said Carmel Ross, a visitor from California.
Advocates for the French Quarter say dwindling police manpower doesn't help.
“We're really, I think, seeing the effects of not having as many police on the streets,” said Lousteau.
Police say they beefed up patrols in the area in recent weeks, with 50 to 60 officers on the streets of the Eighth District at any given time, including mounted patrol and undercover narcotics officers. The Eighth District includes the French Quarter, CBD, and Marigny Triangle.
Police say a total of 36 sexual assaults have been reported so far this year throughout New Orleans. There were a total of 209 for all of 2013, and 153 in 2012. Year-to-date numbers were unavailable.
Police released a description of three of the four alleged abductors in Friday's incident on Royal Street. One was said to be a white male with dirty brown hair and dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail. He was said to have a medium to husky build, unkempt hair and a piercing on his right eyebrow.
A second assailant was described as a black male with curly blonde hair, about 6-foot-3 to 6-4 with a thin build, yellow shirt, aqua skinny jeans and white high top shoes.
The third man apparently resembled the first man, described as a white male with long, blonde to brownish hair, dreadlocks and a thin build. He was said to be wearing a black shirt and shorts.
If you have any information, call police or Crimestoppers. That number is (504) 822-1111.