DALLAS at large Exposing the Naked Creek Man

There’s more to this story of a slippery flasher than meets the eye.

tALKING AND LAUGHING, THE TWO schoolgirls followed the path through the dense foliage along Oak Cliffs Five Mile Creek. The route was well worn, traveled hy children each day from the Max grocery store to the Fawn Ridge West Apartments. Suddenly, he was there, standing less than five feet away. The girls mentally noted the details: Massive chest. Dark face hidden by the shadow of a baseball cap. Naked. In the creek.

Melissa Peay and Brenda Tate stood stunned for a few moments, then grabbed their radios and called for back-up. The two “schoolgirls” were police officers, decoys posing as teenagers. Eight other officers, hidden in positions nearby, heard the crackle on the radio and began to move, while Tate and Peay ran full speed after their target-The Naked CreekMan. They stumbled down the steep incline, brambles and branches slapping their faces and grabbing their clothes. They could hear the chop-chop-chop of the police helicopter and the bark of the dogs from the K-9 squad.

He was running fast, but they couldn’t hear him crashing through the underbrush. Rocks were everywhere, but he didn’t stumble and fall. For two hours, police checked in culverts, in ttees, under bushes. To rheir embarrassment, The Naked Creek Man had disappeared, as if he had never been there at all.

The officers went home, eaten up by mosquitoes and itching from poison ivy. But the community, a black neighborhood off 1-67, breathed a sigh of relief. The Naked Creek Man had been terrorizing the area for some five years, exposing himself to their kids, grabbing at their adolescent girls, then evaporating into the creek bed. The kids called him Hooty-Hooty, which made him sound like a citified version of Bigfoot, the legendary beast-man of the wilderness.

Now two police officers had seen him. That made him real. Not a Sasquatch.

Not an urban legend.

But the truth is he may now be on his way to becoming one.

YOU’VE HEARD THE STORIES. THE Lady of White Rock Lake, who thumbs a late-night ride with a driver, then disappears from the car leaving only a puddle. The notorious Hook, who frightens couples necking in cars parked on lovers lanes, who drive off only later tod iscover a hand-hook dangling from the door.

Then there are die more prosaic, but somehow more frightening, urban legends. A man finds a deep-fried rat in his bucket of fried chicken. A woman gives her poodle a bath, then decides to dry it in the microwave. A little girl is abducted in a shopping mall by a notorious child-snatching ring, then discovered in a bathroom dressed as a little boy, her long, dark hair cut short and dyed blonde. A man awakens in a hotel room after spending the night with a beautiful stranger he’d met in a bar only to find a large, carefully sutured incision on his back and one kidney gone.

They’re told as stories that really happened-always to a friend of a friend. But did they? Could they? Maybe urban legends are the modern horror stories we pass among ourselves as cautionary tales, as ways to fend off the disturbing urban conditions that are all too real. Technology, mallshopping, fast food, medicine-while theelements of postmodern society appear benign, even beneficial, on the surface, something lurks below. Is it fear? Guilt? Suspicion? Overdrawn credit limits?

Remember the story that went around Dallas last year? A gang called the Crips was moving into town. As part of their initiation, new members had to drive around without their headlights on. When other drivers flashed their lights at them, the prospective gang members had to kill them.

The story raced across the city via phone, fax, and public address systems at high-school football games. Hysteria took over. After getting hundreds of calls, the Dallas Police took an unprecedented step: They issued a news release to announce that the rumor wasn’t true.

Then there was the story that spread through Piano and into neighborhoods in Dallas last fall after the abduction and murder of 7-year-old Ashley Estell. Police asked parents to turn over any videotapes they had of games played that day at the soccer field from which she had vanished. Later, parents heard chat five, a dozen, as many as 100 known child molesters had been identified on the tapes-apparently slinking around the fields with an eye toward grabbing other children.

Stories such as these have been around as long as human beings. And while details vary, the stories show universal similarities that lend them legend status.

Bill Ellis, associate professor of English and American Studies at Pennsylvania State University at Hadeton, studies these stories. HisFOAFtailNews(FOAFstands tor Friend of a Friend), reports on rumors and legends. And the tale of The Naked Creek Man, he says, sounds familiar.

“Other than the nakedness, it sounds a )or like Spring Heel Jack, who was the terror of London all through the 19th century,” says Ellis. “He would jump out, or just be there, terrorizing people, especially women.”

Spring Heel Jack would bend his knees and leap tall buildings or just disappear by jumping high in the air. The explanation given by police was that he had invented some kind of springs or another mechanism in his shoes. He was never caught.

The story was taken so seriously that when World War I came along, the German army actually tested such a device, but discarded it because every gadget they developed broke the user’s ankles. The story passed into a myth that persisted well into the 20th century. “Children claimed that if you waited long enough in certain areas, you’d see Spring Heel Jack,” Ellis says.

EUisdescribesotherurbanlegends: The Green Man in Pennsylvania, who would wander the roads at night, unwilling to come out during the day because of an accident that literally turned his skin green; Hiram the Ax Killer in Utah, who was in a mine blast accident and now hangs around Boy Scout camps wielding a hatchet.

Ellis thinks the stories start with a little bit of truth, then escalate wildly. “The Green Man was apparent ly real,” Ellis says. He’s gotten stories from students who say they have picked up a hitchhiker who tells them his name is Majaska and that he was an electrical lineman who accidentally touched a high-tension wire and was badly burned. He lived between Pittsburgh and Youngs town, and after the accident, became eccentric and wandered the roads after dark, telling his story to teenagers in exchange for cigarettes and beer.

“As you get farther from where he lives, the stories get wilder,” says Ellis. “They say he’s a mutant, that he chases cars, that he hides in the woods. By the time you get to Cleveland, |the stories say] he was exposed to radiation and is mentally deranged and homicidal.”

the Naked Creek Man came to the attention of the Dallas media this fall around Labor Day when about 30 residents gathered at an Oak Cliff Seventh Day Adventist Church to complain that die man had been exposing himself for years, hut that the powers that he had thus far ignored their charges. City Councilman Larry Duncan weighed in, pledging to get the police department to do something. Deputy Chief Randy Hampton allowed that perhaps the department hadn’t treated the story as seriously as it should have. The department created The Naked Creek Man task force.

Placed in charge of the operation to catch the exhibitionist, Sgt. Curtis Brown admits that at first he thought The Naked Creek Man was a fantasy created by overactive imaginations. It didn’t help that soon after the media picked up the story, the department was flooded with reports of sightings-one from as far away as Pennsylvania.

Detective Cynthia Stewart, who works property crimes at the southwest police substation, started looking into the naked man story after the meeting at the church. She remembered a tale from her ch i Idhoi )d in the Panhandle about “The Greenie-Weenie Man,” supposedly an escapee from a lunatic asylum who chopped up kids and put them in the garbage. She decided to help out on the case.

Stewart discovered that despite the allegations that the man had been terrorizing the neighborhood for five years, no official complaints had been made to police, even after the meeting at the church. Councilman Duncan says he had heard about the man in the summer of 1993 and had made the problem known to police. But no one had ever called 911 or filed a report that could be followed up by a detective.

Stewart did find a miscellaneous incident report that a man had exposed himself in the Seventh Day Adventist Church during August. The man was taken to Parkland for a psychiatric evaluation, but the church didn’t want to press charges. The police department did a line-up with the man s picture, asking people who had seen The Naked Creek Man if they could identity him. None could.

Then police got a tip that a man was living in a shanty in the creek. Could he be the guy.’ He was strange, eccentric even. But he was Hispanic, not black as reported. Still, police did a photo line-up of that man. None of the witnesses could identify him.

One major problem was that the stories told by witnesses varied so much. The man says nothing and simply stands there, or he talks to people and tries to grab them. He’s wearing a baseball cap, or he’s balding. He’s short, tall, slender, or massively built. Some witnesses said he had a skin disorder, a rash. Probably, says Sgt. Brown wryly, poison ivy.

Police did five photo line-ups in all, each with five different suspects. One was a homeless man who picks up cans. Another was deaf and mute, No I.D.s were forthcoming.

After Peay and Tate saw The Naked Creek Man this September, the sightings, which had heen concentrated around the Pentagon Parkway area, began to come in from all over South Dallas. In the space of a week, he was reportedly seen on Woodwick, Alaska, South Lancaster, and Five Mile Parkway. Police had more questions than they had answers. Was he homeless? Would he disappear with the cold, or was he used to the weather? Had he picked up on all the publicity and moved to some place new? Where did he keep his clothes?

Professor Bill Ellis says that the scenario that occurred is typical and that when the story gets out, sorting out reality from fiction becomes almost impossible. “Once it becomes public knowledge, there’s a certain compulsion for someone to go out and act it out,” Ellis says. In other words, the story creates the very thing it imagines.

Nevertheless, by early October Stewart was convinced that The Naked Creek Man was real. But she was worried that the media attention and flying rumors were making it more and more unlikely that he would ever be caught and, if caught, effectively prosecuted. “It’s a lot like a witch hunt,” she said at that rime- “My biggest fear is we’ll catch him and we won’t have a case. This man is on his way to becoming a legend.”

ON OCTOBER 11, POLICE TACTICS PAID off. At dusk, Officer Peay was again working undercover, this time with a male officer. Peay saw a man walking behind the Max store to the creek. Though he was wearing shorts and a shirt, Peay recognized him instantly: It was The Naked Creek Man.

When Peay and her partner confronted him, the man sprinted away. The two officers began the chase, calling other members of the task force on their radios.

This time, he didn’t get away. Police caught George Williams, 47, at a gas station parking lot. Under his clothes, he was wearing panties and other articles of women’s lingerie.

Williams has been charged with four counts of indecent exposure, Two were based on his nude confrontation with the two undercover officers at the creek. The others were based on incidents elsewhere. In a photo line-up, two eyewitnesses said he had exposed himself to them at a South Dallas beauty shop and a self-service laundry. A check of his background revealed similar arrests in Dallas and Las Vegas.

“We’re 95 percent sure we got the right man,” says Sgt, Brown. “He’s responsible for some of the offenses.”

But is the story of The Naked Creek Man over? Is Williams really Hooty Hooty-the man who has been jumping out at children for five years? While Williams matches the description given by some of the people who say they saw The Naked Creek Man, he doesn’t match the accounts o( others. This leaves open the possibility that he’s an opportunist, a copycat who read the news stories and craved the limelight, a product of urban myth.

While myth and reality continue to feed upon and even create each other as they have for centuries, the balance between the two may be shifting in our urban world. It may be bard to think of urban legends any more without the overwhelming feeling that urban realities are overtaking them in sheer nuttiness.

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