911 caller called hero after Auburn University student raped on moving bus

Published: Sep. 18, 2017 at 10:26 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2017 at 3:48 PM CDT
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(Source: WSFA 12 News)
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Tony Martin Patillo (left) and James Don Johnson (right) (Source: Auburn Police Department)
Tony Martin Patillo (left) and James Don Johnson (right) (Source: Auburn Police Department)

AUBURN, AL (WSFA) - Two transit workers are facing rape and sodomy charges in the attack of an Auburn University student.

The victim was using a late night shuttle service for students when she was targeted.

According to investigators, one of the transit workers steered the bus, as the other went after the 18-year-old woman. The incident happened on a moving bus traveling off campus. A Good Samaritan ended up spotting suspicious behavior by one of the suspects and acted fast to notify authorities, leading to arrests in the case.

On Friday at approximately 11:50 p.m, Auburn police received a report of a man exposing himself while standing over a woman in the 700 block of Aspen Heights Lane.

"The caller advised that they observed a male subject standing over a female subject who was laying on the ground, and he apparently had his pants down," said Assistant Chief William Mathews.

Responding officers located the suspect, identified as Tony Martin Patillo, 51, of Columbus, Georgia, near the roadway and detained him.

Further investigation determined that the victim, who appeared to be incapacitated, got on a bus near Magnolia Avenue, which borders campus. She found herself alone on the bus with Patillo and the driver, James Don Johnson, 32, of Auburn.

Both men were employees of First Transit, the contractor hired by Auburn University to provide late-night transportation service for students, called Tiger Ten.

"While on the bus, she was sexually assaulted by Patillo, an employee of First Transit. The investigation further determined that Johnson, who was driving the bus, engaged in actions to perpetuate the crime while Patillo was in the rear of the bus assaulting the victim," Mathews stated.

Patillo later exited the bus near Aspen Heights Lane with the female victim, and it was at that point he was observed by passersby standing over her. Johnson continued on, steering the bus along its route.

"He was complicit in the event. He allowed the event to take place," Mathews said of Johnson.

Auburn police commended the Good Samaritan who dialed 911 to help the victim. The university has been encouraging a bystander intervention program for several years, Mathews indicated.

"In our minds, the people that called us to report the suspicious incident are really the heroes of the story. We encourage people to contact us anytime they see something suspicious and give us the opportunity to investigate," Mathews said.

"It was because of their quick reaction and notification to the police, that we were able to make such a quick arrest," he added.

Investigators were eventually able to identify, contact, and interview the victim.

Patillo was initially arrested on four counts of public lewdness and was transported to the Lee County Jail.

The investigation led police to obtain warrants for the arrest of Patillo and Johnson for the offenses of rape first degree and sodomy first degree. Those warrants were executed on Patillo at the Lee County Jail. He has a $127,000 bond.  Johnson was arrested at his home on Saturday and transported to the Lee County Jail. He has a $125,000 bond.

Gracie Haas, a sophomore, lives at an apartment complex on Aspen Heights Lane where the passerby spotted Patillo and the victim.

Her roommates and friends have been sharing news articles about the crime, and she heard classmates discussing it on campus Monday.

"Everyone is upset because obviously we've all been on the transit alone with the drivers," she said. "It's scary for us. I live with two other girls, and we're all just shaken by the event. It's so terrifying and upsetting, just awful, so I'm sure we'll all try to ride together from now on."

Auburn police stressed safety precautions for students.

"At all times, whether it's early or late in the evening or the middle of the night, you should always travel in groups. Try not to be by yourself," Mathews explained. "Have friends around you and travel in pairs or threes or fours. Safety in numbers always applies."

Auburn University issued a statement about the incident:

Two arrests have been made resulting from a sexual assault that occurred early Saturday morning. Auburn University is working with the City of Auburn Police Division in their investigation.

Our top concern is the well-being of the victim, and we cannot stress in strong enough terms our shock and distress over this despicable act. We immediately provided support and all available resources to the victim and continue to do so.

The suspects were employees of First Transit, the contractor hired by Auburn to provide late night transportation service for students. The contractor is required to conduct thorough background checks on its employees and has terminated the employment of both suspects. We are evaluating the future of the university's relationship with First Transit.

In a campus safety advisory issued Monday, the university said that because Auburn police quickly charged the suspects, there was "no ongoing threat to students or the campus community."

Officials added that they're evaluating both how the incident happened as well as the contractor's security measures.

Authorities are also helping provide support to the victim, who was not identified.

"This is a terrible crime. We're really focused on the victim at this point and making sure that she has everything she needs through the university services," Mathews said. "We hope to help her through the prosecution."

Tiger Ten is not part of the night security shuttle system operated by Campus Safety & Security.

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