posted on tue, feb. 10, 2004

homeless man's pastor told police of assault
hours after police say he attacked an 8-year-old girl, b.m. called his minister for guidance.

inquirer staff writers

b.m. called his pastor saturday night and told him that he had done something bad, something he was ashamed about.  he needed to talk.

then the pastor saw news reports of the attack at a center city library, in which an 8-year-old girl was beaten, sexually assaulted, and left unconscious behind a toilet.

"my heart was just ripped out," said richard knox, who ministers to the homeless with fellowship tabernacle community church in north philadelphia.  "i knew right off the bat it was him."

with knox by his side, b.m., 23, surrendered to philadelphia police sunday and was charged with attempted rape and attempted murder in the attack at the free library of philadelphia's independence branch.  yesterday, bail commissioner patrick stack set b.m.'s bail at $1 million.

it was not the first time b.m. had appeared in court.  in june 2001, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor simple assault in a similar case involving a 9-year-old girl.

and it was not the first time b.m. had caused trouble at a city library.  last year, he was banned from the library's central branch. library director elliot shelkrot said b.m. was asked to leave because he used the computers to look at pornography.

a library employee who asked that her name not be used for fear of repercussions said b.m. was often disruptive in the library, yelling and using foul language when librarians told him he had used his 30-minute allotted time on the public computers.  he looked mostly at pornography, she said, and officials banned him from the library only after he exposed himself to a 16-year-old library assistant.

in the earlier assault, b.m. found his victim in the women's bathroom of the venice island recreation center on cotton street in manayunk on july 7, 2000.

"she went to the bathroom and he came in after that, pulled her bathing suit down, and tried to choke her," said the victim's mother, wendy riley of manayunk.  "she screamed and he ran out."

b.m. was arrested almost immediately as he walked away on green lane, riley said.  he was charged with aggravated assault and related crimes.

but because the victim could not positively identify b.m. as her attacker, prosecutors cut a deal, allowing him to plead guilty to lesser charges.

"we just didn't want to risk him just walking away from the courtroom" with no supervision or conviction, said assistant district attorney sybil murphy.  "getting some supervision for this guy was paramount to the mother, and paramount to me."

she added: "none of us were happy or even satisfied" with the plea.

b.m., who had already served 11 1/2 months in jail and on house arrest awaiting trial, was eventually released.  he was ordered to have no contact with his victim, who saw her attacker's face for the first time in years on tv sunday night.

"i was shocked," the girl said yesterday.

the shock waves from saturday's assault reverberated from the mayor's office to the streets of chinatown, where the victim lives.  mayor street ordered a security review of the library system, spokeswoman barbara grant said.

"we're going to do everything reasonable, and some things that are unreasonable, to make sure they're safe," grant said.

chinatown residents such as wiem liang, 40, were angry that the defendant was in the library on saturday instead of in jail.

"if it were china - bang!  we would kill him.  then he wouldn't do it again," liang said.

meanwhile, officials from other area facilities, including the franklin institute and the philadelphia museum of art, said they were confident that current security procedures provided a safe environment for visitors.

vincent thompson, a spokesman for the philadelphia school district, said officials were reminding employees to monitor hallways, doorways, and children going to and from bathrooms.

the independence branch opened at 2 p.m. yesterday, two hours later than usual, so shelkrot could talk to the staff.  an extra security guard was on duty, sitting near the double doors that led to a small hallway and the bathrooms within.  the key, normally kept at the front desk, was in the guard's pocket; he unlocked the door for patrons needing a restroom.

"people feel terrible, and everyone is wondering what could they have done differently," shelkrot said.

on saturday afternoon, the 8-year-old victim, accompanied by her grandmother and two other children, ages 3 and 4, visited the independence branch, near seventh and market streets, police said.  sometime between 4:15 and 4:30 p.m., she went alone into the women's restroom.

there, police said, b.m. ripped off the child's clothing, sexually assaulted and choked her, then jammed her body between the toilet and the wall.  another child found her a short time later.  library employees immediately called police.

the girl was in critical but stable condition last night at children's hospital of philadelphia.

a few hours after the attack, knox said, b.m. called and left a message.  he called again a short time later.  knox said he answered, and b.m. told him he was in trouble.

"he said, 'i'm afraid to go into it, but it happened down at the library, the city library,' " knox said.

the pastor met b.m. a few years ago though the church's outreach program.  b.m. came to philadelphia in 2000, wandering east after spending time in texas and colorado, knox said.

"he's very easygoing, but he is prone to explode, which i've never seen him do, but he often told me about it," knox said.  "he was mad that he was homeless and things like that."

knox told b.m. to meet him sunday at a mcdonald's in north philadelphia.  when knox learned of the attack on saturday, he called police.

the next day, knox met b.m..  the homeless man's clothing was dirty and he "just looked down, really down."  he carried a duffel bag containing a blanket and told knox he had slept inside suburban station.

knox said that he urged b.m. to turn himself in, and that the homeless man said he would if knox stayed with him.  "he said he needed help," knox said.  "he said he threw his life away."

once in custody, b.m. was treated gently by officers, knox said, and "it was just very professional.  they handled him with care."

while giving his statement, knox said, b.m. "broke down crying.  he was just devastated by what he did, but he knew he had to pay the price.  he wanted to apologize to everyone because he felt he let the entire ministry down.  i told him, 'just deal with it. we'll continue.'

"it made my job easier that he was remorseful.  if he'd been cold-blooded, it would have been a whole different story."

knox prayed with b.m. in his cell before leaving him sunday.  but knox also said he had problems sleeping because of fears about his own daughters, ages 8 and 14.

"my heart is broken for the young lady.  she will be scarred for the rest of her life," knox said.  "and he's a young man who threw his life away. he's a perfect example of what a hopeless life can do to a young man.  where there is no light, there's darkness."

contact staff writer natalie pompilio at 215-854-2813 or contributing to this article were inquirer staff writers leslie pappas, michael currie schaffer and susan snyder.

� 2004 philadelphia inquirer and wire service sources. all rights reserved.

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