Mugging victim, 82, testifies about attack

Woman narrates video of assault

July 25, 2008|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN REPORTER

An 82-year-old woman, a victim of a vicious mugging outside a Baltimore fast-food restaurant last year, took the stand against her alleged assailant in city Circuit Court yesterday, narrated surveillance video that captured a portion of the attack and displayed graphic photos of her wounds to jurors.

At one point, a city prosecutor handed Lilli Sigel, a poised mother of five, enlarged photos of her wounds so she could slowly walk the images past the jurors. An unflappable Sigel also described how a sharp object, possibly a knife, penetrated her left hand in an injury so severe that she needed two surgeries to regain the use of her fingers. Yesterday, she was able to wag her fingers.

Five feet tall with toasty brown hair, Sigel told jurors how she struggled to hold on to her pocketbook as a man slashed at her six times. She let go after he began stabbing her in the chest, and he ran away with her pocketbook.

"I started thinking, 'If he hit me in the right spot, I wouldn't need my pocketbook,' so I let go, and he took off," Sigel told jurors.

News of the attack was broadcast widely on local television stations - the city was grappling with soaring homicide numbers at the time. Within two weeks, police arrested a suspect, Rozza Alston, who lived three blocks away from the restaurant, and charged him with attempted murder, robbery, assault and related charges. Alston, 40, sat attentively in court yesterday.

For Sigel, who declined to comment for this article, the attack irrevocably altered a pleasant routine that she used to perform every Friday night, she said in court.

Once a week, Sigel said, she used to stop at the KFC at the corner of St. Paul Street and North Ave., buy a bucket of chicken and take it to an elderly homebound friend who lived nearby, to have dinner with him. She avoided buying chicken breasts, because her friend had trouble chewing them - a buying preference that she said one of the servers knew because she was such a regular.

In response to questioning by Staci Pipkin, the lead prosecutor, Sigel said she followed that same routine Jan. 26 last year. Surveillance video shown in court yesterday depicted her walking into the restaurant about 6:15 p.m. and standing in line to order. It also captured her movements outside the restaurant.

While inside, two men appeared to approach her, and one asked her to give him change for a $5 bill. Sigel said she refused. But after thinking about the request while in line, she reconsidered.

"I was thinking, 'Poor man. Maybe he was cold. Maybe he needed bus fare,' " she said. "I knew I had it, so I told him, 'I think I can change your bill.' "

So Sigel, who happened to be carrying about $300, according to police charging documents, opened her pocketbook and gave the man change for his $5 bill.

After picking up the chicken, Sigel said, she walked to her car. The surveillance video showed her walking across the relatively well-lit parking lot at night and preparing to enter her car.

Then a struggle ensued, though it mostly happened behind her car, out of sight of the camera.

"He said, 'Give me that,' " Sigel said, referring to the purse she carried on her left arm at the time. As he stabbed and slashed her, Sigel said, she was in "such shock, I couldn't feel anything."

Seconds later, a man in dark clothing is seen in the video running across the parking lot. "I didn't realize how bad I was bleeding," Sigel said. She put the chicken in the car and walked back to the KFC to seek help. She heard someone yell to call the police. When she finally looked down, her jeans were covered in blood that gushed from her hand. In trying to protect herself with her hands, her left hand was punctured, she told jurors.

"I could feel the blood oozing out of my hand," Sigel said. "That's all I remember. Next thing I know, I was in an ambulance."

Her attacker fled with just her pocketbook, which contained her wallet, credit cards, a cell phone and other documents and personal effects, she said.

Officer Taras Hnatyshyn, the first officer to arrive on the scene that night, said that when he first saw Sigel, he noticed immediately that she was losing a lot of blood. "It was dripping pretty profusely from her left arm," he said.

Paramedics transported her to Maryland Shock Trauma Center for treatment, and Hnatyshyn said he stayed with her for about four hours at the hospital. She was a "very nice lady but very scared" and "shaking a lot," he said.

"She was just really amazed that [the attack] had actually happened to her," he said.

Despite her compelling testimony about the attack, Sigel could not identify Alston as the man who attacked her - a fact that prosecutors must try to overcome in presenting the case to jurors. Sigel said she couldn't see the man's face well during the attack. In her opening argument, Pipkin, the prosecutor, said detectives zeroed in on Alston as a suspect by tracking Sigel's cell phone.

When detectives served a search-and-seizure warrant on Alston and his apartment, they discovered some of Sigel's personal documents in Alston's wallet, Pipkin said. He is alleged to have confessed to the crime later at the Central District station house, Pipkin said.

But Jane E. McGough, Alston's public defender, urged jurors to closely consider the evidence and a statement that her client gave to detectives. "Look carefully at the circumstances of that statement," the attorney said, without elaborating.

The trial is expected to continue today in Judge Timothy J. Doory's courtroom.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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