Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala thwarted a robbery attempt yesterday morning in Georgetown by throwing herself to the ground and screaming after a man demanded that she give up her wallet, D.C. police said.
Rather than risk any more confrontation, the man and a female accomplice ran to a black Jeep Cherokee and sped off, police said. Shalala's screams attracted the attention of a passerby, who offered help. But despite her unorthodox approach, Shalala had matters under control: Not only did she escape unharmed, but she got the vehicle's license number.
Within 20 minutes, police had three suspects in custody, including the man and woman who allegedly accosted Shalala and a second woman who allegedly drove the getaway Jeep. Police said the trio had robbed another woman at a bus stop shortly before Shalala was attacked. And the Jeep was stolen, they said.
And so police gave Shalala credit for helping to solve three crimes.
"This was the perfect police case," said Lt. Patrick Burke, explaining that Shalala's cool demeanor helped officers make the arrests.
Shalala, who lives in the Georgetown area, had just withdrawn money from an automated teller machine in the 1700 block of Wisconsin Avenue NW when the events unfolded at 7:15 a.m. As Shalala walked to her car, a man and woman jumped out of a Jeep, and the man tried to grab her wallet, shouting, "Give it up, give it up!" Burke said. Shalala saw no sign of any weapons.
"She fell to the ground in a fetal position and screamed," Burke said, adding that the tactic apparently surprised the assailants. "She acted on instinct and did a good job. Then she got the tag number. She was a very good witness. I wish all witnesses were as good as her."
As the assailants rode off, Shalala raced to a nearby telephone and called police. Officers and detectives from the 2nd Police District swarmed the area. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a resident in the 1600 block of Suters Lane NW was startled to see a Jeep suddenly stop on the street and three people bound out. The resident called police, who said they found the women hiding in an alley and the man in a back yard.
The Jeep was stolen in July in Prince George's County, Burke said. Inside the vehicle, police found a purse and credit cards that belonged to a woman who said that she, too, had been attacked yesterday morning. The woman, 25, told police that a man and woman leapt out of a black Jeep Cherokee and robbed her at 6 a.m. as she waited for a bus in the Mount Pleasant area.
Arrested were Donald Clark, 22; Tawana Clark, 20; and Sylvia Dorsey, 21, all of Northeast Washington. The Clarks are cousins, police said; Dorsey allegedly drove the Jeep. All three were charged with one count of robbery, one count of attempted robbery and one count of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. They were jailed pending an appearance today in D.C. Superior Court.
Shalala was still at the crime scene when police caught the suspects. A source familiar with the investigation said that she later identified the two people charged with accosting her.
Shalala, 58, declined a request for an interview yesterday. The incident was the second time within the last year that she has been a crime victim. Last June, burglars broke into her town house and took three Persian rugs and some jewelry.
"She seemed fine, remarkably calm to me," said HHS spokeswoman Melissa Skolfield, who spoke with Shalala. "She thought the police did a great job apprehending someone very quickly."
Staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Police credited HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala with helping to solve crime.