After woman loses purse, 'finder' charged with theft

November 30, 1991|By Brian Sullam

Calvert County prosecutors are giving the term "law and order" a new definition.

This Wednesday, in Calvert County District Court, they are going to prosecute 56-year-old Joseph Chase for taking a wallet and 45 cents from an abandoned purse he found on a bench next to a Huntingtown grocery store.

The official charge is theft under $300.

Karen Gardner, the woman who lost the purse, is not happy about being subpoenaed to testify in a case she believes shouldn't be tried.

"As far as I can tell no crime was committed. My purse was abandoned property," she said.

"If this were a murder trial, I would certainly go, but this is so ridiculous."

Not so, says Michael Manning, deputy state's attorney for Calvert County.

"This case may not be important in the whole scheme of things, but a commissioner has determined that a crime was committed," he said.

It all happened on Oct. 5, when Ms. Gardner, a Falls Church, Va., resident, and her husband, John Phillips, stopped at Bowen's Grocery Store to get some refreshments after spending the morning house-hunting in Calvert County. They took their snacks to some nearby benches, ate and then left to continue their search.

About 45 minutes later, Ms. Gardner realized she did not have her purse. The couple went back to Bowen's.

"I started to look in the garbage cans, and a woman asked if I was looking for a purse," said Ms. Gardner, who is a budget administrator with the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "When I said I was, she told me that she had seen Joe Chase with it."

Ms. Gardner said she went into Bowen's to see about finding Mr. Chase. Some of the townspeople told her Mr. Chase was an alcoholic and that the Rev. John Hoffman, pastor of Huntingtown United Methodist Church, "looked after him."

A state trooper in the store heard the discussion. Ms. Gardner said she did not want to press any charges against Mr. Chase; she just wanted her purse.

A few minutes later, she and her husband found the purse and the contents of her wallet in a trash bin across the street from the store.

"All my credit cards, IDs and checkbook had been neatly placed in a paper bag next to the purse," said Ms. Gardner. "The only thing missing was my ratty 10-year-old wallet and some loose change amounting to about 45 cents."

About a week later, she got a call from the police. They had found her wallet and would mail it to her. It never came.

"Instead I got a letter telling me to appear for the trial of Joseph Chase," she said.

Despite her wishes, the state trooper conducted an investigation and filed an application for a statement of charges with the District Court commissioner, who determined there was "probable cause" a crime had been committed.

Ms. Gardner said she tried to talk Mr. Manning, the prosecutor, into dropping the case.

"He told me it was my obligation as a citizen to appear for trial, and if I didn't, he would have an arrest warrant issued for me," she said.

Her husband, who is a law student, asked what crime Mr. Chase was being charged with. Mr. Manning told him he wouldn't "understand until he had passed the bar." Mr. Phillips said he thinks prosecuting the case is "an awfully poor use of prosecutorial discretion."

And in Huntingtown, where the Rev. Hoffman said "everybody knows Joe," Mr. Chase continues his daily routine, living in a trailer, earning his keep doing odd jobs for people around town.

"Some people don't like him because he gets foulmouthed and obnoxious when he gets drunk. Some people fear him because he is a black male, but he is a moral man who knows right from wrong," said the Rev. Hoffman, who took Mr. Chase under his wing about 20 years ago.

"He has a problem with alcohol, but he doesn't want to get involved in the social welfare system. He wants to lead an independent lifestyle."

The Rev. Hoffman said Mr. Chase has had a "few minor scrapes" with the law and that he has tried, but ultimately failed, to have Mr. Chase enrolled in an alcoholism program run by the local mental health services office.

"He is one individual that could easily fall through the cracks if nobody paid any attention to him," said the Rev. Hoffman. "But there are those of us who look after him."

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