Thursday, April 10, 1997
The real crime will be
if we just surrender

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It could have been worse. A lot worse.

Estelle Riley knows that. The guy said he had a knife, and he said he'd use it. But he didn't. He just took her purse.

Getting out of her car, right outside her apartment building in East Walnut Hills, she felt perfectly safe. It was only 9 o'clock in the evening and ''this is America,'' she said. Not to mention a nice Cincinnati residential street.

Then everything happened in slow motion. ''I gave him my purse, and I remember having the ridiculous thought that I especially hated losing this purse because I have shoes to match.'' As he jogged down the street, carrying her handbag, she screamed.

Purse-sniffing dog

The police came within minutes, neighbors milled around, and the officer took her ''statement.'' She had to sit in the back of the police car, which she discovered is not really a seat but ''some kind of molded plastic.'' And it occurred to her why it might be necessary to have something like this.

Quick cleanup. Yuck.

So she sat very carefully.

''I was just numb.'' Then she started thinking of all the things that you carry around in your purse - driver's license, credit cards, makeup and, in her case, $37 in cash. Luckily she had her keys in her hand. She says she started to laugh, wondering what he'd do with ''a fortune in Mary Kay cosmetics.''

The police brought a big dog, and it sniffed around for a while. By then, however, there were a lot of spectators. And the thief didn't exactly leave his hankie lying around as a clue for the dog.

A practical woman with a nicely wicked sense of humor, Estelle went inside and carefully canceled all her credit cards by telephone.

''I try to keep this all in perspective,'' she says. ''I was grateful that I wasn't hurt. My loss was very minor. Believe me, I handed that purse right over.'' Even though she had matching shoes.

''My life means a lot to me. I don't have my degree yet.'' She pushes reading glasses on top of her wavy blond hair and laughs. A part-time student at the College of Mount St. Joseph, she is executive secretary for the stem cell transplant program at Children's Hospital.

The morning after the robbery, a Sunday, Estelle and some friends searched the garbage cans and Dumpsters in a four-block radius around her building. But no brown suede purse.

A new identity

Monday morning, she began the chore of replacing everything, beginning with her driver's license. She was advised that in order to replace her driver's license, she needs a copy of her birth certificate and her Social Security card.

It seemed that everything in her purse was dependent on everything else. She says she thinks she has a better chance of getting her Social Security card back from the thief than she does of getting a new one from the agency.

Lots of phone calls later, she has begun to reassemble her identity. New checks, another Jeanie card, more Mary Kay cosmetics. Meanwhile, she is trying to be a responsible citizen. She has met with a sketch artist, looked at photos and has made herself generally available to police.

During March, Sgt. Dave Turner says, there were four such robberies in Estelle's neighborhood, almost a little crime wave considering that only five have been reported for the whole year. He says most people are like Estelle, helpful.

Around here, apparently, we still take crime rather seriously. Kind of a nice thought, wouldn't you say? We live in a place where people haven't given up yet. Rape, robbery and murder still are not commonplace. Even purse snatchings.

A few nights ago, Estelle Riley thought she might go outside to watch the Hale-Bopp comet. But she heard a noise, and it ''scared me to death.'' So she came back inside. ''I've been forcing myself to get back out in my neighborhood,'' she says. ''I won't give up, although it's harder than I thought it would be.''

She has lived around here more than 45 years, Catholic schools in St. Bernard; baptism at St. Francis DeSales. Now she has a different view of the place where she grew up. It's the view you get when you're always looking over your shoulder.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.