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The City That Never Works 

How to drive a woman from Cleveland.

Asks Christina Smith: "What does it take, the guy to come back and kill me?" - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Asks Christina Smith: "What does it take, the guy to come back and kill me?"
Christina Smith rushed into the basement laundry of her home to change. She'd be in and out. She didn't bother to close the door.

Her side street is like many in mid-gentrification Tremont. Across the road sits the mangled gate of a factory without name or sign of life. Neighboring homes range from central-casting decay to telltale green and mauve, the international symbol for Yuppies Live Here.

But despite the onslaught of new bistros peddling food and wine with romantic names once reserved for late-'70s Chryslers, this remains the city, where there is wisdom in caution.

Someone was following Christina that day. Saw the open door. Grabbed her purse. She didn't see a thing.

But Christina Smith is no wilting flower. At 26, she manages a restaurant while studying at Cleveland State. Hers is a makeup of composure and determination, of a woman who leaves no business unfinished.

So she went online to see if the bad guy used her cell phone. He was a purse thief, after all -- criminality's version of a third-string punter at Youngstown State. Of course he had.

She called the numbers. One guy gave her a description of the thief. His name was "Joey, a light-skinned Puerto Rican guy." But the cops said they couldn't get a warrant to trace the numbers.

The next day she received a call. Someone found her ID and credit cards. They met at an Ohio City gas station. He was a short, skinny white guy with a young man's chin scruff. Told her she'd find her purse under the freeway near Abbey Avenue. But her iPod, cell phone, and car keys were gone.

Then, four days after the theft, she was working at La Tortilla Feliz in Tremont when a cook mentioned seeing someone resembling the gas station guy lingering suspiciously outside. Now her car was gone.

Officer Eneida Hartman arrived at the restaurant. Christina describes her as that peculiar form of public servant who's pretty sure the public sucks. Hartman was confused by the story of purse and car, too impatient to hear her out, Christina says. "She started treating me like I was the criminal." So the officer went to her squad car, called Sergeant Robert Bartos, made him take the report. We're fairly sure this isn't how it's taught at the police academy.

In the meantime, Christina's mom called the cell phone numbers again, hoping for a better description of the thief. But this time the helpful man wasn't helpful at all. He offered threats, said he knew where Christina lived.

The cops weren't particularly worried. Under the Laws of Menace, purse thieves are slightly more dangerous than equestrian fans and pharmacists. But they told Christina to stay away from her house anyway. She did for three days.

The following Monday, she went to the Justice Center to examine mug shots. She picked out a guy, but wasn't certain.

A detective called the next day, asking her to do the same, unaware she'd already perused the photos.

Christina began to worry. It had now been a week since the purse theft. But reports hadn't been updated. Each cop didn't seem to know what the next was doing. And police had yet to even investigate.

"They still haven't decided to do anything on a case involving theft of property, threat with intent to harm, and grand theft auto," says an exasperated Christina. "I mean, what does it take, the guy to come back and kill me?" Furious, she called the mayor's hotline.

You should know that Christina is from Columbus, where calling the mayor is apparently not a punch line. But if New York is "The City That Never Sleeps," Cleveland is "The City That Never Works." The operator listened to part of her story, interrupted, then said she'd call back in 15 minutes. She never did.

Police would eventually find Christina's car on West 39th. But as far as she knows, her case was never assigned to a detective, and no one's conducted a moment of investigation.

"At this point," she says, "I'm so disgusted I don't even care."

Lieutenant Tom Stacho has a different take, of course. His is the unfortunate task of defending Cleveland's Finest, people who leave the house each day saying, Honey, I'm off to spend the next eight hours mired in shit! Only offensive coordinators are second-guessed more.

Stacho says his guys went out of their way to look for her purse, to search for the stolen car. In most cases, they don't even fingerprint stolen vehicles. For Christina they did.

The lieutenant understands the anger. "It's a traumatic incident for someone who this happens to, no doubt." But without solid leads, there's little they can do. When you work in America's seventh most dangerous city, as the FBI calls us, you save your resources for the truly wicked, the cases you can hit. Some scumbag car thief? "It's a low crime," says Stacho, "one step above stealing a six-pack of beer."

You hear where he's coming from. We expect real cops to behave like their TV counterparts, who catch and convict bad guys in less than an hour -- with time to spare for 68 commercials. But nothing is this easy on your job. It isn't on Stacho's either.

Yet you also feel for Christina. For all that tax money, residents expect at least the facade of caring -- someone who'll raise a hand to your plight, or offer a patient explanation for why the fight must be conceded. Christina's a smart woman; she knows pragmatics.

But when act or explanation doesn't arrive, she is left to think what Clevelanders are taught to think: that she's the latest foil in city government's running farce of incompetence and inertia.

Last week, Christina left for Spain to study for three months. When she returns, she'll join the parade to the suburbs. "How many people has this happened to who have moved to the suburbs?" The answer is likely in the thousands.

Before departing, she received a letter from the mayor's office. Though no one bothered to hear her tale of woe, she was assured that "action would be taken."

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