Sarah Pitluck used to walk her dogs before dawn, among the early risers exercising on Capitol Hill. She now waits until first light, and for the streets to be busier.
It is just one way the young man who robbed her, ripping the smartphone from her hand and scratching her neck, has changed her daily routine — and her life.
Ever since the Oct. 13 robbery just two blocks from her home, the pharmaceutical executive goes to work later and comes home before it gets dark. Lost time at her office is made up at home, on the phone with her overseas staffers and answering e-mails. She drives more often and pairs with others on neighborhood excursions. Her poodle, Lenzi, and Chihuahua mix, Pedro, get walks only during daylight hours.
A recent wave of street robberies has scared residents of this neighborhood that stretches out from the U.S. Capitol, spilling into Hill East and the Navy Yard neighborhood and up to the H Street corridor. Attackers have stolen not only cellphones and money, but also a sense of security.
“Screw you for taking that away from me,” Pitluck said of the man who robbed her and his getaway driver.
Many of her neighbors are taking similar precautions. Parents are picking up children at the Metro station so they don’t have to walk home. One man bought whistles for his family to use in case of trouble. A woman said she drives to a grocery store in another neighborhood, even though there is one within walking distance of her house. There is talk on the neighborhood e-mail group of buying guns for protection.
Robberies have been a pervasive problem in the District for the past several years, fueled, according to police, by a desire for smartphones that can command top dollar in underground markets. Although robberies have fallen over the past few years amid stepped up police enforcement, certain areas of the city have seen an uptick this year.
Pitluck, 40, who moved to Capitol Hill a decade ago, still won’t walk past the spot where she was robbed. As she was outside one recent morning, neighbor Marsha Edney and her terrier stopped to say hello.
Edney, who moved to the neighborhood with her husband after their last child went to college, said she never makes it home from work before dusk. These days, her husband wants to come meet her at the Metro station. “That’s silly,” Edney said. “I don’t like living in a place where I feel afraid to go out.”
Pitluck concurs. She moved here to walk, to mingle, to use public transportation. Now, she drives to her downtown office instead of taking Metro, fearing walking home from the station. Last weekend, her friends refused to walk home with her after a soccer game at RFK Stadium, so the whole group used Uber to call a car.
More than one homeowner offered to let her take their bigger dog on her walks so she would feel secure. And she used to e-mail while she was out with her dogs, but she has stopped doing that, letting the work pile up.
“I can’t multitask anymore,” Pitluck said. “It’s a lot of time out of the day that is lost.”
Similar chatter echoes over Capitol Hill — in community meetings with police, in coffee houses with members of the D.C. Council, in newsletters that have dubbed the robbery surge a “reign of terror.” They are stories of fear, of anger, and of daily lives upended.
“It shouldn’t have to be this way,” Pitluck said.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the department has added officers, both uniformed and in plainclothes, on Capitol Hill and in other areas hit hard by robberies. The chief said that’s both to catch offenders and put residents at ease.
“Nobody should have to change their routines because of crime,” Lanier said.
Five people were robbed in 40 minutes one night last month on Capitol Hill and near the Navy Yard, and police made arrests that closed those cases and others. On Nov. 4, police reported three more robberies and assaults within a block of where Pitluck was robbed. Five juveniles were arrested.
In 2011, the District recorded 2,810 unarmed robberies and 1,212 robberies with guns. The attacks dropped to 1,832 unarmed robberies and 926 armed robberies in 2014. This year, unarmed robberies are down but armed robberies are up.
On streets around Eastern Market and Stanton Park on Capitol Hill, the number of unarmed robberies increased from 35 at this time last year to 43 this year. Armed robberies during that time more than doubled, from 11 to 24. In neighboring Hill East and Lincoln Park, the number of armed robberies this year increased from 17 to 24 and there have been 48 unarmed robberies, up from 34.
Other areas of the city also have experienced increases in robberies, including those in Northeast from Trinidad north through Brookland and in sections of Northwest such as Takoma, Columbia Heights and Petworth. Robberies are down in several parts of the District, including east of the Anacostia River and around Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park and Foggy Bottom in Northwest.
Pitluck was robbed on a Tuesday night as she was headed home from playing tennis. Dressed in a V-neck shirt and workout pants, and carrying no money, she was holding her Samsung phone in her right hand and two dog leashes in her left. She had just answered an e-mail and turned a corner.
“I saw a guy walking toward me,” Pitluck said. “He just passed me and said, ‘Hey,’ like a greeting. Then, two seconds later, he turned around to grab my phone.” Pitluck said it took a moment before she understood she was being robbed, so she didn’t immediately let go. He punched and scratched her upper chest and neck. She screamed.
When he got the phone, the man jumped into a waiting car. A neighbor shouted out the number on the temporary — and probably fake, police later told Pitluck — tags. “We’ve got to call the cops,” the woman yelled.
Police came, and they tried to find the car. One officer accompanied Pitluck home to meet with a detective. She said the officer sat on her couch and watched her TV while they waited. He talked about how he was working overtime because of the crime surge, that there had been another robbery that night, and that a woman nearby had been sexually assaulted in a random break-in. Later, Pitluck downed medicine to the ease the pain from the assault, and she went to bed.
The next day, it sank in. She had a work project due. An overseas trip in six days. Her phone — filled with privileged work information, along with passwords and phone numbers she could no longer recall — was gone. “I can’t believe it just happened in my neighborhood,” she thought. The assailant had touched her. “That was vile,” she recalled.
Work wiped her phone clean and got her a new one, and a backup restored most of her information, although it took nearly a week. She didn’t go outside or walk her dogs for two days. More than wanting an arrest in her case, she wants authorities to put an end to the fear.
“I don’t expect [the police] to find these guys,” Pitluck said. “I just want it to stop.”