Out of all the empty seats at the Reitz Union food court, he decided to sit at the table across from her.
The sophomore smiled back cautiously — as she has countless times at strangers who make small pleasantries. But she knew something wasn’t right.
Peering across the room she noticed the seating arrangement she had so carefully chosen when she entered the Reitz Union Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. The booth faces Pollo Tropical, but the walls hug it, making it the perfect semi-hidden study space.
“He smiled at me. He made eye contact,” the 19-year-old female sociology UF sophomore said. “He kept checking around the corner.”
At around 5:50 p.m., the man sat down and repositioned his chair so that he was directly diagonal to her in the corner table. Her stomach dropped, and her smile faded.
“When I did look over he was jerking himself off,” she said. “I really didn't know what to do.”
She realized she had two choices: wait until he left or see if he chooses to lunge at her when trying to leave. She knew she could make enough noise to alert others in the food court if it happened.
“Worst comes to worst, he would grab me and potentially sexually assault me,” she said.
Her saving grace arrived in the form of another student.
Do you mind watching my stuff while I use the restroom?
Shaken out of her trance, she looked up to see Rachel Nattis, a 19-year-old health science UF sophomore — a student she had never met before. Nattis’s backpack and books were scattered across a booth on the opposite end of the room.
“She was sitting in a corner, so when I first walked up to her I didn't see anyone else,” Nattis said. “As I went to turn around because she said yes, I saw this individual sitting there who just did not look like he belonged at all.”
Making eye contact with the victim the whole time, Nattis said: “Actually, I’m going to go get my things.”
The victim said she snapped out of her panic after Nattis spoke. She then asked Nattis to come over to the table. Agreeing and walking over, Nattis noticed the man adjusting his pants and quickly leaving the food court.
That’s when Nattis saw the victim break down in tears.
Retelling the story to Nattis, they both decided to contact the University Police Department’s non-emergency line. On the phone, the victim was asked: “Are you calling us to let us know so we can keep an eye out?”
The victim said yes, but the question was odd to her at the time. Later, she decided to call her parents. Her father, who retired from the military and police, was upset and called UPD. He was told that his daughter didn’t want to open an investigation.
“I was never asked that,” she said. “But because I didn't specify that, they used that as an excuse to not have to open up that kind of paperwork.”
She had to call UPD again and clarify she wanted an investigation opened. Later that week, she went into UPD to watch the video footage.
“They only had one camera image,” she said. “The only image they have of him is one of him walking in and one of him leaving and it's black and white, grainy.”
A couple of weeks earlier, she noticed there were no cameras in the seating area adjacent to UF’s bookstore and across from Pollo Tropical. She could only spot one security camera near the walkway of Pollo Tropical.
The victim said the detective on the case was surprised at the lack of cameras in the food court. The building was last renovated in 2016. She said the detective told her the Reitz Union had no cameras in the entrances or exits.
UPD didn’t respond to requests for comment until Sunday morning and didn’t return a call with information. Also, UF didn’t provide comment before publication on the incident or lack of cameras at the Reitz Union.
“I feel like there are so many other things that could have happened that there would have been no cameras for,” she said.
UPD released a notice with the man’s photo on Oct. 29 — about six days after the incident.
“The University of Florida Police is seeking to identify the shown individual who may be related to an indecent exposure incident that occurred on October 23 … ,” the bulletin wrote.
UPD is asking anyone who has information regarding the man to contact UPD or submit a tip to its silent witness portal. The victim encourages others to use their best judgment.
“I was the victim, but I should have trusted my gut when it said something was off,” the victim said. “ … This is something that can happen because genuinely I didn't even think of it as in the realm of possibility for something that could happen.”
This is a developing story. Check alligator.org for updates
Contact Isabella at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Ad_Scribendum.
Isabella Douglas is a second-year journalism major and the criminal justice reporter for The Alligator's Metro desk. She previously worked as a news assistant for The Alligator's University team and as a contributing writer for the New Tampa & Wesley Chapel Neighborhood News. When she isn't reporting, she can be found reorganizing her bookshelf and adding books to her ever-growing TBR.