Posted: September 27, 2017 at 7:44 pm

By Neel Madhavan, Joel Norman and Ben Murray

On the evening of Aug. 14, WVU student Anna Smith was sitting on the back porch of her house in Sunnyside talking with a friend who was visiting from out of town.

(Editor’s Note: Anna Smith is a pseudonym. She asked that her name be changed for safety concerns.)

They were preparing to go downtown to High Street to celebrate the end of the summer before classes started for the fall semester.

That’s when Smith saw the hooded figure lurking in her kitchen.

“I was confused at first because I had just recently moved and this was the first time I had lived by myself,” said Smith, a graduate student in English. “Not that many people know where I live now, and it was someone I had never seen before, so I was confused as to why they were there.”

According to social media postings, multiple incidents of burglary, stalking and assault took place throughout August in Sunnyside, particularly around Grant Avenue and Beechurst Avenue. Victor Michael Panico, 27, of Morgantown, was arrested by Morgantown Police in connection to incidents.

The use of social media helped spread awareness for people to be careful in the Sunnyside area, but Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston says that information is often exaggerated in social media posts.

[Storify: https://storify.com/BenMurray23/sunnyside-stalker]

“A lot of rumors were floating around social media, and most of it was completely inaccurate, false and inflammatory,” Preston said. “That’s one of the downfalls of social media. It gets information out there quickly, but it also doesn’t always have the most accurate information.”

The Aug. 14 attack was the most violent offense reported, and it escalated when the hooded figure walked onto the back porch.

“’Sup bitches?” he said.

The man started punching both girls repeatedly in the face, knocking the girls down and even throwing a lawn chair that struck one of the girls in the back.

Then, he left.

Once the two girls had determined he was no longer in the house, they immediately locked all the doors and called the police.

“My brother lives very close to me,” Smith said. “So, after we were done calling the police, I called him and told him, basically blubbering on the phone, that someone had just broken into my apartment. ‘Like, can you please come?’ And he came, along with a few of his friends, as well.”

Morgantown Police arrived shortly thereafter, in addition to a couple EMTs that briefly checked the girls out and examined their injuries.

“The EMTs basically just looked at our faces, our injuries,” Smith said. “And just said, you know, you can go to the hospital to seek medical care if you want, which I definitely didn’t want to. A hospital was the last place I wanted to be at that time.”

Only Smith was able to give the police a written statement because her friend was still in a state of shock over what had just occurred.

“I gave a statement,” Smith said. “And after that, I kind of, just, didn’t want to be in my apartment anymore. So, we went to my brother’s apartment and stayed there.”

Jessica Mannering, a junior strategic communications major, reported another incident the very next night.

She spoke of a man who followed her in a car down the street in Sunnyside, while asking her suspicious questions through the window of the vehicle.

“I didn’t initially think it was a life-threatening situation, just some weirdo in town,” Mannering said. “But then, later in the night I saw everyone tweeting about scenarios with someone of the same description and I was immediately sick to my stomach.”

Thus far, Panico has been the only person arrested in the Sunnyside incidents. Panico was arrested on Aug. 25 for burglary and battery.

“It’s isolated,” Preston said. “It wasn’t widespread. It was one individual that did something and he was identified.”

At the time that Panico was arrested for the incidents in Sunnyside, he was already in custody for robbing a woman on Aug. 17 near the Life Sciences Building on WVU’s downtown campus.

Panico has a history beyond the incidents in August. Three years ago, he was arrested for shoplifting during Halloween weekend. Additionally, Panico was arrested for incidents in 2012 and 2013, though what he was arrested for is not specified.

“He is not an ‘unknown’ person,” Preston said. “He’s been arrested before so this is not a first-time event, unfortunately. But, the good side of that is that within a few days of the stuff happening and after a few weeks the full extent of his involvement was identified.”

According to records from the Monongalia County assessor’s office, Panico’s father, Joseph Victor Panico, owns a number of properties in the Sunnyside area, particularly along Beechurst Avenue. Also, the elder Panico owns eight parking lots, according to the 2015 Sunnyside TIF Property Database.

“I’ve always felt safe in Morgantown,” Smith said. “I’ve never felt unsafe. I never thought twice about walking home alone. I run on the rail trail by myself all the time. I just never really saw something like this happening to me. And it’s still kind of a shock thing that something like this happened. And it’s, like, probably going to be something I have to live with for a long time, but, I guess I just worry for everyone else that probably have the same mindset that were in this bubble of protection, because we’re not.”