Creepy 'Serial Hugger' Sounds Like a Bad Tosh.0 Joke (But It's Not)S

There's a "serial hugger" running loose in Missouri — dubbed "Jack the Gripper" or "John Wayne Embracey" by a local paper — who runs around town soliciting hugs from women using every party-goer's favorite trick for awkward run-ins: pretending he's met them before.

Yes, we know: it does sound like an ill-conceived (albeit PG-rated — hey, no rape jokes!) joke from that merry prankster Tosh.0. But the serial hugger is no joke, he's not doing it for laughs, and there's no hidden camera. After 36 women recently complained to the police about unwanted hugs, prosecutors are trying to decide whether his actions are legitimately criminal.

According to the women who filed complaints, the alleged hugger likes to approach women shopping by themselves, claim he's a former neighbor, and ask for a hug because it's his birthday. (In case you were wondering: the man is 44, not 12.) "He'd say, 'Hi, remember me? I lived down the street in the corner house. How ya been?'" Des Peres Detective Marshall Broughton told ABC. "Obviously [the women] didn't remember him, but he did it so quickly and convincingly that they felt embarrassed that they didn't know him." Other times, the hugger might switch it up — once he allegedly told a woman in scrubs that he had met her at the hospital when his wife was giving birth, and another time he called a woman with a name tag that said Susan "Susie."

It's both disturbing and fascinating how the man employs tactics commonly used by your run-of-the-mill street harasser and kicks them up a notch. Women are socialized to be nice to strangers, whether that means instinctively smiling when a cat-caller yells, "Why so sad? Smile, baby!" or engaging with strangers that approach you on the street, even if you don't feel safe (or just don't feel like) having a conversation. That's not to say women should never feel comfortable talking to strangers, but most of us know from personal experience that you risk being called a bitch or worse if you're not congenial with everyone you come across in the public sphere.

Although the Police Chief of Warson Woods County told ABC the repeated and devious hugging is clearly assault in his eyes, it looks like St. Louis County police could determine that the serial hugger isn't a criminal according to state law. And that's why his strategy has worked so well for so long. (After his story appeared on the local TV news, women started reporting coerced hugs from multiple counties around the area, going as far back as three years ago.) He's banking on the razor-thin line between being friendly and being harassed. Will it save him from prosecutors?

'Serial Hugger' Preys on Women in St. Louis Suburbs [ABC]

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