Daniel Rubin: Phila. crime victims have tough time selling the city

Margaux Pelegrin, 31, was attacked by a man holding a large knife on Pine Street.
Margaux Pelegrin, 31, was attacked by a man holding a large knife on Pine Street.
Posted: August 09, 2012

Construction tool, Margaux Pelegrin thought, although it happened so fast, there really wasn't time to think.

Her mind was on 20-month-old Colin, her toddler napping in the backseat. Could she scoop him up and get him inside without waking him?

The man - a hulk in a dirty T-shirt and shorts - kept coming at her; big strides, and she figured him for a builder. There was always lots of construction going on around her home in Fitler Square. He had a knife.

Then he was on her.

Before she could step out of the car or shut the door on him, he came down slashing.

She screamed.

Broad daylight, lunch hour in the 2400 block of Pine Street in Center City, who thinks they're going to get attacked by a man waving a knife the size of a machete?

Street crime is down in Center City compared with many other areas, statistics show. "Much safer than it's been in any number of years," said Mayor Nutter. But of course numbers mean nothing to someone who becomes a victim, as Margaux Pelegrin will tell you. So will her colleague Fred Manfred, who was attacked in Bella Vista.

They work a few desks away from each other at Prudential Fox & Roach's office in Rittenhouse Square, where their job is to sell some of the city's priciest homes.

That's been easier for them lately than selling the city itself.

Within weeks this summer, each experienced a harrowing attack. First came Pelegrin, 31 and a first-time mother. She grew up in Center City. As a teenager she learned to handle herself on the streets.

"I love this city and it's so much better than it used to be," she said.

Her safety was the last thing on her mind just before 1 p.m. June 20, when she parked on Pine Street near her home and opened the door of her Nissan Murano to a nightmare.

The attacker gave no idea what he wanted. He said nothing, other than telling her to stop screaming. Her wails were so loud they were heard by neighbors a block and a half away. People rushed to their windows and doors. A man walking along Pine broke into a sprint toward them - and he started yelling, too.

Pelegrin thinks that is what sent the attacker barreling down Pine Street.

Right into a police officer.

Frederick Girardo and his sergeant, Phil McAlorum, had been riding in an unmarked car, looking into a string of burglaries in the area, when they heard the commotion and pulled over.

"We saw this guy running down the street like a bat out of hell," Girardo said.

Girardo then hustled up 24th Street, and was turning at Pine when a man bowled him over.

"He waffled me with his knife," Girardo said. He figures the man hit him over his head with the butt of the weapon - it looked like a giant buck knife with an 18-inch blade.

As blood poured from the officer's scalp, he and his sergeant fought the man to the ground. Girardo didn't see the knife before he was walloped: "If I had, it might have played out differently."

At Hahnemann University Hospital, his wound took 11 staples to close.

The officers booked Keith Blake, 47, of Federal Street in South Philadelphia, and charged him with attempted murder and other charges. He's got a rap sheet - for robbery. He's in jail, awaiting trial. His court-appointed lawyer didn't respond to an interview request.

After the commotion, Pelegrin realized she'd been sliced, too, but not so deeply as to require stitches. The wound to her civic pride runs deeper. It does for anyone victimized by a crime, whether it's in Center City or Germantown, Juniata Park or Overbrook Park. Crime is a violation, an affront, that saps the confidence of people committed to city life.

"It makes me angrier as the days go by," Pelegrin said. "I grew up here. This is my home. Who are these people who stab people in the middle of the day?"

She used to have this spiel she gave clients about how great the city is, how she'd lived her life here without fear, without being the victim of any crime.

"I don't give that spiel anymore," she said. "I can't say that."

Fred Manfred has worked his own attack into his talks with clients interested in buying Center City homes. He feels that obligation. Four weeks after Pelegrin's ordeal, Manfred was watering the elaborate garden behind his house on South Seventh Street. It was about 10 in the morning.

"I was bent over a bit. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone cross the alley on the sidewalk."

Two seconds later, the man was holding a gun to Manfred's head. "He said, 'Give me your money.' "

"Your brain goes into slow motion," Manfred said. The gunman had haunting amber eyes - "like looking at the soul of Satan," Manfred recalled.

The 55-year-old real estate agent had no cash on him, just a cellphone, which he gave up readily.

"He starts telling me I have money. He's pushing me backward. He wants to know where I live, who's home."

It was just Manfred in the house - and Ruby, his full-grown Doberman pinscher. His head started spinning. Should he mention the dog? Or should he let the dog go after the gunman?

He mentioned Ruby and at the gunman's command locked the dog in the bathroom. With the gun trained on him, he led the man upstairs to the bedroom, where $500 was stashed on the nightstand. The gunman looked around and asked if there was more.

"I realized: There is no one else around to interfere and I'm alone with a guy who's comfortable not leaving. I'm looking straight at him and he's holding the gun 18 inches from between my eyes. I start losing my temper."

As Manfred raised his voice, the dog barked louder and started hammering the bathroom door.

The gunman got jumpy. He made Manfred press his nose to the wall, told him not to move. "If you call anybody or do anything," he said, "I'll be back to shoot you and the dog."

Then he left. The whole ordeal took no more than 10 minutes. "People are in difficult situations," Manfred said. "Unemployment's gone on too long. People need to feed their families. They're doing desperate things."

But not again to him. After Manfred went to the police to look at mug shots, he dropped by a shop on Ellsworth Street and bought a gun.


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