Police training helps local woman take a bite out of crime

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, May 18, 2014

JANESVILLE —Connie Ihrke turned her back for a moment, and her purse was gone.

The town of Milton woman and her sister-in-law were loading groceries into the back of Ihrke's SUV at the Janesville Sam's Club. It was a windy fall day.

They didn't notice the man walk by and scoop the purse from the shopping cart.

Turns out, Ihrke was one in a series of purse-snatching victims in fall 2012 at stores in Janesville's east-side shopping district.

But Ihrke had been trained, and she used that training to ultimately help catch the man accused in the mini crime wave.

Ihrke is a graduate of the Janesville Police Department's SAFE training. SAFE stands for Self-defense, Awareness, Familiarization and Exchange.

It's a self-defense class, but its biggest emphasis is avoiding trouble to begin with. One way to do that is to be aware who is around you when you're out in the public.

Before pushing her cart to her vehicle, Ihrke had been waiting in the Sam's Club entrance vestibule for her sister-in-law to exit. She noticed two men loitering in the same space. It seemed odd that they were just standing there, she recalled.

“I am very aware of my surroundings, and that comes from the SAFE training. I'm always looking to see what's there,” Ihrke said.

She normally puts her purse into the car before unloading groceries to her vehicle's hatchback. That's also from SAFE training.

But on that day she didn't.

“I let my guard down because I was with another person, but you should never let your guard down,” she said.

“Don't forget my purse,” Ihrke said to her sister-in-law as they completed the loading.

“What purse?” her sister-in-law replied.

They realized what happened and went inside to the service counter, where an employee called 911.

Irhke called her husband, who started canceling credit cards.

A Sam's Club employee pulled up parking lot video, which showed a man in a hooded sweatshirt approach the women and take the purse as their backs were turned.

They never noticed him.

“It was that quickly that it happened,” Ihrke said.

The video did not show the man's face. When the officer arrived, Ihrke suggested he check the video from the vestibule.

The officer asked if they had seen the man take the purse. They did not. So it could have been anybody, the officer told them. He didn't check the video.

That was a Friday night. Ihrke was distraught over the weekend. The purse contained extra cash because she had just returned from a training session in Wisconsin Dells, she said. She also lost her credit cards, phone, jewelry.

“I felt violated because all my identity was in that purse,” she said.

She also lost photos of her sister who had died a few months previously.

“Those are pictures I'll never get back,” she said.

The next morning, she went to the bank to take out cash, but she couldn't because she had no ID.

“It was my whole identity. I had to start from scratch,” she said. .

Ihrke has lived in the Janesville area for 45 years.

“I've always felt safe here, but after my purse was stolen, I did not feel as safe and secure as I had before,” she said.

Ihrke, a former human resources manager for Rock County, had organized three SAFE trainings for county employees. She attended all of them.

So Ihrke knew Sgt. Brian Donohoue, who had worked with her. She called him.

“She said, 'Sarge, it's because of what you said—gut feeling, intuition—something was up with that guy standing in the vestibule. Something was out of place,'” Donohoue recalled.

Ihrke found out later that Donohoue checked the video himself. A man in the vestibule with Ihrke was matched to the clothing worn by the purse snatcher. Police asked local news media to publish a blurry image of the man.

The image eventually prompted someone who knew the man to call police. An arrest was made on seven counts of theft and two counts of attempted theft. He was stealing belongings to support his heroin addiction, police said at the time.

The suspect pleaded no contest to theft charges but still is awaiting court action on the thefts because he is in a deferred-prosecution program.

Ihrke got satisfaction from the outcome, although she said it took a long time, and she never got any of her possessions back.

“I was persistent because I'd been through this SAFE class three times, and I'll never forget. You have to be aware of your surroundings,” Ihrke said.

If Ihrke had not insisted, the video image would not have been published and the case would not have been solved as quickly, Donohoue said.

“I'm positive there would've been another purse snatching or two,” Donohoue said, and someone could've gotten hurt.

Janesville police have offered SAFE training for about eight years, Donohoue said. If you count classes arranged for businesses, church groups, schools, hospitals and other organizations, training happens about once a month.

Donohoue guesses upwards of 1,000 women have taken it.

Men are not allowed to attend because some techniques taught in the class depend on the element of surprise, Donohoue said.

And there's always the possibility of domestic violence.

“We say at the end of class, 'Don't practice with someone you care about. Be careful who you tell,'” Donohoue said.

Girls age 15-17 are allowed to take the class if they come with an adult or if a parent signs a waiver.

Classes are free. There's a $5 charge for a packet of materials, but police will waive the cost if someone can't afford it.

The class includes self-defense techniques, including the use of pepper spray, which Ihrke always carries.

“If you are targeted for a violent attack, you are only guaranteed there will be one person there to defend you, and that person is you,” is the SAFE message.

However, “we spend very little time on the punches, the escapes. We spend the majority of the time on awareness and risk reduction,” Donohoue said.

Those are the skills that Ihrke used to solve her own theft.

“Every woman in Janesville should go through it. I learned so much in the program,” Ihrke said. “And it helped me. All the things they taught us in that class, I've incorporated them into my life.

“It makes me feel I know what I should do if something happens.”

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