A Cornell custodian finishing up his shift and a freshman printing out a computer science worksheet both sprang into action when they saw a half-naked man attacking two women this weekend on North Campus, helping to end a terrifying episode that resulted in criminal charges.
Rogelio Gordon, a 35-year-old custodian in the Robert Purcell Community Center, pulled the man off one woman twice and brought the woman to safety. And when the suspect ran outside and attacked a different freshman woman, witnesses said, Gordon dashed toward the man and knocked him off her, too. That woman later told police she wasn’t able to escape until Gordon intervened.
“Instincts and having cared for my daughter, my girl, my mom, my sister — all that came into play,” Gordon told The Sun. “If something happened to them, I’d want someone else to do the same thing.”
When the man ran away from Gordon after attacking the second woman, a student stepped in. A freshman who wrestled in high school grabbed the man, put him in a headlock and tried to calm him down until police arrived.
“Obviously he was a threat,” Ian Moritz ’22 said in an interview. “Once I recognized and understood that, I just went for it. He’s clearly a danger to himself and others like that.”
Cornell police on Sunday arrested Saano E. Murembya ’22, of Okemos, Michigan, and charged him with unlawfully imprisoning and attempting to sexually abuse two women. The 18-year-old runner on the cross country and track and field teams has pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released from jail after posting bail. His lawyer has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Murembya’s girlfriend told police that she saw him take “a tab of what he called acid” — referring to the hallucinogen LSD — hours before the Sunday afternoon incident.
Murembya fled his girlfriend’s dorm around 4 p.m. and entered RPCC, where he grabbed a woman and tried to take off her clothes while yelling that he was going to rape her, police and witnesses said. They said he pinned another woman down outside minutes later, also threatening to rape her — until Gordon stepped in.
Gordon, who works on the student center support team, said he walked out of RPCC’s multipurpose room when he heard a commotion, planning to tell rowdy students to calm down. He quickly realized the noise was in response to something much more serious.
Gordon saw a woman on the ground, fighting off a man later identified by police as Murembya.
“He was foaming at the mouth,” Gordon said of the man. “He was just out of it.”
Gordon pulled the man off her, but the man shoved Gordon and began chasing the woman in RPCC, he said. Gordon said the man caught up to the woman and began grabbing her and trying to unzip her jacket.
“Get off her!” Gordon yelled, pulling the man police say was Murembya away from her. Gordon said he then took the woman to a room and showed her how to lock it from the inside so she could calm down in a safe place. He said someone had called 911 by then.
Gordon and Moritz rushed outside to see where the man had gone and saw him pulling another woman to the ground.
The pair darted toward him.
“I felt like I was 12 years old, I ran so fast,” Gordon said.
“Leave her alone!” he yelled, knocking the man off the freshman woman. The woman later told police that Murembya had grabbed her hair and jacket hood and pulled her down before getting on top of her and threatening to rape her.
Gordon helped the woman up and the man ran off again, witnesses said.
“That’s when the freshman student got him, pulled him down,” Gordon said, recalling the incident. “The freshman was great. I’m glad he was there, too, because he was brave enough to do that.”
Moritz shouted at the man to stop moving, but he said the man instead sprinted in his direction.
Moritz said he grabbed Murembya’s arms, pushed him onto the ground and put him in a headlock. He told members of a forming crowd to call 911 and get the man a cup of water.
“He would calm down and then amp back up and squirm a lot,” Moritz said of Murembya.
When the police arrived shortly before 5 p.m., they put Murembya on his stomach and cuffed him. At that point, Gordon and Moritz approached each other and shook hands.
Moritz said Gordon deserves “every ounce of respect” that people can give him. Cornell police acknowledged the custodian’s actions in a statement on the incident, saying a “passerby was able to intervene and pull Murembya off one of the victims before police arrived.”
The suspect “definitely could’ve done a lot more bad stuff had he not been stopped,” Moritz said.
The two men’s intervention was the second time in less than a month that a quick-thinking Cornell staff member had stepped in during a dangerous situation.
After seeing a man jump off the Collegetown Stewart Avenue bridge and land in a net below in September, Walter Hartman, a Cornell Building Care employee, encouraged the man to stay where he was while help arrived. Ithaca firefighters eventually pulled the man up and he was taken to a local hospital, where he was expected to fully recover.