An ordinary little crime turns into scary drama

MIKE ROYKO

August 18, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Boiled down to basic facts, the police report makes it sound like a routine, penny-ante crime. Not worth even a line in the news reports.

A woman is shoplifting in a department store in a suburban mall. She's spotted by a security guard, runs from the store, jumps in a car driven by a man, and they get away.

Things like that go on a hundred times a day in a metropolitan area as big as Chicago.

But if you were there, as I happened to be, it didn't seem routine. Especially when I think of what might have been.

It was late Sunday afternoon, and we were walking toward our car in the parking lot of the Northbrook Court shopping center.

Few people were in the lot because many of the stores were either closed or about to close.

Suddenly, I heard a woman shout a child's name. At the same time, there was a roar of a car's engine.

I turned and saw a woman on the other side of the traffic aisle yank a child toward her.

She did it just in time. A second or two delay and the child would have probably been killed.

Had my family not moved over a few seconds earlier, one or more of us could have been hit.

A car was speeding in reverse faster than I've ever seen a car go backward.

As it flashed by us, I saw a grim-faced man behind the wheel. A woman was in the passenger's seat.

Chasing the car on foot was a young woman carrying a two-way radio, some sort of security guard.

When the row of parking ended, the car screeched into a turn, the driver slammed it into forward, and it roared out of the parking lot into traffic, heading toward the Edens Expressway.

As the security guard ran back to the department store entrance, I could hear her shouting the license plate number into her two-way.

The parking lot minidrama lasted only a minute or so. But when it ended, my legs were shaky, my stomach churned and I was swearing out loud.

All it would have taken was a few seconds of different timing, or the driver swerving one way or another, or a child walking out from between parked cars, and some of us would have been splattered all over his trunk and the pavement.

In the city, I'm not surprised by anything. I've felt a pistol held by a nervous punk pressed to my beak in my own hallway. I've been mugged on the street in broad daylight and have outrun muggers at night.

But I didn't figure that in a quiet and affluent shopping center on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I'd have to be concerned about life and limb.

OK, I'm naive. As the old boxing saying goes: You can run, but you can't hide.

After we drove away, the 6-year-old in the group asked: "Were those bad people?"

We told him they were.

"Will the police catch them and put them in jail?"

Maybe, we said. But I didn't believe it. Once they got to the freeway, they'd blend into traffic and be needles in a haystack.

But I fervently hoped that in their haste to escape, they might hit a light pole and flatten their heads.

I also wondered what they had stolen that was worth the risk of reckless behavior that could have killed innocent people.

The next morning, the Lord & Taylor store management didn't want to discuss the matter. They don't like publicity on such things. Bad for the image and all that.

But the suburban Northbrook Police Department provided details. And some surprisingly good news.

The woman had been shoplifting, but with little subtlety. She was slipping expensive clothing into a plastic garbage bag. Several Diane Freis designer dresses, plus other expensive outfits. Total value, more than $3,000.

When the security guard tried to stop her from leaving, she gave the guard a kick and ran outside to where her driver was waiting. She tossed the bag into the car, and off they went.

For some reason -- his forward movement might have been blocked by another car or the guard -- that's when he did the reverse move that almost squashed some of us.

But they were unlucky. The security guard's description was quickly relayed on police radio bands.

And another suburb's squad spotted them on the freeway, pulled them over and took them in. Including the plastic bag with all those designer garments.

The woman, a career shoplifter, and her boyfriend, an ex-con stickup man, were charged with retail theft, a Class 3 felony. If they are convicted, the law requires a sentence of two to five years. Of course, with a plea bargain that could be less. And few convicts do a full sentence unless they bite a guard.

But if they don't get a deal, two years is a lot of hard time for shoplifting some dresses that might have a street resale value of a few hundred dollars. Some would describe it as harsh.

But remembering that mother's panicked shout of her child's name, and considering what might have been -- two years? My sympathy doesn't runneth over.

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