Yeah, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In fact, none of it ever would have happened if I hadn’t set off in the wrong direction on the way back to my car — the first strike of bad luck against me. I had gone to Campesino Coffee House on Waugh at Missouri to work on an upcoming Houston Press feature and, feeling satisfied with the roughly 2,000 words I wrote that afternoon, left happy. I walked a few blocks down Missouri before realizing I had gone the wrong way — this was my first time at the coffee shop, as I was looking for a change of scenery; strike two — and I headed back toward Campesino. I thought to myself, “What a beautiful day to be lost on a walk,” and it was just then that a red Jeep drove past me.
I saw it stop and park alongside the street just ahead of me, thinking nothing of it except wondering how much it cost — I had been car shopping lately. As I passed the Jeep, I heard a door open. And before I could even finish the thought “how strange,” a man — a boy, rather — grabbed me from behind and put his hand over my mouth.
I tried to scream and it came out muffled. I looked up, and a baby-faced guy was pointing a gun at my face, its barrel staring me in the eye. He said, “Give us your purse,” and I let it go. He saw I had a phone, and the man-boy holding me from behind pried it out of my hand.
They took off and hopped in the car, speeding away. I picked up the bottle of Topo Chico I had dropped and fought an urge to throw it at the car and yell expletives at them, quickly deciding that getting shot over a bottle of mineral water would be more suitable for the slapstick stuff of the show 1000 Ways to Die. So instead I shattered it on the ground. When that didn’t satisfy me, I took off my sunglasses and smashed those on the ground too, apparently not caring about ruining more personal property after losing almost everything of value that I owned in a matter of seconds.
But this story isn’t just about what I lost. Because, you see, in a matter of minutes, the Houston police arrested the man-boys who attacked me — all three of them. And with that, I thought the story was over.
But in that situation, I had submissively, grudgingly come to terms with my powerlessness — a truly defeating feeling, one so contrary to the way innocent bystanders fight off bad guys in the movies that makes you believe you could do it too, and one that I never wanted to feel again.
Not that I was entirely frozen. In less than 60 seconds from the moment that Jeep sped off, I sprinted back to the coffeehouse, where I used a befuddled stranger’s cellphone to call 911. I gave the 911 dispatcher my exact location and the direction the car was headed. When she asked me the color of their shirts, I started to cry. I couldn’t remember. She told me that was okay and not to worry. When she asked me the license plate number, I yelled goddammit, realizing I hadn’t thought to check the plate as they sped off, too busy throwing things. She told me that was okay too.
After I hung up, I sat on the curb outside Campesino, assuming the little twerps had gotten away with it, along with the $1,400 laptop I had just finished paying off and all the words I’d just written on it . A couple of things crossed my mind as I moped: One being, this is the ultimate told-you-so moment for my protective mother, who’s always warned me to watch my back for attackers at all times — even in our cute little northwest suburb of Chicago, surrounded by cornfields. Two: how wrong I had been about how it would play out.
A Houston cop arrived roughly ten to 15 minutes after I hung up with the 911 operator. And as soon as he did, my anger about the situation was pretty much immediately replaced with relief and trust. Suddenly it was as if I’d been dropped into an episode of Cops, one where everything goes as planned and the whole chain of events is fit for prime time television.
The cop ran up to me and asked, abruptly, without even saying hello, “HOW MANY GUNS DID THEY HAVE?” Then he sprinted back to his patrol car. Little did I know, as soon as I called 911 and described the vehicle and location, two off-duty HPD officers working neighborhood security in a Montrose Patrol cruiser coincidentally pulled up behind that red Jeep several blocks away from me. I would later learn that they had heard the dispatch over the radio, realized that my description matched that of the Jeep and its occupants driving right in front of them, and alerted nearby on-duty HPD officers of its exact location.
For once: a lottery-worthy stroke of luck.
Standing outside the police officer’s car door at Campesino, I could hear a foot chase unfolding on the police radio right then. I would soon learn that minutes earlier, two HPD cruisers intercepted the Jeep at Allen Parkway and Taft Street after Montrose Patrol relayed its every move. The officers did a U-turn and flicked on their lights as the teenagers — ages 16, 16 and 19, it turns out — drove past them while trying to seem inconspicuous, the driver looking straight ahead with his hands at 10 and 2. They were trapped at a red light on Taft — so instead they hopped the curb to escape traffic, leading the police on a high-speed chase through bustling Houston neighborhood streets at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon. Officers I met at the scene said the suspects were running stop signs and stoplights, driving over more curbs — even evading a strip of spikes cops had set up on Studewood by driving into oncoming traffic.
Back at Campesino, I could hear that the robbers had crashed the Jeep into the front porch of a house in the Heights, apparently thinking they could make a right turn going 80 on a residential street. They had left the car and run away, evading the police through bushes and backyards, and one even climbed on top of a roof. K-9 units and a police helicopter had gotten involved in the chase too — the chopper spotting the boy hiding on the roof — and at this point, probably a dozen police cars or so were on the case. The officer with me at Campesino focused intently on his radio and laptop for a long while, silently, until finally looking up with a hint of a grin.
“They got ’em,” he said.
Turns out, the teens were suspected of robbing four other people before me that day — I was the last victim. Police said they had jumped some people at Walmart and had stolen that red Jeep from a woman at a car wash who was vacuuming the interior, whose toddler-aged daughter was playing in the backseat at the time the boys approached her with the gun. Her car was now totaled, resting atop the smashed front porch, its front bumper falling into the man-made ditch.
I recovered my laptop from the rubble, along with my charger and also my phone case in the car’s front seat. But the rest, including the actual phone, was nowhere to be found. Distracted at the scene, however, by jokes made by the policemen and by my own thankfulness that I was, well, alive, I didn’t care to think about what I had lost. It wasn’t until I got home that night that I even realized my legs were shaking, and it wasn’t until I woke up with the song “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” by the Beastie Boys stuck in my head that I thought perhaps it might take my psyche longer to recover than I would like to believe.
In the days following, though, I pretended that was not the case — mostly by making the story of my robbery about the police’s heroics, not my own fear. And as I tried to put my life back in order, I medicated headaches caused not by threatening robbers but by customer service representatives and automated telephone systems.
My main problem: I couldn’t prove who I was, or even where I lived.
I would have to argue with a bank that didn’t want to express-mail a new debit card to my own Houston address but would instead mail it only to my parents’ house in Algonquin, Illinois, where I set up the account as a high schooler.
I would have to borrow money from my roommate and boss to even buy food for the week. I would have to wait on my dad to send me my birth certificate and passport (plus the can of pepper spray from Mom) as well as my employer to help me scrounge up some financial documents to prove I really did live in Houston. And only then would I have to go through yet another nightmare: a trip to the DMV.
Still, despite the headaches, it was much easier to recover all the items that I lost than the intangibles I am not sure I will ever get back.
Once unafraid to traipse around the New York City subway system alone at 2 a.m., I still find myself unable to walk even ten feet without looking over my shoulder, whether in daytime or at night, whether alone or surrounded by people. I catch myself jumping whenever someone walks too close to me, or dangles his keys behind me on a sidewalk, or even yells too loudly behind me in a bar. I assume every car parked with its lights on along the curb is dangerous, and I cross the street to avoid it.
Prosecutors started contacting me in early September, wondering how I was feeling, needing me to write a victim-impact statement, asking me whether I preferred the two juveniles be certified to stand trial as adults for the aggravated robbery charges. I said I did not prefer it, hoping they would outgrow their rather reckless and violent moneymaking scheme soon and would perhaps consider getting jobs at restaurants or grocery stores or something normal like that.
Soon, however, prosecutors informed me that charges against two of the robbers — including the 19-year-old, who faces five to 99 years or life — might be dropped altogether, because I could not ID them. There had been some confusion: Despite my insistence to the police that I saw only one of their faces, for some reason, one officer wrote that I had positively identified all of them. Prosecutors later discovered another report that accurately reflected what I said, and they started to develop a few doubts about convicting two of the robbers without my being certain of their identities — something I could appreciate as a criminal justice reporter all too familiar with faulty eyewitness ID. Yet, again for some odd reason, charges were not filed in the cases of the four other people robbed that day, apparently leaving the fate of the cases on my shoulders alone.
I let it serve as a reminder that, despite my positive experience with the police — an experience I understand has not been the same for all other people — there are still an untold number of kinks in the criminal justice system left to be smoothed out. It has been strange to be on the other side of the table, as a journalist used to writing so often about crimes against strangers — then suddenly finding my own name listed in the court records I so routinely read for others: the accused did then and there INTENTIONALLY AND KNOWINGLY PLACE MEAGAN FLYNN IN FEAR OF IMMINENT BODILY INJURY AND DEATH. The sentence about startled me out of my office chair.
I remain convinced, whether or not it is true, that the fear is only temporary, that it will turn into merely a story suitable for dinner parties about some crazy thing that happened to me once. All in all, I dwell mostly on how fortunate I was that day — for the police and for supportive family and friends — and how little my life has actually changed. And that goes for all realms.
Two days after the robbery, I returned to my car to find that some heartless robot meter maid had stuck a parking ticket on my windshield while I was, yes, at the police station. I had even left a note: “Was robbed. No money. At HPD picking up police report. Plz don’t ticket.”
Just my luck.