Authorities are still searching for a sexual assault suspect who may be targeting young girls and has put a Bradenton neighborhood on edge.
The suspect, who is sought in connection with three sexual assault cases, including a rape of a 15-year-old girl, may be younger than originally thought, from 18 years old to his early 30s, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office said Monday.
Security camera footage from Bayshore High released over the weekend captured the suspect, who authorities say tried to sexually assault a 12-year-old girl Thursday on her way home from school and may be connected to two other similar incidents involving teen girls in the area, including the Jan. 31 rape of a 15-year-old. The incidents occurred not far from Lee Middle School.
School district spokeswoman Margi Nanney said Bayshore High had a "large number" of absentee students Monday, although she did not have exact totals available late in the afternoon.
Part of the tension stems from a separate incident in which a message found on a bathroom stall at the high school last week referenced shootings on Valentine's Day. The sheriff's office was already planning to have an increased police presence on campus today, though spokesman Dave Bristow said they believe the threat was a hoax that took on a life of its own on Facebook.
Bristow said in addition to the school resource deputies on campus, the sheriff's office has had detectives in the area and has also increased patrols. Deputies already assigned to that zone are paying more attention than usual, Bristow said, and the sheriff's office has asked for residents to be on the lookout for the suspect seen on tape, described as a black male, about 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds. He was wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt and black shorts at the time of the incident.
"We're still working this thing hard," Bristow said. "The key is, this guy's on foot. Somebody's seen the guy."
The sheriff's office has received some leads since the Gold Star Club of Manatee County posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.
Officials are advising students to walk in pairs or groups and stay in public areas. In all three cases, the suspect grabbed a solitary girl from behind in broad daylight.
A 12-year-old girl fended off a would-be sexual assault Thursday afternoon when a man assaulted her in the rear parking lot of Christ United Methodist Church in the 5500 block of 26th Street West. When the girl told him there were people in the area and that he better leave, he fled toward 28th Street West.
Security camera footage taken from a nearby home captured part of Thursday's incident on tape.
In the Jan. 31 case investigated by the Bradenton Police Department, a suspect with a similar description grabbed a 15-year-old girl from behind while she was walking in the 4900 block of 47th Avenue West, threw her to the ground and raped her, then fled.
The sheriff's office investigated a similar incident Nov. 29 in the 5100 block of 57th Street West, in which a 15-year-old girl was grabbed from behind but resisted, forcing the suspect to flee.
Anyone with information can call Crime Stoppers at 866-634-TIPS.