Police Caught the Man They Say Took Alice Zaccarello’s Wallet, but There's More to Story

When a crime is seen from a distance, everybody’s macho about it and wants to lock up the bad guys for life. Sometimes things look different to the people who are in the moment.

My wife and I were shocked to see video on Facebook of Alice Zaccarello getting mugged at a Walgreens drugstore at 6:14 p.m. June 21. First and foremost we hoped she was OK. But my wife, who went to Margaret B. Henderson Elementary School in Oak Cliff with her, was also upset that the police press release about it described Zaccarello, age 64, as an “elderly female.”

Some time later when I talked to Zaccarello about it on the phone, she said many of her friends on Facebook had been, like my wife, as least as upset about her being called elderly as about her getting mugged. Zaccarello, for one, was not offended. “I’m like, ‘Gang, we are not young.’”

Zaccarello was at the register writing a check from her mother’s account for medications for her, which required Zaccarello’s taking her wallet and the checkbook out of her purse and putting the wallet on the counter. A 28-year-old man lurking behind her but not in line lurched forward and snatched the wallet.

Most people who have seen the Walgreens security video interpret what happens next as the assailant knocking Zaccarello down. I thought it was a little unclear who took whom to the floor.

“He had my dang wallet,” Zaccarello told me, “and I have a reputation to preserve. I’m a Sunset [High School] girl. I grew up in the ’hood. I wanted my wallet back.”

Let us say that a struggle ensued. What you don’t see clearly in the video is that Zaccarello was back on her feet as least as fast as the attacker and out the door after him in time to see him jump in a car, from which she accurately recorded the tag number.

With that information in hand, police arrested a suspect a week later. Charged in the offense is Fabio Salmeron.

Zaccarello, elderly or not, has only high praise for the way the Dallas Police Department handled her case from start to finish. “I had been thinking, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to have to stay at Walgreens until the police come. That’s going to be a long time.’ But they were there within minutes.” She described the officers on the scene as “focused.”

“The first thing they wanted to see was the video. Of course I said, ‘Can I see it too?’ They said no. OK.

“They watched the video. They asked me questions. They allowed me to ask any questions I had. They gave me the number for the report. They had already tried to track down the license number.”

Zaccarello has a long career in private sector and faith-based social work organizations — the National Association of Social Workers, Sexual Abuse Intervention Network of Dallas, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, Promise House, the Women’s Council of Dallas County, the Oak Cliff Lions Club, Our Friends Place, the Dallas Urban League and others.

Her first move on getting home was to share information about the attack on “Nextdoor,” a privately funded San Francisco-based social network designed to keep people in touch with each other in neighborhoods all over America.

One neighbor who noticed her post was her City Council representative, Scott Griggs, who contacted the Southwest Division of the Police Department. Zaccarello said she was grateful and surprised by Griggs’ attentiveness to her plight. “I’m just a nobody,” she said.

Griggs confirmed that he knew of the case and that he did discuss it with the Police Department’s Southwest Division.  “I work closely with Chief [Santos] Cadena at Southwest on crime,” Griggs told me in an email. “We talk about specific crimes and crime trends on a regular basis.”

Zaccarello said she thought the department was already very efficient on its own, citing the prompt show-up at the crime scene and later investigative work by Detective Tami Cleary. She told me Cleary called her almost every day to update her on the case and to answer any questions she had. Cleary was out of the office for a period of weeks when I tried to reach her.

Zaccarello told me Walgreens was also extremely responsive. The company refunded her all of the cash she lost in her stolen wallet plus the out-of-pocket expenses for having credit cards and identification replaced and expedited.

She told me that she does replay the attack in her head and does rewatch the video, in part to examine her own reactions but also the reactions of several people who were standing nearby when the attack took place but did not intervene. She said the events captured in the video camera do not comport exactly with her memory now of the incident or with what she remembers thinking as it was happening.

“At the time that it was happening, I was yelling,” she said. “I’m not really a yeller. I don’t even know how loud I was yelling. I know I was trying to yell out, but I don’t think I was.

“I was yelling, ‘Help me, help me.’ I kept thinking, ‘Why in the heck doesn’t somebody do something?’

“But time went slower in the moment. When I eventually saw it on video, I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, it was so fast.’”

It’s a thing cops say about violence. You can stretch a violent incident out in your head and think about it frame by frame, almost millisecond by millisecond. When you do that you see all kinds of choices that could have been made. But what you miss is the speed. You can only make choices when you can think faster than the moment. When the moment is too fast for thinking, then it’s all gut, training and luck.

Zaccarello has no grudge against her fellow customers that night at Walgreens. “It was very fast,” she said. “In today’s society I don’t think you can second-guess people. It just happened so fast.”

She said she was angry when it happened because the guy had her wallet and she wanted it back. But pretty quickly she got over the anger. “I wasn’t weepy crying. I wasn’t mad after a while. I was like, you know, that’s society today. He got my wallet. It was my turn.”

So that much of the story is cool. She thinks both Walgreens and the city were “very responsive and very effective.” She thinks she did her best in the moment. Probably the people around her were stunned and did their best, too, even if it was less than a John Wayne performance.

The complication and the catch in her voice show up only when I ask how she feels about this guy getting sent to jail. She pauses. Then she tells me a little story about a woman she met a while back.

A year ago Zaccarello was named executive director of The Well Community, a faith-based organization serving 350 people in poverty with mental health problems in the Oak Cliff region of Dallas. The woman she told me about was someone she met through that work:

“She was just lying on a couch and weeping. I went over to her and sat with her. I just started listening mainly.

“What I got out of it was that here was a woman, a poor woman. She’s not in good health. You can tell by looking at her. And then we talked a little bit about some of her health problems. But she was weeping for her children, her adult children.

“Her son at the time was at Lew Sterrett [jail]. I had met him before. He was getting ready to be sent to Timberlawn [mental hospital], which I was glad to hear, because meeting him I knew there were mental health problems.

“Her daughter was in prison, and she has a son who works and wasn’t incarcerated.

“You have to wonder if this woman had had the means, could she have helped her children? She had no financial means to ever do that. Could she have helped and possibly averted her children from having those problems? I don’t know the real answers.

“What I do know is that she wept for her children like you or I would weep for our children if they were in trouble. She said, ‘There’s nothing I can do to help them.’ It was gut-wrenching to be a part of that.

“When you know things like this and somebody steals your wallet, you just know there’s a story there. And not everybody that ends up doing bad things got there because they are awful people.”

Email the author at jim.schutze@dallasobserver.com

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