BELMONT CRAGIN — When a 15-year-old girl was sexually assaulted and nearly killed on a December morning, it caught the attention of everyone in the neighborhood, including the police.
The attack on a child was what "kept most of us up at night during this case," detective Dan Jacobs told dozens of neighborhood residents at a meeting at Northwest Community Church, 5318 W. Diversey Ave., Saturday morning.
Jacobs was one of the police officers commended at the meeting for arresting Luis Alberto Pantoja, who Jacobs said was arrested with the help of DNA analysis and tips from neighborhood residents.
Saturday's meeting was attended by dozens and billed as a follow-up to a heated meeting in December called to find the person responsible for the attack.
"Everyone was very angry at that meeting," said Elizabeth Baez, 30-year resident of the neighborhood. "I think what I heard today shows they [police and local officials] are doing a good job."
Two area aldermen, police representatives and Jadine Chou, who oversees security for Chicago Public Schools, spoke at the event introducing neighborhood safety initiatives.
Among them was the launch of a safety seminar in several schools within the Grand Central police district, Chou said. The classes will be about "street safety," offering tips about how children could avoid trouble while walking outside.
"This incident is not the only incident that has happened to our young people," Chou said. "We can't afford to have another young person go through another tragedy like this."
Classes for high school students will include a gang awareness compontent, while younger students will get instruction on "stranger danger."
The schools include Prieto Math and Science, Hanson Park Elementary School, Northwest Middle School, Belmont Cragin Elementary School, Prosser High School and Mary Lyon Elementary School.
"We're going to be the example, and we are going to put pressure on our mayor to put this in all the schools in the city of Chicago," said Vanessa Valentin, a community organizer with Northwest Side Housing Center.
Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), who along with Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th), handed out certificates honoring members of the Chicago Police Department who worked on the case, also called on Belmont Cragin to be more vigilant and connected in their communities
"We are the eyes and ears for them. We must remain active. We've got to be proactive. An active community is a safe community," Reboyras said. "Know your neighbors."
Both aldermen said they support the hiring of more police officers.
The attack occurred about 6 a.m. on Dec. 17, a school day, in the 2400 block of North Long Avenue.
Police said the girl was "struck about the head and dragged into the rear yard of a nearby residence and sexually assaulted."
"She's going to need a lot of therapy and emotional support," Valentin said. Her organization has been working with the girl's father to set up a fund for her.
Pantoja, 25, was arrested a few weeks after that first meeting and is being held at Cook County Jail with his bail set at $2.5 million.
Sposato called Pantola a "lowlife scumbag" and echoed some of the concerns that residents had after learning that a sexual assault case against him in August had been dropped.
"The guy never should've been on the street I think," Sposato said.