In the last two months, Gary Hortch and Doug Atwell, both employes of Hayden's Liquor Store at North Carolina Avenue and Seventh Street SE, have intervened in three purse snatchings and a mugging, rescuing several Capitol Hill residents.
Hortch, 36, and Atwell, 31, whom neighbors call "Hayden's Raiders," have become an integral part of the Neighborhood Crime Watch program near the store although neither lives in the neighborhood. Police say that although many neighborhoods have similar programs, few have been as willing to get involved in interrupting crimes and seizing suspects.
"These guys are heroes," said Bill Miller, a lobbyist and consultant who with his wife Luree began the Neighborhood Crime Watch group in January in the 100 block of Seventh Street SE.
At a recent crime watch meeting in Miller's home, Police Sgt. William McManus, a 1st District community services officer, said, "I don't attend too many meetings where people are as serious about crushing crime," referring to Hortch and Atwell. McManus said he will recommend Hortch and Atwell for the mayor's meritorious service award.
The two men have helped to bring a little security and togetherness to residents who Miller said had begun to "cower behind their doors."
"It fear would show in little bursts when you would bump into somebody," Miller said. "The worst of it was we'd hear of something that would happen down the street and wonder what ever became of it. . . . You'd never know if somebody was robbed or raped. . . . We decided we could at least try to work together to decrease crime on the block."
Mel Hart, a three-year resident, said that the occasional crime watch meetings have brought the Capitol Hill neighborhood "so close it's like living in a small community."
Hortch said his and Atwell's method of crime fighting is simple: "Hear a scream, run to the source;" see a suspicious character following a woman, "do not blink until she is out of danger."
"I guess it's just instinct when we go after somebody," Atwell said. "We just can't turn our backs on our neighbors."
Hortch, a manager of Hayden's Liquor Store, said he is no stranger to crime: he was robbed there three times during the past 12 years. "We kind of expect things to happen," he said.
Two months ago, he and Atwell were stocking wine on the store's shelves when Hortch saw two men following a woman. Just as he was thinking there might be trouble, her purse was snatched.
"Oh-oh, here we go again, Doug," Hortch recalled saying as they raced out of the store after the suspects, whom they eventually held for police. It was the second time in two weeks the woman's purse had been stolen, and when she realized Hortch had recovered it, she covered him with hugs and kisses.
"That's when you feel, 'Damn, I did something good,' " Hortch said.
Perhaps the most sensational episode in the pair's battle against crime occurred two weeks ago as Jim Bunn, an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, was walking home from work.
While Hortch and Atwell were stocking a refrigerator in the back of the store, they heard a scream. The scream came from Bunn, who was fighting two men who had knocked him to the ground in a robbery attempt. Hortch and Atwell looked at each other and thought, "Oh God, not again."
They went charging out onto Seventh Street. Miller, who also heard the scream, arrived and helped subdue the suspects. One neighbor said the scene looked like "a pileup over a football."
Neither Hortch nor Atwell thought twice about whether the muggers were armed. They weren't.
When one of the assailants broke free and bolted with Bunn's wallet, Atwell chased him. Police arrested the suspect and recovered the wallet after Atwell showed officers where the man was hiding. Police said the two would-be muggers are awaiting trial.
After the story was told at the crime watch meeting, the group applauded the pair for their contributions to the community, and Bunn was admired for his courage.
Some residents said the spirit of cooperation and assistance would not have happened before neighbors began to rally together. Seventh Street resident John McCloskey said that before neighbors might not have been as willing to rush into the street, let alone call police.
Miller said an unneighborly coolness and an unwillingness to get involved in the neighborhood prompted him and his wife to start the crime watch group.
"Over a period of several years, there were a number of stabbings, muggings and break-ins, including our house and our neighbor's," Miller said. "Every few months something would happen. We had a house guest mugged. I think after a while there was an accumulation of fear that had built up among the people on the block."
But with "Hayden's Raiders" around and a new harmony among the residents, people in the community are "now talking to each other again," Hortch said.
"Before, they used to just look at the ground" when they passed one another on the street, Atwell said.
"We've been successful in that we have kept people interested in crime prevention," Miller said. "We find it extremely valuable to review each crime to see the various ways in which we could have handled it. We also ask the cops for their professional advice."
The crime fighting efforts have not gone unnoticed by police. McManus said, "I would call this a model neighborhood watch committee." "You have had enough exposure to crime that you are one of the most cohesive groups around," he told the crime watch meeting.
Besides managing Hayden's Liquor Store and chasing muggers, Hortch, Atwell and their co-workers help maintain a park across the street under a city program that allows businesses to "adopt" and care for public space.
Once an overgrown haven for winos and bums, the park now looks like a private garden, neatly snipped and trimmed.
"People are not afraid to walk through the park anymore," said Hortch with pride as he pointed to it.