Suburban crime finds streetwise New Yorker

CRIME SCENES

November 20, 2009|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Frances Schoonmaker lived in New York's Upper West Side working as a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. She took subways and buses, and knew enough to stay alert on the streets of the big city. In nearly 30 years, she never once got mugged.

She retired last year, moved to Rodgers Forge and let her guard down. Instead of crossing the street when she saw a suspicious woman on Stevenson Lane this past weekend, she walked by on her way to teach a Sunday school class at her church.

"I said, 'Good morning.' "

The woman grabbed her, cut her and stole a bag of art supplies for kids. It was 8:20 a.m. Schoonmaker tried to fight back:

"I grabbed her right arm and held it firmly, and she said, 'I'll cut you.' I saw the hand I was holding had a box knife. I had an impulse to crash it against a chain-link fence, but I realized if I missed I wouldn't get a second chance."

The attack, just down the street from Woodbrook Baptist Church, was one of a spate of street robberies and burglaries since early November in this suburban Baltimore County community north of the city, prompting a flurry of nervous e-mail exchanges, blog postings and warnings from police for people to be on guard.

"I was stunned by the attack on the Sunday school teacher in broad daylight on a normally busy street near us," said Darlene Townsend, who distributes weekly crime updates from police on a neighborhood list-serve. "People walk their dogs, run, bike, and children are playing throughout our community. These latest attacks are extremely disturbing."

Baltimore County police have increased patrols and sent out recorded alerts to 1,990 houses, noting eight burglaries since Nov. 6 and several attacks. Authorities said there are many similarities in the break-ins - time of day and method of entry - but police haven't made arrests in any of the crimes.

"If anyone sees anything that seems even remotely unusual, please call 911 right away," a county police spokesman said. In one week, four people living on Murdock Road called police to report strange people in the neighborhood.

Residents on Internet blogs such as the Forge Flyer report frightening experiences. One man returned home to a cold draft and found his basement door open. A woman came home and startled a burglar. Three houses were burglarized the same day that residents held a meeting to learn how to better protect their homes.

Those occurred Nov. 10 on Glen Argyle, Stanmore and Brandon roads. Nothing was taken in two of the break-ins, but all fit a familiar pattern: They occurred late afternoon to early evening, and the person got in by breaking a window in the back of the house, such as on a basement door.

In the house on Stanmore, police said, several jewelry boxes were found open and a necklace had been dropped on a patio floor. On Brandon Road, police said, the person got in by removing a basement window and "slightly ransacked" three upstairs bedrooms but took nothing.

The seemingly more random street attacks are making people even warier. Suspect descriptions vary and are incomplete, and include women, some school-age. The most recent occurred Monday evening on Pinehurst Road behind a Giant supermarket.

Police said a girl was punched and had items stolen from her backpack. The Forge Flyer Web site includes an eyewitness account from a woman who said she was walking with children about 5 p.m. when she heard a young girl cry out, "Can you please help me?"

The account says the mother had to yell at other girls to stop going through the bag and that the victim cried that the missing cell phone would anger her mother.

Schoonmaker was attacked the day before as she walked near Bellona Avenue.

She was in a rush to get to Sunday school to help redo the curriculum and had a bag full of paintbrushes and paints, along with lipstick and sunglasses, though she had left all her money and credit cards at home. Schoonmaker saw the woman bending down in the road.

That's when police said the woman grabbed Schoonmaker's arm and demanded the bag. The victim protested. "My immediate response was, 'No, there is nothing in this bag that you want,' " she said. "This is all material for kids at Sunday school."

After Schoonmaker finally relented and gave up the bag, she ran after the woman, shouting, "Thief, thief" before giving up and walking up the drive to her church. She walked in and tried to open an office door when she realized her hand was covered in blood. While resisting, the woman's razor had cut her on top of her hand.

"There is no place you can't be alert anymore," Schoonmaker said.

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