July 11, 2012— -- Missouri prosecutors are trying to decide whether to charge an alleged serial hugger who pretends to know women and cons them into giving him a hug.
So far, at least 36 women have come forward to complain about unwanted hugs, and one woman said the man also kissed her on the lips during their embrace.
Police have not released the name of the man, but the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly, dubbed him "Jack the Gripper" or "John Wayne Embracey." One St. Louis suburb arrested him on probable cause, but released him an hour later.
Most of the women who have come forward called police in Des Peres, Mo. According to their reports, the alleged hugger typically approaches women while they are shopping by themselves, pretends to know them as a former neighbor, and then asks for a hug under the pretense that it is his birthday, Des Peres Detective Marshall Broughton said.
"He'd say, 'Hi, remember me? I lived down the street in the corner house. How ya been?'" Broughton said. "Obviously [the women] didn't remember him, but he did it so quickly and convincingly that they felt embarrassed that they didn't know him."
Des Peres police identified the man, who is 44, but did not arrest him because of uncertainty about whether his actions were criminal, Broughton said. The alleged hugger showed up at the Des Peres police department with his attorney on June 20 after police requested that he come in for questioning. He made no statements at the meeting, Broughton said.
Before he could leave, however, he was handcuffed by police officers from nearby Warson Woods, who had conducted a photo lineup in which a witness readily identified him, Warson Woods Police Chief Robert Stanczak said. Warson Woods police questioned him for about an hour before letting him go, Stanczak said.
Des Peres and Warson Woods police have reported the hugging incidents to St. Louis County prosecutors, who will determine whether to pursue third-degree assault charges, among others.
While county prosecutors may determine that the hugger's actions did not violate state law, Stanczak said they clearly constituted assault under Warson Woods municipal ordinances.
According to Stanczak, four women reported being hugged by the man in Warson Woods, three of them in parking lots.
Stanczak said the hugger sometimes varied his approach, once allegedly approaching a woman in scrubs and pretending to have met her at the hospital while his wife was giving birth. He sometimes exploited name tags on uniforms to feign knowledge of women's names, once calling a woman named Susan "Susie," he said.
Of the women who reported unwanted hugs to police in Des Peres, a town of about 8,400, most recalled incidents from other towns in St. Louis County and as far back as three years ago. Broughton said they came forward to report the hugs after the story of the serial hugger appeared on local TV news.
"This thing has caused more of a stir than anything else going on in this town," Broughton said, adding that since the alleged hugger's arrest, he has heard no reports of unwanted hugs.
If prosecutors decide to pursue charges against the man, his identity will become public, and a warrant will be issued for his arrest.
Calls to the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's office were not returned Tuesday.