Shoplifting calls were common when I was on patrol. Upon arrival wide-eyed store staff would direct me to a back room, telling me the store detective had a person in custody. Most times I would hurry – unless I knew it was Hilda.
Hildagard always had everything under control. Invariably I would be greeted by a sorrowful thief, their expression almost a plea for help, and a stone-faced Hilda typing out an arrest report.
“I haf jest arrested dis person from shtealing a tin of aspirin, two chocolate bars uunt a pair of sunglasses. He placed zee merchandize in his right and left coat pocket, paid for a newspaper at zee cash register uunt den valked out of zee shtore. I apprehended him at his car. I identified myself uunt tolt him he vas unter arrest for shtealing merchandise and I asked him to accompany me back to zee shtore.”
An interesting character study, Hilda was an extraordinary thief catcher. Reputed to be a former German Border police officer, she was about 5 foot 10” and in her late 40’s or early 50’s.
You wouldn’t notice her while shopping. Her typical unassuming attire would include a grey muslin coat and matching floppy hat. An unsuccesfull attempt to contain her black/grey hair as it peaked out on all sides below the hat gave her a carefully crafted dissheveled appearance.
Hilda’s true talents remained dormant until she spotted a potential shoplifter. She would grab a thief with her stevedore grip, like a praying mantis on a fly. If the culprit resisted, they would end up wondering why they were on the floor – and what happened to their head. If things were particularly violent, the thief would suddenly wonder why the world was spinning and why was he wearing an oxygen mask while laying on a gurney.
A store thief catcher is not a very popular job. On one level, you are required to look like just another customer, which means wearing average or even dowdy clothing and appearing to be a normal shopper. When it’s arrest time however, this mild mannered person must suddenly present a stronger presence.
Thieves have many advantages, including a good defence if the store detective doesn’t identify the reason for the encounter or clearly state that the citizen’s arrest is binding. Resisting arrest or fleeing brings about an entirely new ball game, as does rescue attempts by accomplices.
Hilda worked alone and would occasionally call police for help if there looked to be multiple suspects. She had done the job long enough to know the tell-tale methods of a professional booster. Most of her cases were simply impulse thefts, with the occasional teenager tempted by too much peer pressure. She knew her suspects could be anyone – doctors stealing aspirin, teenagers stealing cosmetics, teachers stealing staples and staff taking most anything not nailed down – but suspects going for the big ticket items probably had help nearby.
One day she almost inadvertently met her match. A thief grabbed some impulse items from the cash register display so brazenly that even the cashier saw it. Hilda stopped him outside the door in her usual manner and an accomplice struck her in the face with a pipe. She had her hand on the thief and they both fell to the ground, where she was struck twice on her back and once again on her head.
Hilda lashed out at the second man and then fought off a third. Both limped away from the fray after realizing this was no ordinary store dick. She picked up the suspect, half carried him back into the store and, with help from other staff, placed him in the storage room to await my arrival.
I entered to find Hilda with a large black eye and welt across the bridge of her nose. She was busily typing and didn’t say anything. The suspect was handcuffed to a chair, looking up at me with terrified eyes. “I didn’t do that to her,” he yelled. “It was the other two guys; I don’t know who they are.”
I looked over to Hilda, who didn’t show any emotion. She finished typing and said “I haf jest arrested dis person from shtealing four chocolate bars ant two packages of gum.” Ever the consummate professional, she continued on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “As his two accomplices attempted to free him, I felt it necessary to defend myself. I am sure they will need medical attention,” she concluded matter of factly. I chuckled and she looked at me with a serious look. “Yah! Yah! You are a policeman. You should check ze hospital. Zey will be there.”
After taking Hilda to the hospital and the suspect to the station cell block, I cleared the station and was immediatley dispatched to the hospital. An alarmed dispatcher announced; “A lady with a thick German accent has called advising she has found two suspects wanted for an assault. You are to attend with back-up.”
“Ten-four,” I responded, “but backup won’t be necessary.”