Rotherhithe residents have been warned to be extra careful after a man approached several lone women in suspicious circumstances in Stave Hill Ecological Park this week.
The man came up to Rebeka Clark, who runs the park, and one of her volunteers, as well as a third local woman, to ask for help finding his nephew’s keys in a grassy part of the park. Several others reported very similar stories on social media.
Ms Clark was approached on Wednesday evening (October 15) at about 5pm: “I was just locking up the compound ready to leave, when a chap came up to me. He said his nephew had lost the keys somewhere over there in a grassy area and could I help him. There was no sign of a nephew.
“I told him that when keys are found they are brought into me. No keys had been handed in that day. He asked me again to help him.
“I said again ‘you’re more than welcome to come back tomorrow. It’s a very well-trafficked area, they’re likely to be found’.
But the man persisted, asking Ms Clark again if he could go back with her and help him find the keys.
“To which I just deliberately misunderstood and said ‘if they are handed in I can let you know. I’m really sorry I’ve got to catch up with my colleague who’s just down the path there.’
“It wasn’t that the guy was frightening, he appeared perfectly respectable. There was just something that made me not quite comfortable… Something was a little off.”
Ms Clark’s mild suspicion was taken to the next level when she was called by one of the female park volunteers later that evening.
This woman told Ms Clark that when left the park at 3.30pm she was approached by a man who told her his cousin had dropped keys and asked her to help.
The volunteer replied that he needed to speak to Ms Clark who would let him know if any keys had been handed in.
Similarly to Ms Clark’s story, the man asked again: “Yes but can you help me find them? They’re in here”. The woman apologised and said she was on her way home and running late.
Ms Clark said she asked the volunteer for a description and the same man appeared to have spoken to both of them.
The next morning she called the police, who “were immaculate” in the speed with which they handled the call, she said.
Another local resident who did not want to be named was also in touch with the police over the same matter. They said that officers saw the man who set off “like Linford Christie”. Police were eventually able to track him down to the south of the park.
The man reportedly gave an address that was not local to the area. Police were not able to arrest him.
Ms Clark added: “Unfortunately the police are able to question people for suspicious behaviour, but they are not allowed to detain people who have been asking people to help them find a set of keys that their nephew has lost.”
Ms Clark and the anonymous resident both said that the police commended locals on their teamwork in quickly communicating the suspicious behaviour of this man.
She added that the park has changed its working procedures so that no one is leaving by themselves or working by themselves any more.
“I think it would be very sensible if we followed the police advice to remain vigilant,” she added. “We need to keep our eyes open and be aware.”
Asked what people should do if an unknown man asks them to help look for keys in the park, she said: “Tell them ‘no I’m sorry, I don’t have time’. And I would strongly suggest that if it is a young man who says his nephew has lost a set of keys – call the police.”
Police said: “On Thursday, 14 October, officers from the Surrey Docks Safer Neighbourhoods Team responded to reports of a man acting suspiciously in Russia Dock Woodlands, SE16. It was alleged that the man had approached lone women in the area asking them to help him look for his keys.
“Officers stopped and spoke to a man at length. His details were taken but no evidence of any offences was discovered. Officers have continued to carry out patrols in the area in the days since the incident.
“While no offences were identified on this occasion, the members of the public who called the police did the right thing. We would always encourage the public to call 999 if they are concerned about someone’s behaviour and think they or another person may be at risk.”
Witnesses described the man as black, in his 20s and about 6ft tall.