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Beach Cities Are on Edge After 3 Women Attacked, Robbed

All were accosted at home. Newport and Huntington police give residents safety tips.

June 14, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

Phyllis Weinberg hadn't heard the news until right before bedtime: Three women had been attacked and robbed in their homes. All in less than three weeks, all in broad daylight. Two of them right in the city where she lives.

"I went to bed terrified," said the "over 70" Newport Beach resident, who has been a robbery victim in the past and now takes extra precautions. "I'm just trying to put it out of my mind."

The three crimes against Newport and Huntington Beach women have others in their communities on edge.

The first attack occurred May 23 when a 56-year-old Lido Isle woman was robbed in her garage after returning home from a shopping trip. On Tuesday, an 85-year-old woman was attacked in the driveway of her Galaxy Drive home. She was forced to the ground, beaten and robbed of her jewelry. Both women suffered minor injuries.

The third attack occurred Wednesday in Huntington Harbour. An 80-year-old woman was sitting in front of her vanity when she was accosted from behind. Police said she was blindfolded by her assailant, who then took her purse and jewelry. She suffered a slight cut on her face.

Police said the attacker may have entered the house through an unlocked door.

"It was kind of bold," said Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Gary Meza. "He may have gone in not knowing she was in there."

All three attacks occurred during the afternoon in affluent neighborhoods, but the victims have been unable to provide descriptions of the assailant and neighbors noticed no unusual activity before the incidents.

"We don't know ... why he picked her," Meza said. "We haven't had anything like this. It's kind of unusual."

Newport and Huntington police are working to determine whether the crimes are connected. They are also beginning to reach out to seniors, many of whom remain unaware of the attacks.

Police are working with Neighborhood Watch groups to offer crime prevention tips. And they are warning the elderly to keep their doors locked and to make sure no one is following them when they're driving. If they are being followed, Meza said, they should not return home. They should call police on a cell phone and go to a well-lighted, public area.

Many seniors say that advice mirrors precautions they already take in their daily routines.

"I keep my doors locked," said Mary Jacoby, 88, of Balboa Peninsula. "We didn't have to in the old days. I think seniors are careful -- at least they are down on my street."

Those sentiments were echoed by Pauline Wall, 82, of Corona del Mar: "I always try to be very careful. When I [pull] into the garage I make sure I push the button [to close the garage door] as soon as the taillights go past the door. And I do not go out a great deal at night, particularly alone."

While playing bridge with friends at the Oasis Senior Center in Newport, Shirley Baker of Balboa Peninsula offered their theory that the attacker is targeting the elderly.

"Why wouldn't he?" she said. "They're the ones who aren't going to fight back."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, those 50 and older are still the least likely group to become victims of violent crime. However, the department found that from 1992 to 1997, robbery accounted for a quarter of the violent crimes against people 65 or older. By comparison, robbery accounted for less than an eighth of the violent crimes experienced by the 12-to-64 age group during those same years.

As a result, many have already installed motion-detection lighting, security fences, alarm systems and sturdy locks.

"Everyone thinks I'm crazy," said Ramona Host, 75, of Corona del Mar. "I live in a duplex and when I go out the back, I make sure the front is locked. You have to be careful."

Although the spate of attacks has some residents worried, many are taking the news in stride, saying that they believe the incidents are isolated and that they already take precautions.

"People are kind of blase about these things," said Barbara Freeman, 76, of Corona del Mar. "They think 'It's not going to happen to me,' but it can happen to any of us day or night."

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