Assault is seen as part of East Village crime spike


By Megha Bahree

Betty Knapp, 46, has a busy week ahead of her. She has three appointments with surgeons and one with the Police Department. All because she told a homeless person to move from the doorstep of the store she works in and got punched in the face.

Knapp has been working at Mikey’s Pet Store near Avenue A on Seventh St. for the past 10 years. On July 8 at around noon she noticed a homeless person sitting outside the narrow front door. According to her mother, Marion Ulrich, 74, who also works in the store and saw the incident, Knapp offered the man a cigarette and asked him to move away from the doorway during business hours. “She told him that he could come back later but had to move then because he was blocking the way and customers would not be able to come in,” Ulrich recalled. The man responded by throwing a bottle of alcohol at Ulrich and though she didn’t get hurt, she was splashed by the liquor.

Shocked and angry at the attack on her mother, Knapp started to go into the store to call the police when the man got up and punched her in the face, according to Knapp. She screamed for help and the man was caught by local residents and held till police arrived. Knapp, who was knocked out cold, was taken to Beth Israel hospital and had to undergo surgery for a fractured jaw and cheekbone. She now has 35 stitches and a plate in her jaw. Knapp can still expect at least two more surgeries. “Her lip is all in and she doesn’t feel anything,” said her twin Terry, who has been filling in for Knapp at the store since her sister is in no condition to work, but needs the job. Knapp, who has trouble talking right now because of her jaw injury, let her sister do the speaking to the press.

This is just one of the most serious in a line of incidents that have recently taken place in the neighborhood, causing concern among local residents and merchants. Although most of the incidents have involved petty crime, residents and merchants fear the situation could quickly get worse.

According to the precinct’s crime statistics, crime for the seven major categories for this year compared to last year to date is down 6.89 percent. However, because of an increase in burglaries, crime in the East Village precinct in the last 28 days is up 5.26 percent; there were 38 burglaries compared to 18 last year during the same four-week period.

Knapp and her family have been victims more than once.

On Friday of the same week as her attack, Knapp and her mother were getting ready to leave the store to go Downtown to identify her assailant when another homeless person approached them. He had been sleeping outside the store and needed a place to change his clothes. Ulrich had kept her handbag near the front of the store, right where the man was changing, and later realized that she was missing $375.

What has annoyed Knapp’s family even more is the way the police have handled the case so far. She and her mother went to identify the alleged assailant in a police lineup but didn’t get a chance because the police had been unable to find four men who resembled the accused, a necessity for the lineup. After being made to wait from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the accused was released and the mother and daughter were told to return on another date. “He’s gone now,” Knapp’s sister Terry said. “They’ll never find him again now. He’s free to kill or hurt someone else.” And despite the family’s fears of the man coming back to take revenge for their identifying him to the police, there hasn’t been any noticeable increase in police patrolling in the area, they said. When contacted, Detective Jamie Hernandez of the Ninth Precinct said that he could not comment unless he got an analysis of the crime statistics. “There were one or two incidents that were talked about and suddenly you say there’s an increase in crime,” he said. “We don’t know anything about it as yet and I can’t comment until I get more data.”

In another incident David Wells, 31, said he recently caught another homeless person trying to steal some CDs from Stooz Records, a music store just a couple of doors from Mikey’s. Wells, who has been working there for the past two-and-a-half years, has noticed a change in the neighborhood. “It just doesn’t seem to be as clean as it used to be up until two years ago,” he said. “I just assumed that because of Bloomberg’s cuts there has been a cut in the police force and maybe that’s why I now seem to see junkies all the time. They are all over the place, but I rarely see cops to control them. The only time I see them is in the [Tompkins Square] park, but never in the streets.”

Bob Airhood, a photographer and a longtime resident of the neighborhood agrees. “The Police Department is not running patrols like it used to,” he said. “There’s a lot of petty crime that doesn’t get reported. It’s rougher over here. It’s getting worse. There’s no doubt about that.” One cause to which Airhood attributes the increase in crime is the recent affluence of the area with its new restaurants and bars. “It’s become a very rich ground to plunder. It’s become a tourist spot, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when a lot of people come from out of town,” he said. Also, with the smoking ban, most bar-hoppers tend to congregate on the sidewalks with their drinks in hand, adding to the general noise levels and congestion.

However, Susan Stetzer, chairperson of Community Board 3’s public safety committee, said that neither she nor the community board have received any complaints of crime in the neighborhood. “But what I’ve personally seen on Avenue A is a tremendous lack of crowd control and complaints about noise levels,” she said.

But a local merchant who runs a 24-hour store in the area and requested that his name not be printed said that he hears all kinds of noises at night and keeps the doors to his store locked so that none of the bad elements in the neighborhood can get in. “The homeless people drive me crazy,” he said. “Every day they walk into the store and ask customers for money and when people refuse sometimes they have pushed people against the wall or even chased them. Earlier I used to give the leftover bread to them, but now I throw it away. There are too many of them and they are becoming too strong.”

Three weeks after allegedly being attacked by a homeless man at the E. Seventh St. pet store where she works, Betty Knapp still has bruises and scars on her face.