They did not cordon off the house, as police are supposed to do at the scene of any violent crime.
Detectives did not rush to East Godfrey Avenue to question Alge's neighbors or parishioners who had been pouring out of a church service down the block that May evening and saw the assailant fleeing.
They did not search the house for evidence or dust for fingerprints. Nor did they do so the next day, even after learning that Alge's condition was deteriorating.
Why did police respond this way to such a vicious crime?
In part, because a detective supervisor made a judgment, based on a brief phone conversation with a patrolman at the scene, that there was little or no evidence to be collected.
And in part, because a station house supervisor classified the incident that night as a purse snatching, not as a violent crime.
As they pleaded for a more energetic response, Alge's relatives and an off-duty police officer who lived next door - and who was outraged by the department's seeming indifference to the crime - kept hearing the refrain: It's a purse snatch.
Not until four days after the assault did detectives enter the house and collect evidence.
They never did speak to Melanie Alge. The day after the attack, surgeons opened a hole in her windpipe so she could breathe. She never spoke again. Two weeks later, she died.
The Medical Examiner's Office listed the cause of death as a blood clot ``due to the blunt trauma of the neck.''
The manner of death: ``homicide.''
To Michael Verrecchio, a member of the Friends of Tacony Creek Town Watch, the handling of the case was incomprehensible.
Police routinely ``secure scenes that are less violent with less disturbance than this one,'' he said. ``How can you sit there and look at a lady bleeding from her mouth and not think it was serious? That's crazy. And to put on the police report purse snatch. . . . It doesn't make any sense.''
The findings of a departmental probe were no less pointed. A report by the police Internal Affairs Division (IAD) depicts a chain of errors, from the early miscoding to the failure of patrol and detective supervisors to grasp the need for swift follow-up given the basic facts: that an 86-year-old woman had been beaten badly enough to be rushed to the hospital.
``The investigation revealed . . . a series of errors in judgment and in communication,'' said the confidential report, dated Nov. 12.
The IAD report said five officers violated police regulations. Such findings typically become the subject of a disciplinary hearing before the Police Board of Inquiry. The hearing is expected in the spring.
The three-member board makes recommendations to Police Commissioner John F. Timoney, who can accept, modify or reject them. The types of infractions cited in the Alge report are normally punishable by brief suspensions without pay.
The Inquirer's account of the beating and its aftermath is based on interviews with police officers, commanders, relatives and neighbors of the victim, and on a review of Police Department documents, including the 2,500-word IAD report.
The Alge case is now in the hands of the Homicide Division. Police have no suspects.
* It was Sunday night, Memorial Day weekend. Alge was alone in the rowhouse that had been her home since 1941. Her husband, Edward, a tool-and-die maker from Austria, died in 1982, and she shared the house with her 75-year-old sister.
Alge had immigrated to the United States from Switzerland when she was 16 and never lost her German accent. She liked to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, do crossword puzzles, and read newspapers. She had a limp from two hip operations and was healing from a recent colostomy. Still, she energetically tended her tiny yard.
About 8:15 p.m on May 24, the robber attacked.
Down the block, the Crescentville Baptist Church was letting out. Alge's next-door neighbor, off-duty Police Officer Alfonso Lassiter, was barbecuing in his back yard.
``After I sat my kids down and started feeding them, I heard a lot of screaming and yelling,'' Lassiter, 29, an eight-year police veteran, said in an interview with The Inquirer.
He went to the front of his house, a cell phone in hand.
``I see everybody, the church people, old people, young people, running all around. They said my neighbor next door had just been mugged,'' he said. ``I called 911 myself.''
The first officers arrived at 8:21 p.m. When paramedics brought Alge from the house to an ambulance, blood was streaming down her face, witnesses say.
Rookie Patrolman Michael J. Clancy, 24, was among the first officers on the scene. He talked briefly with Alge and her sister and stayed until the ambulance took her away.
Lassiter said Alge appeared badly battered.
``She was bleeding from the top of her head, and there were streaks of blood right down the front of her face,'' Lassiter said. ``It looked like she had a striped face.''
From the house, Clancy telephoned the Northeast Detective Division to describe what he had found. A detective sergeant then made a crucial decision: Clancy should not ``hold the scene'' for a search - that is, block access so that fingerprints or other evidence would not be damaged or destroyed.
While it is undisputed that detectives gave the command, there is disagreement about why.
Clancy did not respond to The Inquirer's requests for comment.
In an interview with Internal Affairs, he said he told detectives that there was ``some blood'' in the house, but ``not much of a [crime] scene.''
Two detective supervisors said Clancy told them there was ``no scene'' to process, according to the IAD report.
Clancy wrote a brief description of the attack on a police incident-report form. The report said the attacker ``punched her in head and pushed her inside the residence and continued to hit her about the head.'' It also said she was taken to the hospital.
Clancy dropped his report off at the Second District station house at Harbison Avenue and Levick Street.
There, a supervisor in the district's operations room, where crimes are coded for severity, classified it as a ``purse snatch/theft,'' code 631 - meaning a theft involving minimal or no force.
The Internal Affairs report said that classification was at odds with the facts as laid out in Clancy's report. Downgrading crimes to convert major offenses into minor ones has been a pervasive practice in the Police Department, one that top brass are now trying to uproot.
The IAD report does not say how or why the Alge case was miscoded.
In the station house, a copy of Clancy's report was sent upstairs to detectives. The case was assigned to Detective James Boyle 3d. His supervisor, who had spoken to Clancy earlier by phone, told Boyle there was no crime scene worth examining and that he should go to the hospital and interview Alge.
Boyle tried, but the supervisor steered him to the wrong place - Albert Einstein Medical Center. Boyle drove there, only to find Alge was not a patient. Then he drove to the victim's house, found it deserted, and returned to the station house. He finally reached Alge's sister by phone at Jeanes Hospital. He talked to her about Alge's condition and was done with his shift.
Back on Godfrey Avenue, Lassiter was expecting detectives to appear and search the house for evidence. When the ambulance left, he went inside his house to put his children to bed. An hour later, he came outside and was surprised that no police were guarding Alge's house. Nor was it cordoned off by yellow crime-scene tape.
He called the Second District, identified himself as an off-duty officer, and asked a corporal for an update on the investigation.
The corporal told him there was no report of anything like what Lassiter was describing - a home invasion and robbery.
Lassiter said the conversation unfolded like this:
``What about a burglary?'' Lassister asked.
``We have no report of that.''
``Well, what about agg assault?''
``Well, we don't have any report of that.'
Finally, the corporal found the Alge report.
``He says, `Yeah, we got a purse snatch,' '' Lassiter recalled. ``I said, `You've got to be kidding me.' ''
Lassiter then called the Northeast Detective Division, hoping to persuade someone to take the case more seriously. He asked for a supervisor. None was available. A desk officer, he said, told him that ``all it is is a purse snatch.''
Lassiter, an Army veteran who has worked in the 14th Police District in Germantown and is now with the department's Environmental Response Unit, felt he was fighting an undertow caused by miscoding. It was after 11 p.m., but he wasn't giving up.
``I knew that if I could talk to a supervisor, somebody would handle it,'' he said. ``So I called police radio and said, `Send me a supervisor.' ''
Lt. Richard Woertz, the highest-ranking patrol officer then on duty in the Second District, arrived. A relative of Alge's took him into the house. Lassiter followed.
Woertz saw blood on the floor. The agitated relative demanded to know why no detectives had been there and why no one had checked for fingerprints or other evidence.
The relative - who, like other family members, asked not to be identified in this article, citing a fear of reprisal by the assailant - showed the lieutenant a broken piece of Alge's dentures, which had been knocked from her mouth during the beating and had skittered across the floor.
Woertz, according to the IAD report, phoned Northeast Detectives and then told the relative that the detective unit was ``four or five jobs in the hole,'' meaning they were having a busy night.
Woertz, 52, told the relative and Lassiter, who had not identified himself to Woertz as a police officer, that the incident had been classified as a purse snatch, according to the report.
The relative said he told Woertz: ``It's not a purse snatch. I even found the damn teeth under the radiator. What more do you want?''
The Internal Affairs report quotes Woertz as saying: ``It could very well be just a purse snatch and it just looks different and funny.''
Woertz, according to his own account to IAD, went on to say: ``In the real world, police do not have the manpower to process every scene like you see on TV.''
Woertz then told the family to lock the house to protect the crime scene and departed, the report said.
Even though it was nearly midnight, Lassiter had a last avenue of appeal, and he used it. ``I just can't let that go because that could have been my family, and something's not right,'' he said.
He called Night Command, the department's unit of night supervisors, and was connected to Inspector Michael Feeney. Lassiter described the crime and said detectives were needed - now.
Fifteen minutes later, Feeney was at Lassiter's door. By this time, Boyle, the detective who had been given the case earlier, had finished his shift. So Feeney brought along two other detectives.
After further discussion with Lassiter, Feeney concluded that the crime was far more serious than a purse snatching. He told the two detectives to get on the case, and he left.
The detectives knocked on the door of Alge's house, got no response, and drove to Jeanes Hospital, hoping to interview her. They arrived about 3 a.m. Doctors told them she was too sick to be disturbed.
More than seven hours had passed since the intruder had pummeled Alge. Detectives still had not set foot in the house.
The IAD report does not say whether the delay in collecting evidence compromised the investigation. But it is a basic principle of police work to secure and process a crime scene as quickly as possible. Otherwise, fingerprints, blood stains and other evidence can deteriorate.
While Alge lay in the hospital, there was activity back in the Second District. Officers in the operations room were taking another look at Clancy's incident report. Sometime in the early hours of Monday morning, the coding was changed. Someone wrote ``robbery'' next to the initial notation, ``purse snatch.''
The initial coding - 631, for purse snatching - was replaced with 308, denoting robbery, a violent crime.
At 4 that afternoon - Monday, May 25 - Detective Boyle was back on the job.
Boyle, 32, phoned two of Alge's neighbors and her sister and tried to piece together a description of the suspect. From the sister, he learned that Alge's condition had taken a turn for the worse and that she had been transferred to Temple University Hospital. She was in critical condition and underwent a tracheotomy that day.
Boyle later told internal affairs investigators that he did ``nothing further on the investigation that day,'' the IAD report said. He was off the next two days - Tuesday and Wednesday. The case was turned over to a fresh team of detectives.
On Thursday, May 28, four days after the attack, those investigators went to Godfrey Avenue. They searched the house, dusted for fingerprints, and retrieved Alge's bloodied blouse, samples of the blood-drenched Persian carpet, and a hat that may have been worn by the assailant.
Detectives also began interviewing some of the churchgoers who had seen the robber fleeing - including two people who chased him.
* Alge's relatives now began venting their frustration. They met with the captain of the Second District, demanded a copy of the incident report and the names of the officers involved, and filed a complaint with Internal Affairs.
``I always respected the police, but no longer respect the Second District,'' Alge's sister said in a letter requesting an investigation. ``Just because my sister was old is no reason to dismiss the incident as a mere purse snatch, in light of what happened to her.''
The IAD report found most of the family's allegations warranted.
The report said Cpl. David Rizzo, 48, who was in charge of crime coding in the Second District that night, bore responsibility for the initial ``purse snatch'' classification.
Rizzo, in a brief interview, said coding should not have slowed or derailed the investigation. He said detectives could have gleaned the seriousness of the crime from reading Clancy's incident report.
The report also criticizes two patrol supervisors. It cites Lt. James Brooks, 49, who was on duty when the attack occurred, and Woertz, the lieutenant who visited the Alge house later that night.
The report said that under the circumstances, Brooks should have gone to the scene and supervised the handling of the incident.
Brooks told department investigators that he drove to the area, looked for a suspect from his car, and concluded - after listening to police radio traffic - that ``he was not needed at the scene.''
Brooks told The Inquirer that ``uniformed officers did nothing wrong.'' He declined to elaborate.
Regarding Woertz, the report said the lieutenant, on visiting the Alge house, should have secured the scene immediately. Woertz knew there was the potential to recover evidence, the report said, because he told the family to lock the house, not touch anything and call detectives the next afternoon.
In an interview with IAD, the report said, Woertz said he called Northeast Detectives that night and was told detectives on a previous shift had processed the scene.
Woertz declined to comment for this article.
The report faulted Boyle, the first detective on the case, for not kicking his investigation into higher gear after learning from Alge's sister, the day after the attack, that her condition had deteriorated.
``Det. Boyle stated . . . he ascertained that the victim had taken a turn for the worse, yet he does not go to the location of the incident and was remiss in his duty for failing to do so,'' the report said.
Boyle did not respond to The Inquirer's requests for comment.
The report said Sgt. Earl Schoen Jr., the detective supervisor who made the decision that the responding officers should not ``hold'' the scene, was also ``remiss.''
``Sgt. Schoen should have immediately directed a detective to the scene and also to the hospital based on the information that was supplied: the fact that the victim was elderly; the victim was being transported to the hospital,'' the report said.
Schoen told internal investigators he decided not to send detectives immediately because an officer at the house, whose name he did not know, told him three times that there was ``no scene'' to process, the report said.
Schoen, 49, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Clancy, as a rookie at the scene of a serious crime, should have called a supervisor to advise him what to do, the report said. However, he was not found to have violated police regulations.
* What began as a ``purse snatch'' is now a murder case.
The Rev. Charles Dear, pastor of Crescentville Baptist, said he has been working with investigators to find members of his congregation who saw the killer. Detectives, he said, are ``not happy'' because many of the witnesses have forgotten details of the incident.
``I sympathize with the homicide detectives. I think what was handed over to them was less than nothing,'' Mr. Dear said. ``It was a classic case of under-reporting, because it was originally reported as a purse-snatching.''