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Police seek clues about falling shopping cart

Authorities have no leads on who tied the basket to a flagpole. A $10,000 reward is offered for information.

October 26, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

In her five years working as a grocery bagger at the Ralphs supermarket in Pasadena, Shantie Maraj had never missed a day of work -- or even reported late.

So Saturday morning, she woke up before dawn and took the bus from her Eagle Rock home to the grocery store on Colorado Boulevard, near Orange Grove Boulevard, arriving minutes before the 6 a.m. opening.

She went about her routine, first tying helium-filled balloons to the store's exterior and then heading for the 60-foot flagpole near the front entrance to raise the American flag.

But in the pre-dawn darkness, Maraj, 62, did not see the black steel shopping cart that someone had tied to the flag rope and hoisted to the top of the silver-colored pole.

When Maraj unwound the rope, the 50-pound cart came crashing down on her head, fracturing part of her spine.

Now, both Pasadena police and many shoppers at the Ralphs market want to know who placed the cart there.

Police strongly suspect pranksters entered the store's parking lot the night before and raised the trolley. Still, detectives said they are not ruling out a deliberate act intended to cause injury.

There are no witnesses and no leads. Surveillance cameras on the side of the supermarket and across the street at a car dealership were not pointed at the flagpole. Officials are asking anyone with information to come forward.

"This was a vicious and cruel incident," said Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian. "Someone out there knows who put the shopping cart up there."

Melekian said he has never heard of or seen anything similar to what happened to Maraj.

The grocery chain and the city combined to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who helps land the arrest of whoever is responsible. And collection boxes have been set out at the store to help Maraj's family with expenses.

After hours of surgery at Huntington Memorial Hospital, Maraj's spine was stabilized and she was expected to survive.

She showed no signs of brain damage and was able to move her legs, said hospital spokeswoman Connie Matthews. But hospital officials said her long-term health prognosis is still unclear.

At the Ralphs market Wednesday, customers and co-workers expressed concern about her recovery -- but also anger at whoever put the cart on the flagpole.

They said Maraj, who came to the United States from Trinidad, had a knack for connecting with the people around her. She would pass out candy, usually chocolates or mints to customers and co-workers.

"She has such kind eyes," said customer Donna Daves Kent, 55. "I was always happy to see her."

Kent said she wants to believe that whoever hoisted the shopping cart didn't realize it could hurt someone.

"Whoever did this was probably just trying to pull a prank," she said. "But I hope they know the consequences. This is a loving person and now her life is forever changed."

Alberto Valasquez, 28, a fellow grocery bagger, said Maraj was a bright presence at the supermarket.

"She'd always say to me, 'Hi, Sugar,' and call everyone 'Sweetie' in her thick Trinidad accent," he said. "She worked so hard, she doesn't deserve this. I'm so mad."

Valasquez said he was working inside the store when the incident occurred. Another employee came running in through the front entrance screaming, "She's dying," Valasquez said.

Valasquez ran outside carrying towels to sop up the blood that was pouring from Maraj's head.

"It was bleeding everywhere," Valasquez said. "I thought she was going to bleed to death."

Peggy Lizarraga, the store director, was outside when Maraj was struck but did not see the impact. She ran to Maraj when she heard the crash.

"She was lying there and said to me, 'Ms. Peggy, something shocked me,' " Lizarraga said. "It's horrible. Who would do such a thing to such a wonderful lady."

As Maraj lay waiting for paramedics, she reminded her boss that there were bags of candy on "Register 6" that could be passed out to people, Lizarraga said.

The manager added that Maraj was friendly and exchanged names with about 80% of the store's regular customers.

Officials said Maraj was married, but had no children. The family released a written statement asking for help in finding those involved.

"It's very hurtful that something like this could happen to an innocent person and we would like to appeal to the community to please cooperate with the police investigation so they can find the person who did this," it said.

Suspects could be charged with trespass and felony assault, Melekian said. Pasadena detectives can be reached at (626) 744-4522.

As police continue their investigation, Kent and other customers say they just can't get over how Maraj was befallen by such a freak accident.

"Who would look up to check for a shopping cart?" she said.

david.pierson@latimes.com

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