Health Department heroines help catch purse-snatchng suspect
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 20, 2005 1:46 PM
Five mild-mannered Health Department workers by day are Wayne County's newest "SWAT Team" since turning into crime-fighters by night recently.
After a late day at the office Oct. 13, the women exited the building around 7 p.m. bound for the employee parking lot facing Ash Street across from Eckerds. One observed some activity near the drug store lot and heard a woman scream, "He's got my purse! Stop him!"
"I was the frantic 911 caller," said Lib Jackson, a processing assistant with the Health Department who chose to follow in her vehicle. "I knew I couldn't outrun him but figured I could keep him in sight while on the phone with 911."
About that time, Sandra Outlaw and Teresa Blackenship, also processing assistants, exited the building and came upon the commotion. Ms. Outlaw said she saw the man being chased and took after him, too, on foot.
Cheri Williford, a nurse practitioner, said Ms. Outlaw was waving her hands and yelling, giving some the impression it might have been her purse that was stolen.
"I thought it was Sandra," said Vicki Falconer, another processing assistant. "I was told that Sandra was running across the parking lot after a man, then saw her running across the street."
In the bustle of activity and with little time to talk, Ms. Blackenship and Ms. Falconer decided they could make better time in their vehicles.
"By the way," Ms. Jackson pointed out, "Sandra was gaining on the guy."
As Ms. Jackson drove into a parking lot on Lionel Street, she said she saw another man in the area.
"It looked like he dropped out of the sky to me," she said. "He came from nowhere; he was just there. We saw him tackle the guy (who'd allegedly stolen the purse)."
It was growing darker outside, Ms. Williford said, so she steered her vehicle in the direction of the struggle, stopping so that the lights shone on the men as they struggled on the ground.
Some gave aid to the victim, helping her find items that had fallen from her purse during the chase. When they returned to the scene, they found Ms. Williford helping hold down the accused.
"The true hero was the guy who tackled him," Ms. Williford said, calling him a Good Samaritan. She said he had the young man in a headlock.
She did not hesitate to share her feelings with the instigator.
"He was down there and began to struggle as I told him, 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself,'' she said. "He just kind of grunted and the lady said, 'Yeah, you sure should be.'"
The group of women, along with another man who drove up and agreed to stay until help came, helped restrain the culprit until Goldsboro police got there.
Officers handcuffed the man immediately, Ms. Williford said. The group soon dispersed and went their separate ways.
It was only then that the ramifications of what had happened began to set in.
"On the way home, I was shaking," Ms. Blackenship said. "I couldn't even sleep that night. My husband called later, asking what I was doing. I told him I was chasing criminals."
According to the police report, the victim was a 45-year-old Oleander Street woman. Value of the stolen purse, which was returned to her, was estimated at $20.
Ms. Williford said it probably wasn't the contents or the worth of the pocketbook that prompted the woman to defend her possessions. She said the victim had told her afterwards that she probably should have been more afraid but might have been thinking, "he was taking her hard-earned money, and she wasn't going to let him."
Guy Phil Johnson II, a 30-year-old white male of Simmons Street, was taken into police custody and charged with larceny from a person, with bond set at $800.
The police report also listed the other witness, the man believed to have assisted in restraining Johnson, as a 45-year-old black male with a North William Street address. The women applauded his willingness to get involved.
"At a time like that, you don't know what this purse snatcher had on him," Ms. Jackson said.
Even so, the women agreed they wouldn't have done anything differently.
"We would want someone to do that for us," Ms. Jackson said. "It could have been anyone, your mother, your sister."
"You don't have time to think," Ms. Blackenship said.
"You just see someone in trouble and you respond," Ms. Williford added.
Ms. Blackenship noted that if someone ever took her purse, she would know who to call for help - Ms. Outlaw.
"I can't believe I did that," Ms. Outlaw said. As the details unfolded the next day and circulated around the office, she said "everybody wanted to see me running across the parking lot. My son said, 'I could see you doing that and a few years ago, Mama, I could see you catching him.'"
The women have been working together for years. Ms. Williford has 12 years of service, followed closely by Ms. Jackson with 11 and Ms. Outlaw with nearly 10. Ms. Blackenship has worked in the office for 7 1/2 years and Ms. Falconer has been there for six years. But never have they had to be a team like they were that evening when they hit the streets.
"I never thought I'd see anything like this here," Ms. Blackenship said. "This is right here in my face."
"I don't think any of us really thought it," said Ms. Outlaw. "I don't have a clue what I would have done if I'd caught him."
Ms. Williford said, "This probably wouldn't happen in New York City. But this is small-town America; people take care of each other."
"It's good to know that the people that you work with have got your back," Ms. Blackenship said.
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