Stabbings draw attention to Atlantic City's other visitors - homeless

Antoinette Pelzer responds during her arraignment Tuesday in court in Atlantic County on charges that she stabbed two Canadian women on Monday outside of Bally's Atlantic City.
Antoinette Pelzer responds during her arraignment Tuesday in court in Atlantic County on charges that she stabbed two Canadian women on Monday outside of Bally's Atlantic City. (DANNY DRAKE / Press of Atlantic City)
Posted: May 24, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY - Two sets of visitors to this seaside casino resort often mingle in the streets behind the glitter of the Boardwalk - tourists and homeless people from across the region - and something went dreadfully wrong in that uneasy mix Monday when a woman described as homeless and deranged plunged a 12-inch butcher knife into two tourists from Canada, killing both.

Antoinette E. Pelzer, 44, who holds a Philadelphia driver's license but who a relative said had been homeless for five months and undergone treatment for schizophrenia, made a first appearance Tuesday afternoon in state Superior Court in Atlantic County. The charges against her - two counts of murder, and robbery and weapons offenses - were read to her by Judge Michael Donio, who set bail at $1.5 million cash.

Authorities said a mere 13 seconds elapsed between the moment Pelzer allegedly began stabbing the two women from Canada, one 80 and the other 47, and when she was subdued by a police officer who was nearby.

Both were stabbed furiously outside Bally's Atlantic City Hotel and Casino on Monday at the intersection of Pacific and Michigan Avenues, a bloody scene that sources said was captured on surveillance video.

The 47-year-old woman was thrown to the ground and stabbed repeatedly in her torso. The suspect, according to the charges, was attempting to take a pocketbook from the woman, stabbing her when the victim did not relinquish it.

It was then, according to the charges read by Donio, that the 80-year-old tried to intervene, and she was stabbed in her "lower body, hands, and shoulders while she was coming to the assistance" of the first victim, who was referred to in court as Jane Doe pending notification of relatives. The older victim was called Sally Doe.

Sources said surveillance video shows Pelzer running to attack the women. "She chased them down," one said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The victims were taken to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center's City Campus, across the street.

Pelzer's mother told reporters that her daughter tried to steal a purse from one of the victims, probably so she could get money to buy cigarettes. A search of law enforcement records turned up only an apparently minor smoking infraction against Pelzer.

Donio sealed the names of the two victims for 72 hours to give authorities time to locate their next of kin. The Canadian consulate was assisting investigators from the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office in trying to find relatives of the victims, who Canadian authorities said were originally from Hong Kong. Canadian news reports said the two were from Toronto.

Pelzer, who requested a public defender, expressed surprise and swallowed hard when she was told that both victims had died.

"Both?" she asked.

In court, Pelzer shook her head at the notion that there was a robbery involved, furrowed her brows, stared quizzically at the prosecutor, and at one point laughed at her inability to come up with the words public defender. She had not been immediately assigned one.

Pelzer has long suffered from schizophrenia and had been homeless since January, her aunt, Nadine King of Philadelphia, told the Associated Press. King said she had seen her niece out "begging for money."

Autopsy results released Tuesday indicated that the younger woman died from being knifed in the heart. The 80-year-old, according to the coroner's report, bled to death.

The stabbings ignited debate about the homeless and mentally ill who arrive in Atlantic City, often deliberately sent there by agencies elsewhere, according to local social service workers.

The city has one of the largest homeless shelters in New Jersey, the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, offering services to 3,000 clients a year.

Social services workers here said that their counterparts in other communities are known to put the most down-on-their-luck cases on buses and send them to Atlantic City - and that sometimes the new arrivals clash with tourists as well as local residents.

As if to drive that point home, a stabbing victim walked into the mission Tuesday, bleeding from his face. Police arrested his attacker, who turned out to be a local resident.

Although Pelzer appeared to be homeless and was a familiar face at the casino bus terminals near where the attack took place, Bill Warner, a chaplain at the mission, said she had not been seen at his facility.

The mission said it keeps tabs on the city's homeless population through their Social Security numbers and by frequently rounding up men and women staying in abandoned buildings or under the Boardwalk and bringing them in for help.

Warner bristled at the suggestion that the mission was somehow to blame for the stabbings or other crimes. "The crime going on? That's not our people," he said, referring to his shelter's clients.

The city's homeless population is often most visible during the daytime because anyone staying at the mission is required to leave the premises after being served breakfast and not allowed to return until late afternoon.

Many walk the area where the stabbing occurred, often spending the day in the climate-controlled bus stations, which also house restrooms.

On Tuesday, security personnel were seen rousting some homeless people from the stations.

The killings were the third and fourth in two years involving tourist victims.

Craig Arno and his former girlfriend, Jessica Kisby, are to be sentenced Thursday for the May 2010 carjacking and stabbing death of casino patron Martin Caballero, 47, of North Bergen, who was abducted from a garage at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel.

Three Camden men are awaiting trial in the carjacking and shooting death of Sunil Rattu, 28, of Old Bridge, who was kidnapped from the same parking garage with his girlfriend in September 2011.

Monday's attack occurred close to where Police Officer Jacob Abbruscato was sitting in a parked cruiser. It took him just 13 seconds to reach the victims, Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel said outside the courtroom.

Abbruscato pointed his service weapon at Pelzer, ordering her to the ground and to drop the knife. She complied and was taken into custody.

The killings occurred within the recently created Atlantic City Tourism District just days before the Memorial Day weekend opens the summer tourist season at the Jersey Shore.

Besides spending millions to make the resort cleaner and brighter, with everything from new Boardwalk lighting to new "tourism ambassadors" who greet guests in the streets within the tourist zone - and act as extra eyes and ears for law enforcement - as much as $30 million has been pumped into a marketing campaign to increase the appeal of Atlantic City.

The hope is that the campaign will revive the sagging "Queen of Resorts," where revenue has been declining for more than four years.

"A senseless, random attack like this is shocking and entirely unacceptable," said John Palmieri, executive director of the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

The CRDA has spent millions to help the resort project a clean and safe image since the Christie administration created the tourism district and removed control of everything from trash pickup to police protection from city government, which the state said was mismanaging resources.

"When visitors come to Atlantic City, we take their well-being seriously and we are continually reviewing how best to coordinate with our visitors services unit and our public safety counterparts to ensure comfort and safety," Palmieri said.

Atlantic City's violent-crime rate is the highest among U.S. casino cities, according to federal and state data. In 2010, the rate per 1,000 people in the city of 39,700 was 19.68, though the data did not specify what proportion of crime involved homeless people. The rate in Las Vegas, which has 1.4 million residents, was 8.93.

Those who run the city's mega casinos - such as the newly opened Revel - hope the new efforts will bring improvement.

"My reaction is that this was a senseless act and all our thoughts and prayers are with the victims' family and friends," said Kevin DeSanctis, chief executive officer of Revel Entertainment Group.

On Tuesday, some tourists said that while they were concerned about crime, they would return to Atlantic City.

"You just have to be cautious, not walk by yourself, keep your wits about you. Do what you would do anywhere else to stay safe," said Carol Piotti, 64, of Maple Shade, visiting the resort for the day with her granddaughter and best friend. "But yes, we'll come back. . . . We've been coming here for years."


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

Staff Writer Suzette Parmley contributed to this article. It also includes information from the Associated Press.

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