WELLFLEET — A 13-year-old girl was approached by a man driving a black van while walking down Chequessett Neck Road near Kendrick Avenue at noon on Saturday, Feb. 11. She was headed to Baker Field when a Dodge Ram going in the opposite direction veered across the yellow line and stopped next to her.
“Even before the car stopped, I had this really bad feeling about it,” she told the Independent. She said the van had tinted windows; the rear was covered in stickers.
“It was an older man, and he stuck out his arm to give me a rope, which looked like a dog toy,” the girl said. “Then he said, ‘I have something for you.’
“My first instinct was to say ‘No’ and to keep on walking,” she went on. “He followed me for a bit and kept trying to give me the toy. He sounded angry when I refused it again, and then he drove away.”
The girl called her mother, Susannah Fulcher, and together they recounted the incident to the Wellfleet police. The girl provided a detailed description of the vehicle. The police sent out a BOLO or “be on the lookout” alert.
Fulcher also posted an account online. She quickly heard from the owner of the Holden Inn on Commercial Street, who found security camera footage of the van driving by and forwarded it to the police. At 1:15 p.m., the van was seen at Cumberland Farms in Eastham.
“It was a huge relief that he was identified,” said Wellfleet Police Chief Michael Hurley.
The driver was interviewed by Officer Michael Allen, who ran a criminal records and sex offender registry check. “All negative,” Hurley said.
“My staff was surprised that nothing was coming back on him,” Hurley added. “This incident didn’t pass the smell test.”
According to the police, the man admitted that he offered the girl a toy and said he made handmade toys to give away. But the girl said that “it looked like one of those small dog toys that you buy at the store.”
The man, who was from Somerville, told the police that he was headed to Provincetown to visit a friend.
After being advised by the Cape and Islands district attorney’s office that the man’s actions did not violate any laws, the police let him go. The incident was documented, and a written record was filed, said Hurley. The Wellfleet police also notified authorities in Somerville of the incident.
Chief Hurley said that, while the incident was worrisome, there is a limit to what the police can do in such situations. While the man’s actions were clearly not appropriate, the chief said, “It didn’t rise to the level of criminal.”
Hurley said he understood that some community members thought more should have been done. “But we have to be careful to stick with the law and make sure that we are not violating anybody’s rights,” Hurley said.
In the hour between when the incident occurred and when the man was found at the gas station, social media posts were circulating. The story was out before the police could post an official press release.
“When the story was first posted online, the man had not yet been identified,” Hurley said. “That created a lot of anxiety. It’s very difficult to manage what goes out into the public when things happen so quickly.”
Hurley noted that social media reports “may not always be 100 percent accurate.” This put pressure on the department to put out a statement, which Hurley admitted he wrote in haste.
“We can all debate if the department’s statement was too much or too little, but I had to get something out because every second that went by the community’s concern was growing,” he said.
“It wasn’t my preferred method,” Hurley added. “The last thing I want to do is to stoke fear. These kinds of things happen, but it’s rare. And for as long as I have worked here, there has never been a criminal case involving a child and a stranger.”
But there is still work to do, said Hurley: “Education is the best prevention.” The Monday after the incident, Provincetown Schools Principal Beth Francis visited all middle-school classrooms to talk about “stranger danger.”
Administrators also talked to elementary school students on Wednesday after asking parents to speak with their children first.
“These conversations are hard,” said Provincetown Schools Supt. Gerry Goyette. “And they differ depending on the age of the child. But the message is the same: don’t talk to strangers. And if something like this happens to you, go to a trusted adult, ring doorbells, make noise, and don’t be afraid to make a scene.” He added that many older kids have cell phones that they can use in emergencies.
“Our main priority is making sure that our students know what to do to keep themselves safe,” Goyette said.
Goyette said there are many online resources to guide parents on what to say and what not to say. He also suggested reaching out to school administrators and teachers.
Wellfleet Police Sgt. Paul Clark has been conducting “stranger danger” sessions at the Wellfleet Elementary School for 13 years. “Our lessons are more focused on actions than words when dealing with strangers,” Clark said. “It’s important to say ‘No,’ but the most important thing is to create distance between you and the stranger.”
“My first reaction was that I felt guilty for letting my daughter walk by herself,” Fulcher said. “And that I wouldn’t let her do that again. But I’ve been thinking that I don’t want her to be afraid of the world, and I don’t want us to fall into fear because of this. I’m proud of her for knowing exactly what to do. It’s important that she takes this experience as something that makes her feel empowered by how she responded rather than afraid.”