Encounters with The Sleep Watcher | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Encounters with The Sleep Watcher

For years he’s frustrated police and put residential neighbourhoods on edge by breaking into women’s homes to see them sleeping. For the first time, eyewitnesses publicly describe coming face to face with Halifax’s serial creeper.

Editor’s note: After this story was first published, some of the people interviewed for the story requested that their names and other identifying details be changed. We are honouring these requests, indicating pseudonyms with an asterix (*). (November 15, 2011).

Hillary Windsor was enrolled in a summer course at Dalhousie in July 2010. The 22-year-old decided to dedicate an afternoon to studying on campus and headed to the Goldberg Computer Science building. She chose the bright, windowed building for its quiet, study-friendly atmosphere and its proximity to coffee.

Reading her textbook in the building's Second Cup, she could feel her eyes getting heavier. It was only 4pm, still light outside, and there weren't many people in the building so she felt safe enough. Fifteen, maybe 20, minutes of sleep couldn't hurt. She closed her eyes, surrendering to a quick nap on one of the cafe's comfy leather couches.

Twenty minutes later, Windsor opened her eyes to find a stranger sitting on the couch across from her. The only other person in the cafe, he was staring at her intently with a look on his face that gave her "mad, crazy, bad, vibes."

"I had drool on my face so I felt pretty weird and slightly violated waking up to this dude's eyes ogling me," says Windsor. "Who would want to watch some drooling, fetal-positioned girl on a couch with a book in her hands? Especially in a public setting."

"'Wanna go out sometime?'" the stranger asked.

She laughed nervously. "Umm, sorry. I have a boyfriend," she said, propping herself back up on the couch and rubbing her eyes. He tried pursuing further conversation, but Windsor politely excused herself, gathered her things and left in a hurry.

"'Did that seriously just happen?'" she thought as she walked down University Avenue, sending out "wtf" texts to her best friend, Meg. When she reached University and Robie, she glanced back and saw the stranger---a 20-something white guy about 5 foot 10, medium build, with brown hair and "dad jeans"---was about 20 paces behind.

"That really scared me," says Windsor. "Was he going to follow me until I got home? Was he going to assault me? So many panicky thoughts flooded my brain."

Looking for a safer place to be, Windsor ducked into the crowded Subway restaurant on the corner of Robie and Spring Garden, and waited for the guy to pass.

She'd heard about The Sleep Watcher. She'd even seen a police sketch of the creep who breaks into women's houses to watch (and sometimes touch) them while they sleep. She'd seen his story in the news and knew female university students were being told to be especially careful.

But she didn't want to be presumptuous.

"I never really knew this guy's deal. I still don't, though maybe I should have gotten the hint that he was not just an average, well-intentioned person," she says.

She never called the police.

"I kind of wanted to, just to tell them to keep an eye out for this kid, but I thought it may have just been one big presumption. It wasn't until after that I connected the dots and realized, 'Shit, maybe that's The Sleep Watcher.'"

• • •

During the past eight years, police say up to 25 Sleep Watcher-related incidents have been reported around the south and west ends of Halifax. Most recently, he is believed to have been snapping pictures of unsuspecting females through open blinds in their homes.

Four of these photos were released this September after police discovered them during an investigation into a break-and-enter. They can't say for sure whether or not the photos were linked to The Sleep Watcher, but are hopeful that it will lead them toward making an arrest. So far, three of the four women photographed have come forward.

In another recent Sleep Watcher case, a woman awoke to a man fleeing from her bedroom on South Street in the early hours of September 15. Before sunrise that day, police captured a man who matched the "5 foot 10, medium build, brown hair" description, walking around Gorsebook Junior High.

Police held him for a night before releasing him, saying there wasn't enough evidence. That's the way it always seems to go with Sleep Watcher suspects.

Another man was taken into custody in 2009 after police responded to a break-and- enter call on September 18. A 20-year-old female living on College Street woke to find a man in her bedroom. When he realized she was awake, he fled. She called police immediately, and 13 minutes later a man was arrested on Carlton Street. Again, the suspect was released shortly after questioning.

"We've followed up on a number of kids over the years," says Halifax Regional Police's information officer, constable Brian Palmeter, "but we haven't reached the point of having enough evidence to lay charges."

The College Street victim's description led to the release of another police sketch, the third since 2004. By now police have released five separate, similar Sleep Watcher sketches.

Yet Palmeter says there could be more than one creep at work. "Some of the cases we've had very good descriptions to work with and other cases we haven't been able to get any," he says. "In the cases where we have no description, we have to be open to the possibility that there are maybe other suspects."

• • •

Somnophilia is a fetish in which a person becomes sexually aroused by seeing others sleep. The somnophiliac can get off on watching someone sleep, falling asleep or the act of waking up. In some cases, the excitement comes from having sex with the sleeping person.

Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, as it's sometimes known, isn't always dangerous. Consenting couples can indulge each other safely, pretending to be asleep, or pre-consenting to sexual acts.

But like anything sexual in nature, somnophilia becomes dangerous and predatory when people begin acting on impulse, focusing their attention on people who haven't given their consent, which is how The Sleep Watcher seems to be indulging his fetish.

Dr. Steven Smith, professor of social psychology at Saint Mary's University, says The Sleep Watcher's behaviour "is just like any other sex offender"---he's looking for power, control and sexual gratification. Smith says there is strong evidence this predator is a very careful planner, singling out women who he knows are less likely to wake up.

Some of the reported Sleep Watcher cases involved "women who had been out drinking and came home and were therefore more likely to remain sleeping," says Smith. "I wonder if there are many more cases that haven't been reported because the women stayed asleep."

Constable Palmeter says it's so important for people, especially university-aged women, to lock their doors and windows. His chief concern is that "these incidents could escalate if the person isn't caught."

In the earliest Sleep Watcher incidents, women would wake up to a strange man in their bedrooms, standing in the doorway or at the foot of their beds. By 2009, women began reporting they'd been touched. In September 2010, a woman reported that her underwear had been cut with scissors during the encounter with The Sleep Watcher.

"What happens in any kind of serial crime-committing is that they get to a point where that's as far as they will go, but we don't know where that point is yet," says Smith. "We may not have seen as serious a crime as this person is willing to commit."

There are gaps between The Sleep Watcher's crimes, which make it difficult for police to nab him. "There will be an incident and then there's a break and then there's another incident," says Palmeter. "It's pretty hard to focus your resources when it's so sporadic, but we've changed our response as to how we address these situations. We make sure that all possible resources are put into place."

Smith says serial criminals usually act out as a coping mechanism during periods of heavy stress. "Committing the crime becomes a way to cope with stress, a way to regain control," says Smith. "It's pleasurable for them. There's a certain amount of time they can go without it, but stress will always lead them to want to do it again."

Most Sleep Watcher cases happened at the beginning or end of school semesters, many in September. "That's always made me wonder if it's a student," says Smith.

• • •

A few days after Hillary Windsor's encounter in 2010, a man showed up on the back porch of a house on Queen Street.

Around 5am in early July, twentysomething roommates Jeanie Milner* and Holly Wilkes* were in their living room watching a movie with their friend Ian. Wilkes and Milner had returned from a night downtown and weren't ready to go to bed yet.

At a time when the city is usually asleep, they heard a noise coming from their back door. They lived in a basement apartment.

"We could hear someone walking back and forth outside," explains Wilkes. "Then the footsteps stopped and all of a sudden his face was just in the window staring in for like 30 seconds."

Ian stood and walked toward the door. As soon as the stranger realized they were all watching him, a look of panic shot across his face and he ran. Milner says the stranger was wearing a baseball cap, so she didn't get a good look at him, but he was "super creepy...a little under six feet, not skinny, but definitely not fat." Consistent with Sleep Watcher descriptions.

The three didn't call the cops, but they did see a police van parked in front of their house and ran outside to tell the officer what had happened. "They basically just said they were already patrolling the area," says Wilkes. "I guess they'd already gotten a complaint."

"It felt like something out of a horror movie," adds Milner, who also says this wasn't her first creepy encounter.

A month earlier, she was staying at her mom's place, a two-minute walk from her house on Queen Street. She had been out drinking with friends and walked to the house, alone, at around 3am and crawled in to bed.

In the morning, her mother asked if she had been trying to get into her bedroom during the night. "She had the dogs in her room with her and I usually went in to get them before I went to sleep," says Milner, "but I didn't that night."

Milner says her mom then told her someone had been shaking her bedroom doorknob from the outside about an hour after Milner arrived home. Whoever it was, they were trying to get in and were clearly spooked when the dogs began to bark, because the doorknob stopped moving and she heard footsteps down the stairs. At the time, she assumed it was her daughter.

They realized later the next morning that someone had sliced the screen in their door in order to reach the handle on the inside door, which Milner assumes was left unlocked by mistake.

"I was sleeping like a baby and my door was wide open so he was probably in my room watching me sleep or whatever before he tried to get in to my mom's room," says Milner. She believes it was The Sleep Watcher, though she did not see anybody.

Neither Milner nor her mom informed the police. "We just kinda felt like there was nothing they could do anyway," says Milner, "so what was the point of wasting time?"

• • •

A week after the first encounter on Queen Street, the window creeper was back and bolder than before.

Wilkes was out of town, but Milner and their third roommate, Alice Prentice*, had spent this particular evening drinking at The Toothy Moose. The bar closed at 3am, but before heading home they went to the 24-hour McDonald's on Spring Garden Road for food.

It wasn't until around 5am they finally started for home, stumbling through the door at 5:30---the door they admit, even after the strange encounter a week earlier, they forgot to lock.

Milner headed to her own room, while Prentice shared her cozy queen-sized bed with her friend Dawn*. Prentice was lying on her stomach with her head facing the wall and Dawn beside her. As she was dozing off, she felt something graze her leg.

"I was like 'Oh, whatever, it's probably just Dawn,'" she says. "But then I had this really strange feeling and I just shot up."

She found herself face-to-face with a man standing at the end of her bed.

"I was paralyzed with fear. You know the whole thing 'Fight or flight'? There should be another F to that. It should be 'Fight, flight or freeze,'" she says. "I was frozen."

It took Prentice a minute to understand what had just happened. "I seriously thought I was dreaming until I heard our front door slam." She called the police.

"As soon as I started describing the guy--- not very tall, kinda pudgy---they were like 'You're describing our second guy,'" says Prentice, echoing constable Palmeter's stance that there could be more than one elusive sleep-watching predator in Halifax.

A sketch of the "second guy" hasn't been released. Prentice says police are still waiting on forensic evidence to come back on a knife the roommates say was placed on their kitchen table by the suspect.

"It definitely wasn't there when we went to sleep," says Prentice. The use of a weapon could be a new development in Sleep Watcher behaviour.

Prentice, Wilkes and Milner have all moved out of the house on Queen Street for various reasons. For Prentice, it was mostly because of The Sleep Watcher. She left earlier than the others, after a friend broke their front door.

"I couldn't live there with a broken door for any time," says Prentice. "Not after what happened in July."

She says even in the small town where she now lives and goes to school, she sometimes feels like she's being followed. She says she's suspicious of everyone and especially doesn't trust men. Even while she's driving, Prentice says she'll take an alternate route if she feels like a car has been behind her for too long.

"I'd take an off-road to reassure myself that they weren't going to follow me to where I was going," she says. "It's just little things that you'd never really notice before. I can't handle it."

Prentice also says she'll never live in a basement apartment or sleep in a ground-floor bedroom again. And she never, ever forgets to lock her doors and windows.

Melissa Evans is a journalism student at the University of King's College.

* Editor’s note: After this story was first published, some of the people interviewed for the story requested that their names and other identifying details be changed. We are honouring these requests, indicating pseudonyms with an asterix (*). (November 15, 2011).

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