A couple of months ago, in the Center City Macys, I overheard a couple from Minneapolis ask a security guard where the public restrooms were located. The guard told the tourists that they were on the third floor and pointed to a bank of elevators that would take them there. The couple nodded appreciatively, although one could sense an element of surprise in their reaction: Why would so large a store not have an accessible restroom on the first floor?
Parenthetically speaking, whenever I hear the word restroom in connection with Macys, my mind races to the past. I’m thinking of the “anything goes” decade of the 1970s and early 1980s, when the restrooms on the ninth floor of the building (then John Wanamaker’s) near The Crystal Room restaurant became hotbeds of impropriety among a certain class of sexual thrill seekers who saw restrooms as substitute bathhouses. While this scandal never made the evening news, it became a major problem for store officials.
‘Anarchy is no cure for coronavirus or injustice.’
While those nice tourists from Minneapolis presumably used the facilities without a problem, this was certainly not the case for another couple a few weeks later..
A 55-year-old woman entered a stall in the women’s room on Sunday, February 21, at 11:30 a.m., while her husband waited in the store. Suddenly she experienced the shocking intrusion of a man climbing over the top of her stall and jumping down into her space. Brandishing 12-inch-long kitchen skewers, the 22-year-old male assaulter threatened to stab her if she made a sound.
The man, Jaleel Uqdah, raped the woman, then stole $60 from her purse before making his get away to the SEPTA Market Line at 13th and Market–a particularly messy sleeping and panhandling hangout for the homeless–and then boarded a west-bound train to 52nd Street.
Cameras at 13th and Market were able to get images of Uqdah, dreadlocks protruding from his hoodie, as he walked through the turnstile and later emerged from SEPTA’s 52nd Street station, where police say he then caught a bus to his home to 53rd and Girard in West Philadelphia.
Any viewer watching these surveillance tapes would be struck by Uqdah’s direct look into the camera as if he was measuring his chances of being identified.
Uqdah, police say, had been hiding in the women’s room for 20 minutes prior to the victim entering. It is unknown whether or not there was a camera outside the restroom, but the surveillance video from SEPTA and a positive ID from the victim during a police lineup helped in his capture a few days later on February 25. News reports say that the suspect was arrested in his house and “seemed surprised” when police came knocking.
At the time of Uqdah’s arrest, it was discovered that he had been previously charged with robbery, which of course came as no surprise to most Philadelphians or seasoned urban crime watchers.
Last June, Uqdah broke into a Family Dollar store, and in August 2019, he was cited for theft involving a SEPTA cashier booth. Prosecution for both of these cases was delayed because of COVID-19, according to the District Attorney Larry Krasner.
In March 2020, legal arrests were halted in the city because of COVID-19. Prosecution of vandalism, theft, burglary, narcotics, and the issuing of bench warrants were all stopped by police. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw’s order that arrests for these low-level crimes be delayed was praised by national publications like the far-left Mother Jones. (“Smart, fearless journalism,” is how Mother Jones describes itself.) In an article regarding Outlaw’s low-level crime dispensation—“To Correct the Spread of Coronavirus, Arrest Fewer People” the publication stated:
“There’s another thing law enforcement could be doing to slow the spread of the coronavirus: Stop booking people into local jails, which experts fear could easily become incubators for the disease due to close quarters, poor sanitation, and underprepared health systems.”
Prosecution of vandalism, theft, burglary, narcotics, and the issuing of bench warrants were all stopped by police. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw’s order that arrests for these low-level crimes be delayed was praised by national publications like the far-left Mother Jones.
There was fear-driven confusion in the early days of the pandemic, especially regarding the use of masks and how to deal with criminals. That fear was so great that even law and order types like Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby, usually critical of Larry Krasner, threw their support behind Outlaw. It was, as they say, a highly unusual moment in the annals of Philadelphia justice: When fear of a disease becomes so great that you are willing to give criminals a pass.
“Jails Are Petri Dishes,” ran a New York Times headline in 2020.
But not everybody was buying it.
A group of Philadelphia merchants in May 2020, as reported by 6 ABC, decried the castrating of the legal system in order to get a better handle on the pandemic as something that created “a lawless city.” The merchants cited roaming packs of young people wearing backpacks raiding their stores and taking things off the shelves.
“I think broadcasting no arrests for retail theft was the biggest mistake the city ever made,” store owner Sukhvir Thinb told 6 ABC at the time.
In cities around the nation, similar cries could be heard.
“Anarchy is no cure for coronavirus or injustice,” The Hill declared in May 2020.
Uqdah, who was charged with rape, aggravated assault, robbery, and a host of other charges, was one of the many people allowed to escape detainment or punishment because fear of a pandemic proved a greater concern.
How much healthier it would have been for the people of Philadelphia if judges had kept calm, put on a double mask, and dealt with people like Uqqdah when their crimes were hot off the street.
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Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author and journalist, who has written fifteen books, including: Out in History, Philadelphia Mansions, Literary Philadelphia, From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. Nickels has written extensively and is currently a regular columnist for City Journal New York, the Philadelphia Irish Edition and the Philadelphia Free Press.