Volume 75, Number 20 | October 05 - 11, 2005

To catch a purse thief: Try a pedicab, pedestrians and 911

By Albert Amateau

Pedicab operator Joe Gruenberg was pedaling around the West Village with two women from the New York Sports Club on a promotion ride one afternoon last week when he heard the screams of an outraged woman whose handbag had just been snatched by a teenage thief.

Gruenberg, 56, his two passengers and a crowd of pedestrians combined in a chase that ended at the corner of Barrow and Hudson Sts. where the suspect ran head on into a group of passersby who held him for police.

By the time the suspect, Jamel Blount, 16, of the Bronx, was booked for grand larceny at the Sixth Precinct at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 27, about 30 West Village neighbors had called 911.

“It’s proof that the neighborhood spirit in the Village is very much alive,” said Jess Espinosa, a fellow employee at the Village Adult Day Health Center, of Zeny Abbariao, whose screams had started the chase.

Abbariao, who is program coordinator at the Village Center at 644 Greenwich St., was able to thank Gruenberg — “He’s my hero,” she said — a week later when both of them met for an interview with The Villager.

She recalled the suspect had asked for the time of day while she was waiting for a cross-town bus at the corner of Greenwich and W. 10th Sts. at about 4:30 p.m. “I had put my bag down for a minute when I saw him grab it out of the corner of my eye,” she said. “He was so fast — he was halfway down the block before I was able to scream,” she recalled.

Gruenberg said he was just pedaling around the corner with passengers Caroline Bencosme and Andrea Damegnez, who work at the Seventh Ave. and W. 10th St. New York Sports Club branch. The two women had been handing out club fliers during the afternoon ride around the West Village, when they heard Abbariao scream.

“I kicked in the motor and I kicked in my feet and took off after him,” Gruenberg recalled. His pedicab is a hybrid with an electric motor that can work while pedaling or independently. “The girls had jumped off and were running after him — I was bellowing at him and everyone was yelling at him,” Gruenberg said.

Just before the thief ran into the clutches of an oncoming group, he dropped the bag and it was returned to Abbariao. “I had everything in that bag,” she said.

Gruenberg, who also assembles hybrid pedicabs for a living and has a construction business with a partner, believes that pedicabs contribute to security on Manhattan streets. “I helped make an arrest before — an undercover cop got in my pedicab and we chased a guy who was caught,” he said.

The suspect, Jamel Blount, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge last week and was sentenced to two days of community service, according to the office of District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau.

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