'We are scared' Elderly Western New Yorkers are feeling increasingly vulnerable to crime. As one said, 'you could be next' - The Buffalo News

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'We are scared' Elderly Western New Yorkers are feeling increasingly vulnerable to crime. As one said, 'you could be next'

Lottie Jaczewski had a burglar alarm installed in her home, but the 79-year-old woman still gets scared when she sees her curtains move.

Rita Steinel always warns her husband, a World War II and Korean War vet, not to answer the door.

Patricia Janosek has her 77-year-old friend call her every day to make sure she's all right.

The elderly of Buffalo and its suburbs feel vulnerable to crime -- especially violent robberies -- particularly since the brutal home invasion and murder of 78-year-old Dolores Carr.

Carr was beaten and strangled to death Oct. 30 in her home. A man who frequently visited her next-door neighbor was charged.

"Everybody says, 'You could be next,' " said Jaczewski, who lives with her daughter and grandson near Carr's home.

The last few months have been particularly cruel for the area's elderly.

Early Wednesday in Cheektowaga, two robbers broke into an 80-year-old woman's home, cut her phone line and ransacked her house for hours. A month earlier on the same street, an 82-year-old man and his 72-year-old wife were the victims of a home-invasion robbery in which they were tied up and held at gunpoint for three hours until they told their captors where their money was.

Also on Wednesday, in Amherst, a 71-year-old man getting money out of an ATM machine at a bank on Kensington Avenue was robbed of $200 and his ATM card by a man holding a fake gun.

A week earlier, a 74-year-old Buffalo man was set upon by a gang of six to seven men armed with baseball bats on Gittere Street on the East Side. While they didn't use the bats on him, they punched him in the face and kicked him until a neighbor opened her door, prompting the assailants to flee.

An analysis of crimes against the elderly in Buffalo shows that homicides and serious assaults do not make up a large portion of city crime -- but that is not much consolation to the victims.

So far this year, three elderly Buffalo residents have been murdered. Last year, there were two murders and one assault serious enough to be investigated by homicide detectives.

In 2003, no seniors were murdered, but four were seriously assaulted. Local authorities don't keep age data on victims of other crimes, like robberies.

But LaVerne Blades, an elder abuse specialist with Crisis Services, said she has noticed a steady increase in home invasions with senior-age victims this year.

"Just today, I got another home invasion case," Blades said Thursday. "The elderly -- they are vulnerable . . . It's traumatic [for them]. You wake up in the night with a gun to your head. You're 80 years old. You're from an era of time when people left their doors open. That's shocking."

>A stream of crimes

The murder of Dolores Carr was probably the most terrifying incident to hit the community -- but there seems to be a stream of crimes and scary moments for seniors like Jaczewski.

A couple of months ago, a robber who had held up a nearby gas station ran through Jaczewski's backyard and into a waiting cab, she said. Also recently, a thief stole stained glass windows from another neighbor right out of their frames. And over the summer, something tripped Jaczewski's alarm at 4:40 a.m.

"We've lived here 52 years," she said in the kitchen of her house. "Where are we going to go? We are scared. It's not right. This is my castle."

At lunchtime on Oct. 4 in Buffalo, an elderly woman who uses a cane reported to police that two youths pushed her against a wall and took her purse, which contained $600 in Social Security checks and her benefit card.

Around the same time, a 70-year-old Buffalo woman was raped at knifepoint in her home.

On July 20, an 82-year-old woman said that two men wearing masks broke the window to her rear apartment and kicked in a kitchen door. The woman said the robbers pushed her around the apartment and demanded money. Although she told the men she had no money, they ransacked her bedroom, then fled.

On June 24, on Goodyear Avenue on the East Side, Sandra Hainesworth, 68, was killed in a home invasion robbery. Her killer remains at large.

And on May 26, an elderly couple on the East Side reported that a woman came to their home, claiming to be from their church. The woman took the wife's wallet, then pushed the man down, causing him to strike his head on a coffee table.

>Frail and vulnerable

Erie County Senior Services Commissioner Patricia Krawczyk pointed out that while there's been a sudden flurry of high-profile, random attacks on local senior citizens, a far worse problem is that of elder abuse by family members.

"What we see is verbal, physical abuse and exploitation," she said. But she also acknowledged that seniors often become the victims of robberies because of their frail state.

"They are the prime target," she said. "They're vulnerable."

The county operates 51 dining centers for seniors where hot meals are provided on weekdays, and fitness and safety are promoted.

"We try to focus on their well-being," Krawczyk said. "Exercise. Physical activity. So they don't feel so vulnerable."

Worries about crime and safety were on the minds of the two dozen elderly who showed up for lunch on a recent weekday in the Schiller Park Senior Center on Genesee Street, around the corner from where Carr had lived.

"I've had to alter my life," sighed Florence Snusz, as she sat down for lunch and a little bingo with her friends.

"I rarely go out at night now," Snusz said. "When I do go out, I check every single window and every single door. You have to take every precaution. I've lived her for 39 years. I love the house. I love the neighborhood. But I've never had to live like that before."

So far, she has resisted putting bars in her windows. "If it comes to that, I'm going to move," Snusz vowed.

>'You can't live in fear'

The seniors at the Schiller Park facility say that Carr's murder has shaken them, but it's not the only crime that has hit close to home.

In June, one of the regulars at the senior center hot lunches, an 83-year-old woman, was mugged outside the facility.

A police report showed that a man came up from behind the woman and tried to take her purse. She tried to fend him off with her cane, but the mugger pushed her down and ran off with her purse.

Some seniors say they try not to let their worries get the best of them.

"You can't live in fear," said Mary Ullrich, 79, a widow who often works a late shift and has learned to deal with being outside at night.

The woman recalled how once she got a little nervous while working when she saw groups of teenage boys on both sides of an aisle. She felt trapped, she said.

"But I moved and got away," she said. "I beat those kids."

Blades, who helps elderly victims of crime put their lives back together, said seniors can take steps to protect themselves.

"Don't give out any [personal] information on the telephone," she urged.

She also suggested seniors be careful about opening their door to a stranger, lock their doors and keep a phone by their bed.

"But most important: Don't remain isolated," Blades said. "Get someone to check in with you. If you don't have family, get acquainted with someone at your local senior center. Being isolated makes you a target."
Seniors are encouraged to call the Crisis Services hotline -- 834-3131 -- if they have safety concerns.

While the elderly need to take steps to protect themselves, Blades said violence and crime against the area's senior citizens points to a larger problem.

"When you consider the number of elderly people we are going to have -- it's going to double, triple in the next few years -- how are we going to deal with this in our community?" she said.

"What happened a few weeks ago with that elderly woman on Domedion Avenue brought the whole neighborhood together," she said. "Why wait until that happens? The neighbors need to come together now."

Recently, advocates for seniors in Erie County recognized a problem with financial exploitation of the elderly, especially by younger relatives. They set up meetings with bank tellers to teach the seniors how to protect themselves.

"So maybe we can do that here [with home invasions]," Blades said. "Obviously, there's something that needs to go on."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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