Teenager is charged in 2 sex assaults

Police say he raped a jogger Monday and fondled a 5-year-old.

Published April 6, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Jesse Knight, a hulking teenager, was arrested Wednesday after witnesses told police he fondled a 5-year-old girl in a back yard.

But as police Officer Jennifer Lich looked at Knight, a 5-foot-11, 290-pound 16-year-old wearing Dickies brand shorts, she realized that he resembled the composite sketch of a man wanted for raping a 45-year-old jogger on Monday night.

By Thursday morning, Knight faced a new charge: armed sexual battery. Detective Pete Venero said Knight admitted to encountering the jogger. He told the detective that they had "consensual sex."

The jogger identified a photograph of Knight as her rapist, police said. She had told police that the attacker wore a shirt with lettering similar to the word "Dickies."

Knight also faces a charge of lewd and lascivious molestation in connection with the incident with the 5-year-old. Police said the girl and Knight knew each other but are not related.

The assault on the jogger stunned residents who live near Lassing Park. Police say Knight stalked the jogger and may have followed her for about half a mile along Beach Drive SE. Several people asked Knight what he was doing, according to Sgt. Joanne Lindsay. He told them he was just "exercising," and they didn't call police.

He eventually caught up to the jogger, whose name is being withheld because of the nature of the crime. She tried to run away.

Knight, who had a steak knife, caught her in Lassing Park near 17th Avenue and Beach Drive SE around 9:45 p.m., police said. He forced her into a nearby alley and raped her, police said.

Anita Vienuzis, 44, who lives across the street from the park, heard the jogger scream. She also saw the assailant beat her and say: "I told you to shut up." Vienuzis said she called police, then watched as the man dragged the jogger into an alley. The assailant fled before police arrived.

Knight is in 10th grade at Hamilton Disston, a district center for severely emotionally disturbed children. He has a criminal record that includes arrests on charges of aggravated battery, larceny and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

His stepmother, Tracy Knight, 36, said she was surprised by the charges. She said he made the honor roll regularly. "I'm going by what my son tells me," she said. "He's a good student and tells me that he goes to school. ... I know in my heart of hearts that he wouldn't be capable of doing something like this."

When asked about her son's criminal record, Ms. Knight replied, "Those are minor things ... just the things teenagers do."

Knight lives with his family in the 700 block of 13th Avenue S. On the night the jogger was raped, he told police, he was "wandering around the neighborhood."

Susan Wright, 56, lives across the street from Lassing Park and often walks along Beach Drive SE. She calls herself "fearless" and was thankful that police had arrested a suspect in the rape.

But when she goes out from now on, she plans to carry pepper spray.

Times researchers Angie Drobnic Holan and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.