A woman was attacked from behind and hit with a club or bat as she walked home from work on Tuesday night in this area of Brackett Street in Portland’s West End. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A 24-year-old woman was attacked from behind and hit with a club or bat as she walked home from work on Brackett Street in Portland’s West End neighborhood on Tuesday night, police said.

It was at least the fourth attack against women in the West End neighborhood since October. One earlier incident did not result in physical violence. The latest assault was reported to police just before 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. The victim was taken to the hospital after calling police.

A witness told police that the attacker, described as a thin white man about 6 feet tall, ran up behind the victim and hit her with some sort of club or blunt object, Portland police spokesman David Singer said. The suspect, who was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and a ball cap, was last seen running away on Carleton Street, Singer said.

“Crimes like this are rare in Portland,” Singer said in a news release. “We would like to remind residents to always be aware of your surroundings and stay in well-lit areas, and try to walk in groups when possible. If you ever feel you are in immediate danger, call 911 and try to get the attention of other people in the area.”

The West End Neighborhood Association sent out an alert Wednesday morning warning people about “another random assault” of a woman in the 240 block of Brackett Street. The alert included details about the suspect that matched the description released by police.

The association held a meeting Wednesday evening at the Reiche School playground, which was attended by about 50 people. Officer Coreena Behnke, a community policing officer with the Portland department who has taught a women’s self defense class for more than 20 years, was invited to the meeting to share her perspective on the assaults as well as tips on how to defend yourself against an attack.

The Wednesday night class had been scheduled before the latest incident. Behnke conducts self-defense training in partnership with the Amy St. Laurent Foundation. Class registration fees are donated to the foundation, which was established in 2002 by St. Laurent’s mother. The foundation’s mission is to help educate women and children about how to protect themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations.

St. Laurent was murdered in Portland in 2001. Her body was found about two months after she disappeared buried in woods off Route 22 in Scarborough. She had been beaten, shot to death and sexually assaulted. Her murderer was convicted and sentenced to 60 years prison.

Behnke thanked the man, who disrupted Tuesday evening’s assault, and who likely saved the victim from suffering more serious injuries. That man, who identified himself as Edward Duffy, was among the people who attended the association meeting.

Portland Officer Coreena Behnke talks Wednesday evening at a West End Neighborhood Association meeting about about how people can stay safe in response to the recent attacks on women in the neighborhood. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I witnessed the assault firsthand last night,” Duffy told the crowd. “It was terrifying.”

In a brief interview after the meeting, Duffy said he was sitting on his porch on Brackett Street when he saw a man come up behind the victim suddenly and hit her with a club. The victim was not talking or texting on her phone and had no chance to defend herself, Duffy said. Duffy yelled at the attacker, who fled.

In a telephone interview before the association met Wednesday night, the victim said she was walking home when the man snuck up on her and hit her twice in the head with some type of club. The woman, who did not want to be identified, said she spent the night in the hospital before being released.

“He totally surprised me,” she said. She said her assailant seemed intent on hurting her, breaking one hand and severely bruising an elbow. She spent the night in the hospital before being released Wednesday.

“I feel OK. Fortunately, I don’t have a concussion,” she said.

She also shared her experience on social media.

Edward Duffy listens to Portland police Officer Coreena Behnke talk about staying safe in light of recent attacks in the West End, during a neighborhood association meeting Wednesday evening. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Please share,” the victim wrote. “I was assaulted with a club last night at 10:27 p.m. on Brackett Street in the West End right before the Cumberland Farms. Tall, thin, white guy, grey sweatshirt. He did not try to rob me, he just wanted to cause harm. Luckily someone yelled at him and he ran away. Seriously, do not walk alone and spread the word. This is not his first attack.”

Kim Sutton, president of the West End Neighborhood Association, said the association is holding self-defense classes with Behnke to help people be better prepared both to protect themselves and to react if they are attacked or see an attack. In addition to the recent attacks reported by police, Sutton said residents of the area are aware of another attack on a woman who did not report it to police.

“I feel like if, God forbid, they were to be attacked or see an attack, they won’t be scared to make a statement,” Sutton said.

Behnke said people should not hesitate to call police if they witness a person acting in a strange manner. At the same time, pedestrians need to remain alert and be aware of their surroundings.

Portland police Officer Coreena Behnke talks about using pepper spray to group at a West End Neighborhood Association meeting on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I am begging you, please don’t be talking on your cellphone when you are walking down the street. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times,” Behnke told the association gathering.

Behnke said one of the best defenses is yelling for help. She was asked about the effectiveness of pepper spray, but she said the public needs to remember that pepper spray, which is usually only effective in warding off an attack at close range, can be confiscated and used against the victim by the attacker.

“A lot of people think it (pepper spray) is cop in a can, but it’s not,” she said.

A better defense involves using a knee to the groin area or punching the attacker in the face – self-defense techniques that she will be teaching in her September class.

The attack on Tuesday night is the latest in a series of similar incidents. Portland police, citing the cases as active investigations, could not say whether the four assaults were committed by the same individual.

Police have not made any arrests and there are no suspects, Singer said.

On May 5, a woman was punched several times in the face and head as she walked along Gray Street in the West End around 9:40 p.m. The woman told police she was walking and talking on the phone when she felt a tap on her shoulder. When she turned, a man punched her, causing her to fall to the ground while he continued to hit her, police said.

At the time, a police spokesman said that there was no indication that the victim and attacker knew each other. The assailant did not communicate anything during the assault or attempt to take anything from the victim. He was described as a white man with a slim build wearing dark clothing.

In October, a 911 caller reporting hearing someone screaming and calling for help near 32 Thomas St. When officers arrived, a 34-year-old Portland woman with facial injuries told them she had been assaulted by a man who followed her in his car.

“The woman told us that she had been walking on Thomas Street near Carroll Street when she noticed a vehicle following her,” Maj. Robert Martin said in a statement after that attack. “The operator opened a passenger side window and asked for directions and then offered her a ride. When she refused, he got out of his car, walked up to her and punched her in the face several times, knocking her to the ground.”

Martin said witnesses told police it looked like the man was trying to drag the woman to his car. The man got back into his car and drove away on Carroll Street toward Vaughn Street.

About an hour later, police received a 911 call from a 37-year-old woman who reported a car followed her as she walked on Brackett Street toward Spring Street, also in the West End. She told officers the male driver called to her from an open window to get her attention. She ignored him and took out her cellphone to make a call when he made a U-turn and drove toward Maine Medical Center, Martin said.

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