Families fed up with antics of serial peeper in Greenport

08/29/2014 8:00 AM |
James Lawrence is escorted into town court last week. (Credit: Paul Squire)

James Lawrence is escorted into town court last week. (Credit: Paul Squire)

They find their window screens torn. They’ll notice patio furniture moved around, or broken. And sometimes, in the snow-covered mornings of winter, they can see footprints leading up to their homes.

These are the signs of a serial Peeping Tom a handful of Greenport residents say has been terrorizing them for years. 

Earlier this month, police said, the man they say is responsible — 37-year-old James Lawrence — was arrested after being accused of watching one Greenport woman through an open window as she slept on a living room couch. In that case, Mr. Lawrence allegedly used a stick to push a curtain aside for a better view.

“How many people is this guy going to do this to before he goes away?” asked Andy Harbin, a Greenport resident who said he’s had to install a $2,000 alarm system at his house because he and his family have been repeatedly targeted by a Peeping Tom they believe to be Mr. Lawrence.

Mr. Lawrence has a history of convictions that goes back nearly two decades, including burglaries and other arrests for creeping onto private properties and exposing himself to women and children. His alleged victims, at least half a dozen, say they’re worried he’ll be back outside their windows as soon as he’s released from jail again.

Mr. Harbin said his family moved to Greenport about 18 months ago, expecting to love the quiet bayside town.

“It’s ruined now because of this guy,” he said.

Mr. Lawrence is being held in county jail pending a trial in town Justice Court next month on the latest trespassing charge, but his alleged victims say they still jump at the slightest sound in the middle of the night.

“Whether he’s in jail or not, it doesn’t matter,” said one woman, who asked to be identified only as “J.” “No matter what anybody does, you don’t feel safe in your own home.”

Police Chief Martin Flatley said police can’t assume Mr. Lawrence is responsible for every Peeping Tom incident, though he is often a first suspect. He was arrested Aug. 9, one day after the woman he allegedly watched sleeping awoke and was able to recognize him — and scare him off.

He was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing and held on $500 bail or $1,000 bond. At a court appearance Friday morning, Mr. Lawrence’s Legal Aid attorney, Patrick Burns, declined to comment.

Mr. Lawrence’s long series of arrests and convictions for felony burglary, public lewdness and trespassing dates back to 1999, when he was convicted of two counts of felony burglary, according to a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Corrections. He was released in June 2008, after serving the maximum sentence. Soon after, his arrests in Greenport began.

In 2009 he was arrested twice — once in January in connection with what an April 16 Suffolk Times article described as a “months-long Peeping Tom spree” in the village, during which he was accused of masturbating outside several homes in full view of women and, in some cases, children.

He was arrested again in March 2009 after exposing himself to a 29-year-old female attendant at a laundromat on Front Street, according to news reports.

Over the next three years, Mr. Lawrence was arrested at least three more times, allegedly for exposing himself to young girls and peeking into the houses of Greenport residents.

Chief Flatley said the department is fully aware of Mr. Lawrence’s background.

“When he’s out, the Greenport officers working the sectors that he lives know he’s out there,” he said.

But, the chief added, it’s “impossible” to free up a police officer from a relatively small squad to maintain constant surveillance on Mr. Lawrence’s activities.

Police can only catch him after an alleged crime — or during, if he’s caught in the act by an officer — and charge him as harshly as possible, Chief Flatley said, noting that initial charges are often reduced to lesser offenses in plea deals that help Mr. Lawrence avoid serious jail time.

“You rely on the criminal justice system to try to keep him in, but that doesn’t always work,” Chief Flatley said. “It’s discouraging when you go through this much and you have somebody with a background like that. He’s in and out of jail and he’s never given a long sentence.”

On Friday, some of Mr. Lawrence’s alleged victims sat in the Southold Town courtroom to watch the latest proceeding against Mr. Lawrence. One woman — who also asked not to be named — said she planned to sit near the jury box where the prisoners were, so he could see her face. A court officer ultimately asked her to sit farther away.

Mr. Lawrence was led into court just after 11 a.m., flashing an obscene gesture at a reporter outside the building. A new court date for a jury trial was set for Sept. 16.

His alleged victims say they can’t understand why the courts haven’t done more to prevent further incidents. The victim calling herself “J” said she had no idea how many houses had been targeted until she spoke with neighbors.

“I was floored that it was happening in this community. That it was a lot of people. That everybody knew him,” she said.

Longtime Greenport resident Poppy Johnson said she’s also been targeted by a Peeping Tom she believes to be Mr. Lawrence. She said the repeated incidents over several years have rattled her faith in her hometown.

“This is really not the way you expect to live in beautiful Greenport,” she said.

The repercussions of Mr. Lawrence’s case extend beyond just privacy concerns. The female victim in the most recent incident — a law student who asked to be identified only as “A” — now has a restraining order against Mr. Lawrence.

Before court, she stepped outside to take a cell phone call. She returned minutes later, her jaw clenched.

Because of that order of protection, she said through gritted teeth, the Suffolk County District Attorney had just canceled her internship with that office. It was a conflict of interest, she was told, to have an alleged victim in one of their cases work in the department.

The alleged victims say they’re worried about what might happen next. Up to now, the Peeping Tom has stayed outside their homes, content to watch them sleep and expose himself outside their windows. But “J” worries the incidents may escalate.

“The fear is you just don’t know what he’s going to do,” she said.

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