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Public safety stalwart jailed on rape charges

Lisa Demer,Julia O'Malley
Dwight "Sam" O'Connor appears in court at the Anchorage Jail on Friday, July 22, 2011. O'Conner is charged with sexual assault.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News

An Anchorage man who cultivated a reputation as an anti-crime crusader and earned the respect of prominent city leaders was jailed Friday on charges of raping a woman after offering her a ride as she walked near Northway Mall.

Wearing jailhouse yellow with his hands shackled in front of him, Dwight "Sam" O'Connor, 51, said little in his first court appearance Friday afternoon. He faces three counts of first-degree sexual assault.

Community and political leaders said Friday that they were shocked and upset at the news of O'Connor's arrest. Some found it hard to believe.

O'Connor spent a decade on the Anchorage Public Safety Advisory Commission, which helps identify issues of concern for the mayor and Anchorage Assembly. He also spent years trying to eradicate prostitution in Spenard as head of the Westside Community Patrol.

"I'm dumbfounded," said Paul Honeman, an Anchorage Assembly member, chairman of the Assembly public safety committee, and a retired police lieutenant. "It's not the Sam O'Connor I know."

VISIT TO A CONSTRUCTION YARD

The woman, 51, reported the sexual assault to police at 5:15 a.m. Thursday. She had been drinking at two bars in Fairview and took a cab to her son's trailer home at Penland Mobile Home Park, according to a charging document filed against O'Connor.

The woman's son wasn't home, so she walked across the road to the Northway Mall parking lot, the charges say.

She told police she accepted a ride from a man she didn't know while walking near the mall. The man who picked her up was in a white truck with a yellow light bar, she said.

The woman asked to go to her friend's place on San Roberto Avenue, where she was staying, she later told police. But the man passed the turnoff and instead drove to a locked construction yard on Hoyt Street, the charging document said. He unlocked the gate and took her into a travel trailer on the property.

The woman blacked out in the trailer and came to with the man raping her, the charging document said.

"She was yelling and telling him to stop and that it hurt," the charging document said. A forensic medical exam found bruising on the woman's inner thigh and buttocks and lacerations to her vagina. She said she was afraid to fight back.

The man then drove out of the work area and took her to San Roberto, police said. The man let her out down the street from her friend's place. She immediately reported the rape, police said.

Police detectives soon identified O'Connor as the suspect. The woman was able to tell police where the construction yard was, said Sgt. Ken McCoy of the special victims unit. She described the inside of the trailer, the charging document said. O'Connor matched the physical description that the woman provided. She said he drove a white truck with a light bar.

A DENIAL, THEN ADMISSION

The work site was Malaspina Glacier Investments, McCoy said. That's where O'Connor works as a maintenance manager, according to his profile on the municipal website. The business owns and manages various properties, including a mobile home court and RV park, according to Lora Sinard, one of O'Connor's ex-wives. Sinard disbelieves the allegations and is supporting her former husband.

The trailer where police say the rape occurred is a small recreational rig with a bed and a couch, McCoy said. Police have seized it as evidence.

Police kept checking the construction yard Thursday after the woman reported the attack. Eventually a white pickup truck showed up. It was O'Connor's, McCoy said. It didn't have a light bar, but O'Connor eventually admitted to police he had removed it before police interviewed him, the charging document said.

The bar is similar to what a police vehicle might have, except the lights are amber, McCoy said.

Detectives initially talked to O'Connor at the work site. He told them he had simply given the woman a ride, but said it was from a bar on the Old Seward Highway. He denied he had taken her to the construction site or that he had sex with her, the charging document said.

Detectives confirmed with the cab company that she had been taken from Fairview to the Penland Parkway area and was not on Old Seward.

They interviewed O'Connor a second time at police headquarters. That session lasted hours, McCoy said. Detectives confronted O'Connor with the woman's description of the inside of the trailer. O'Connor eventually admitted he had taken the woman there but continued to dispute any sexual activity, the charging document said.

He ultimately admitted to police he had lied about whether he'd had sex with her, the document said.

Police say search warrants were served on O'Connor and at the trailer and his vehicles. He has more than one white pickup truck, McCoy said. Police are asking for a quick analysis of DNA evidence they collected.

The woman who reported the rape was not a prostitute, McCoy said. She was vulnerable, alone on the streets late at night, he said.

Police don't know of any other victims, but suspect others may emerge, McCoy said.

"It's always a shock when someone of his position commits a crime of this nature," McCoy said. "However, we are aware that people do use positions of power and trust to commit these acts."

An Anchorage police officer, Anthony Rollins, was convicted earlier this year of sexually assaulting five women he contacted while in uniform and on duty.

It doesn't appear that O'Connor told the woman Thursday that he was on community patrol or in a position of trust, McCoy said.

THE CRUSADER

Starting in the mid-1990s, O'Connor became a well-known public safety advocate who appeared often in the news.

He was heavily involved in trying to eradicate prostitution in Spenard, patrolling the streets at night in his truck, taking pictures and using a video recorder to document suspected prostitution and other illegal activity.

He has not been involved with the Westside patrol for several years, according to Allen Thornhill, longtime Spenard Community Council treasurer. Since O'Connor left, the community patrol has been much less active, Thornhill said.

Thornhill credited O'Connor with helping to clean up Spenard, in part by decreasing prostitution there, he said.

He was skeptical about the allegations.

"Was this a viable lady, or just somebody trying to get back at him? Do we know the other side of the story?" Thornhill said.

O'Connor later moved to the east side of town and made contact with the community patrol there. But they never saw him out patrolling, according to Aaron Pascar, a community patrol member in the Northeast Community Council district. Members of that patrol do not keep a schedule, and generally function informally, he said. When they go out, they communicate by radio. No one heard from O'Connor the night of the incident.

"We were mortified when we got the news this morning," Pascar said. "This kind of puts a black eye on community patrols. Now it's gonna be just a little bit harder for us."

After his initial interview with police Thursday, O'Connor resigned from his community patrol work, the charging document said.

O'Connor's term on the Anchorage Public Safety Advisory Commission expired in October, though he continued to attend meetings.

Mayor Dan Sullivan had forwarded O'Connor's name for reappointment, but O'Connor on Thursday asked to be removed from consideration.

Officials only learned Friday morning about the rape charges. O'Connor won't be reappointed, said a spokeswoman for the mayor.

O'Connor was first named to the municipal commission in 2000 by then-Mayor George Wuerch and confirmed by the Assembly.

Sullivan knows O'Connor from when Sullivan was a westside Anchorage Assembly member and O'Connor was on the community patrol. "I'm very saddened if it's true," the mayor said of the charges.

Honeman -- the Assembly member -- said he went to Bartlett High with O'Connor many years ago and that the allegations run counter to everything he knows about the man.

"If it's true, it's certainly sad, and egregious conduct no matter who it is," Honeman said.

A LIFELONG ALASKAN

O'Connor's profile on the municipal website lists involvement in crime prevention dating back to 1977. He was volunteering more than 1,000 hours a year, the profile said. He served as safety officer for the Spenard Community Council and was a board member of Anchorage's Trail Watch program, which was formed in 2003 to thwart assaults. He was a member of the Westside Community Patrol starting in 1995 and became head of it in 1997, the profile said.

O'Connor has been divorced three times, most recently in 2009, and is currently married again, said Sinard, an ex-wife who now lives in eastern Tennessee with their two daughters.

"I'm behind him 100 percent and don't believe he's guilty for a minute," she said. Over the more than 20 years she's known him, she said she can remember only one time that he wasn't on the right side of the law, a hunting case in which he harvested a Dall sheep with horns that had not yet achieved full curl.

She heard about the charges from O'Connor's current wife.

In court on Friday, prosecutor Laura Horton asked that he be held with no bail. District Court Judge Paul Olson asked O'Connor how long he had lived in Alaska.

"All my life," he answered.

Olson set bail at $50,000, with the requirement of a third party to watch over him. The judge also appointed a public defender.

Detectives suspect O'Connor may have attacked others. They are asking anyone with more information to call police at 786-8530.

Reporter Rosemary Shinohara contributed to this story. Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER and JULIA O'MALLEY
Anchorage Daily News