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Published: Monday, 10/27/2003

2 widows survive robbery near church

Sally Antoszewski, a 94-year-old widow from North Toledo, said she likes to go to Mass on Saturday afternoons because it's less crowded than Sunday and she can “shuffle along” without getting in anyone's way, she said.

On Saturday, however, trouble came her way.

Mrs. Antoszewski and her 83-year-old niece, Valerie Nieszala, were accosted Saturday as they were entering St. Adalbert's Catholic Church on Lagrange Street for the 4 p.m. Mass.

According to Mrs. Antoszewski and police reports, the two elderly widows were walking up the church's handicapped entrance ramp when a car pulled up next to them. A large woman in a bright yellow dress ran up and grabbed Mrs. Antoszewski's purse, which Mrs. Nieszala was carrying for her aunt, who walks with the aid of a cane.

“She was a big, masculine woman,” Mrs. Nieszala said of her assailant, later identified by police as 5-foot-9, 198-pound Iris Janine Smith, 42, of Putnam Street.

“It all happened in a flash,” Mrs. Antoszewski said.

The assailant shoved Mrs. Nieszala, who fell backward and hit her head on the pavement, police said.

Ms. Smith then sped out of the parking lot, westbound on Oakland Street, police said.

Fortunately for the two senior citizens, a Toledo police officer happened to witness the crime.

“That was a blessing,” Mrs. Antoszewski said.

Officer Leah Lewis was parked in her squad car in an adjacent lot, eating her lunch, when she saw the women being attacked, according to police.

“I saw the suspect strike a victim, knocking her to the ground,” Officer Lewis said in her report.

When the suspect drove off “at a high rate of speed,” Officer Lewis said she gave chase with the siren on and lights flashing.

Ms. Smith ran “numerous” stop signs on Oakland, barreled over a traffic sign at Cherry and Oakland streets, drove onto the sidewalk, and crashed into a utility pole and stairs at Cherry and Condley streets, coming to a halt, police said.

Several police units had been called to assist Officer Lewis and officers had to cut the suspect's seat belt to remove her from the vehicle. The suspect repeatedly yelled, “Shoot me, kill me,” to the officers, police said.

One policeman, Officer C. Eycke, injured her knuckles while struggling to free Ms. Smith from the car, police said.

Police found a black wig and a gun on the front seat of Ms. Smith's black-and-white 1989 Ford Tempo, along with Mrs. Antoszewski's purse, which they returned to the victim.

“It was horrible,” said Mrs. Antoszewski, who said she has a heart condition. “Here we are, so helpless, and she was so big and masculine. I just stood there paralyzed. It was a godsend that the police were there.”

Mrs. Nieszala had a large bump on the back of her head but was expected to be released today from St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, according to her daughter, Betty Osenbaugh of Toledo.

She said her mother, who is about 5 feet tall, was “traumatized” by the attack. “She just wants to go home,” Ms. Osenbaugh said.

Toledo Sgt. Richard Murphy said he was recommending that Officer Lewis receive an award for her quick action.

Ms. Smith, who was being held without bond yesterday at the Lucas County jail, was charged with robbery, resisting arrest, reckless operation of a vehicle, and several related traffic charges. She is expected to be arraigned this morning in Toledo Municipal Court.



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