An unexpected gadget may have saved Lia’s life — her smartwatch.After an exhausting overnight work shift earlier this year, the 21-year-old returned home and soon fell asleep on her living room couch wrapped in a blanket.She woke up to the sound of the fan spinning in her guest bedroom. She swore the door was shut. It was the first sign, Lia remembers, that signalled something was wrong.Still sleepy and trying to brush off any feeling of worry, she stayed tucked under the blanket. But, out of the corner of her eye, Lia caught a glance of a figure wearing a hoodie. Her two miniature dogs began barking. She knew immediately it wasn’t a friendly guest.Trying not to draw attention to herself, Lia reached for her phone but couldn’t find it.What she did have was her Apple watch. She started messaging for help while pretending to be asleep.She heard the intruder’s heavy breathing. Moving from one room to the other. Recalling the event with tears in her eyes, Lia remembers the sound of plastic rubbing together. She thinks it might have been zip ties.“I was scared I was going to die,” she said.Some recipients initially thought the messages were a prank, but eventually her pleas for help were answered and police were called.For 25 minutes she remained as quiet as possible, trying to maintain her composure while thoughts bubbled in her mind of what might happen next. If her dogs would be hurt. If she would be killed.“At one point, I almost started crying because you can’t really do anything, right? Like you’re laying there. And you’re just hoping for the best. But my body just took over. And I held it out till the officer showed up.”Police knocked on her door. Lia said the man stood there silently.They knocked again.And then pounded the door a third time.She heard the intruder move from the carpeted living room floor to the linoleum-covered kitchen.“That’s when I decided to get up and run for the door.”Sitting on the same couch where the incident took place, Lia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, shared her harrowing story with Postmedia. Picking at a hole in her leggings and clenching her fingernails into the palms of her hands, she spoke about the fear that lingers and the uncertainty of finding closure.
Anonymous attempted sexual assault victim, Lia (Alias), retells what she has been through in her apartment in Calgary on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Her Apple watch was the device she used to text a friend and ask for help. She picked anxiously at the hole in her leggings while re-telling the harrowing tale.
Azin Ghaffari /
Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary
The man was arrested at her home that day and police confirm he has since been charged with break and enter with intent to commit sexual assault and criminal harassment. It wasn’t until later that Lia learned the accused was a former colleague who worked with her in a security setting.When he was arrested, police found a string backpack that allegedly belonged to him. It’s still difficult for Lia to describe the items in the bag. All she could manage to say was it included a hunting knife and adult toys.“I always think about the what ifs,” she said.“What if I never came home that day? What would have happened if I walked into that bedroom and saw him? What if he was standing in the kitchen with a gun?”She can’t spend a night alone anymore and any time she’s in her condo, which Lia is trying to sell, she’s anxious about the possibility of another break-in.One item that offers Lia some comfort is her SafeTracks GPS device provided to her by the Calgary police.The local service has been a partner with the Red Deer-based company SafeTracks GPS Canada Inc. since 2013 and runs the program thanks to funding from an unnamed corporate sponsor.Lia’s tracker is one of eight in circulation across Calgary. They are primarily given to victims of serious domestic violence, who have faced circumstances like grievous bodily harm, chronic stalking or attempted murder.Related
The hand-held tracker looks like a miniature cellphone with only a handful of buttons. The most important one — in the middle, in bright red letters — reads “SOS.” When someone clicks the button, they’re immediately connected to a 24-hour SafeTracks monitoring centre, which contacts the Calgary Police.It has live two-way cellular vote technology and doesn’t rely on standard cellular triangulation, making the users’ location immediately available to authorities.Sgt. Stephanie Brooks, who co-ordinates the police program, said more than anything it enhances victims’ safety.“I think if you can empower any domestic victim to be able to go out and still live their lives, even just one step above what they were living in fear about before, then I think anything like that is very important,” said Brooks.“I mean, obviously, we can’t prevent them all. And I wish we could, but anything that makes the victims feel better and safer and more secure is great.”
Anonymous attempted sexual assault victim, Lia (Alias), explains how her SOS emergency device works in her apartment in Calgary on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary
Azin Ghaffari /
Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary
She said the Calgary force usually has 12 trackers in circulation, but some are having technical issues fixed. When asked if the force has enough of the devices, Brooks said it fits their current needs and, if necessary, they can ask for more.The devices are currently distributed on a case-by-case basis and can be transferred from one victim to another, depending on their level of safety. The most serious cases will have access first.Brooks estimated about 50 people have used the program in Calgary since its inception.Vince Morelli, president of SafeTracks, said the company began tracking perpetrators and victims in the province in 2009.“These are saving lives,” said Morelli, who shared a handful of stories about the success of the device.During one incident, Morelli said a man broke into a woman’s house and had a knife at her throat. She was able to push the SOS button and police showed up before things escalated.Another example he cited was one in which a woman was shopping with her children. Her abusive partner had been released from custody and was searching for her. When she exited a changing room, he was standing there holding her children. She, too, hit the button and police responded.“We can’t end domestic violence but we can disrupt it,” said Morelli.While Lia’s case doesn’t relate directly to domestic violence, her situation and feelings of being in peril were dire. She said the tracker makes her feel safer, but she worries there aren’t enough in Calgary to meet demands of victims of violence or harassment.According to police statistics, sexual offences that involve a weapon or bodily harm have increased over time. Overall, police recorded five of these type of cases in 2016, then 30 in 2017 and 40 in 2018. There are 16 so far this year.In the first half of 2019, there were 451 cases of lesser sexual assaults, which include anything from inappropriate touching to sexual assault and one aggravated sexual assault.Sgt. Bruce Walker, who’s in charge of the Calgary police’s sex crimes unit, said he hasn’t seen a specific trend occurring within the city over the last five years, but he noted there is a greater number of people reporting sexual offences, which plays a role in the steady growth.The city’s crime statistics don’t include “break-and-enter with intent” but there were 1,011 dwelling break and enters reported in the first half of 2019, compared to 1,048 in the first half of 2017 and 1,221 in 2018.
Anonymous domestic abuse victim, Lia (Alias), poses for a photo in her apartment in Calgary on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary
Azin Ghaffari /
Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary
For Lia, the incident is still like a nightmare she can’t escape.Despite the fact her intruder is in custody, she still fears the potential of something similar happening again by him or someone else.Since that April morning, she has put her own safety measures in place.Each time Lia enters her condo she makes sure the front door is locked, searches each room of the home and sometimes leaves the patio door at the rear of her condo unlocked so she could jump over the balcony and flee if necessary.She finds it harder to trust people than she had previously, considering the perpetrator was a normal, though relatively insignificant, part of her daily life while they worked together.It’s a cautionary tale for many but one Lia never imagined.“I never in a million years thought anything like this would ever happen,” she said.Now that it has, she is determined to ensure other women know they aren’t alone. There are others who have faced and continue to face dangerous circumstances and the more people open up about them, the more likely people can protect themselves to the best of their ability, she explained.She wants people to know it’s okay to ask for help, to contact the police and to put themselves first by leaving situations where they feel uncomfortable or at risk.Personally, Lia is taking it one day at a time.“I don’t know if I’ll ever fully move on. But I think there’s potential for closure.”— With files from Stephanie Babychalsmith@postmedia.comTwitter: @alanna_smithh