A 48-year-old man was taken into custody early Wednesday morning on charges of sexual assault on a woman who was walking her dog on a popular trail along the South Platte River.
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Vanessa Ursini knew it wasn’t her time to die.
Early on the morning of July 25, she was walking her dog on a loop she was familiar with near the Platte River trail, close to her home in Littleton, when a man attacked her from behind, she wrote in a public Facebook post.
After surviving a sexual assault that she said nearly killed her, she is speaking out to remind others of how important it is to be aware of their surroundings.
“This was the worst day of my life but I knew I had to fight — it simply wasn’t my time to die,” Ursini, 29, wrote in the Facebook post on July 26. “I am lucky to be alive, so please have a plan in place to protect yourself from whatever may be out there.”
The suspect, Johnny DeWayne Harris Jr., 48, who police say was homeless, was taken into custody shortly after the incident and is being held at the Arapahoe County jail without bond on charges of first-degree kidnapping and sexual assault, according to the arrest affidavit. He told police he attacked Ursini, according to the arrest affidavit.
The Texas state offender registry shows Harris is a registered sex offender who was first convicted of sexual assault in 1999 in Texas. A post in April on the Denver Police Department's Facebook page said he was wanted in connection for an attempted sexual assault.
On the same post, Denver police said Harris had a criminal history ranging from sexual assault to DUI to harassment.
Colorado Community Media's policy is not to name victims of sexual assault without their permission, which Ursini gave when contacted. She wrote in her Facebook post that she wanted to share her story to increase awareness among friends and family.
“I am putting this post up to remind each and every one of you, please be aware of your surroundings at all times. Even if you have been on your local path, your grocery store parking lot, or anywhere 100 times, danger can exist anywhere,” she wrote.
Cyclists apprehend suspect, help victim
Ursini was walking her dog at about 8:30 a.m. on July 25 on the Mary Carter Greenway, an eight-mile trail that runs along the South Platte River from Chatfield State Park to Englewood, according to a news release from the Littleton Police Department.
The area is near Reynolds Landing, off South Santa Fe Drive, between West Mineral and West Bowles avenues in Littleton.
It was a loop Ursini took regularly, she wrote in her Facebook post. She passed a man she recognized from the day before.
“He didn't make eye contact with me and I got a very strange vibe,” she wrote.
Apparently knowing where she was headed, the suspect cut through the woods to get to the other side of the loop, she wrote. She passed him and said, “Excuse me.”
“About 30 seconds later I noticed him very close behind me,” she wrote. “I saw he had a rope in his hands and at that point he was too close to try and put any distance between us.”
The suspect put a rope around Ursini's neck, threatening to kill her if she screamed, according to the arrest affidavit. He then dragged her into the bushes.
Ursini fought back, knocking off the suspect's glasses, the affidavit says. She screamed as her dog tried to also fight off the suspect, she wrote in her post. The suspect tied her up, and while he was looking for his glasses, she managed to sit up, reach the knot around her ankles and free herself, she wrote. She ran to the bike path.
"A man on a bike chased him down and was able to restrain him until police arrived," Ursini wrote in her post. "I’m so thankful there were people around that ultimately were able to protect me."
A Littleton resident, who asked that her name not be used for privacy reasons, had stopped on the adjacent bike trail and said she saw Ursini "stumble" out from the woods. She helped Ursini while a friend called police. Patrol officers and a paramedic were on scene in about five minutes, the resident said.
Ursini was taken to a local hospital and was released July 26.
“It was very unsettling that this could happen,” the resident who helped Ursini said. “And it happened so close to the bike trail.”
Awareness key in being safe
Cmdr. Trent Cooper, public information officer for the Littleton Police Department, emphasized the trail has always been safe. In his 20 years at the department, he hasn't seen an attack like this one near South Platte Park.
The portion of Mary Carter Greenway "is always busy," he said. And “it really is a safe environment down there for everybody. Bad things happen to good people all the time and, unfortunately, there is no way to completely safeguard yourself from something happening.”
Cooper advises trail users to be aware of their surroundings. Pay attention to red flags, such as a suspicious person or situation. Avoid going into isolated areas alone. Use the trail during daylight hours.
“Always be aware of your surroundings,” Cooper said. “Pay attention to things that catch your attention.”
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