When a man trimming hedges at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church was beaten bloody Friday morning, Bibb County sheriff’s Sgt. Reginald Washington knew he had maybe one chance to catch the attacker.
The beating happened about 8:30 a.m. on Ward Street, off Vineville Avenue west of Interstate 75.
Landscaper Alturo Batista was wearing earplugs, and his assailant apparently thought Batista was ignoring him.
So the attacker smashed Batista’s nose and stole his cellphone, while a child was filing into school there. A priest who witnessed the episode ran after the attacker, but he got away.
Washington, 50, a former Army drill sergeant from Texas, pondered a moment.
“Wait a minute,” he thought. “This guy’s dumb enough to come on church property, do it in front of a priest and a nun and these kids going to school. He’s that brazen. He would be arrogant enough not to turn the cellphone off -- and probably answer it.”
Washington’s deputies bet him lunch that no one would answer.
“Trust me,” said Washington, who dialed Batista’s number.
A woman answered.
Washington asked to talk to the man who’d given her the phone.
A man’s voice came on.
Washington identified himself and asked the man why he’d taken Batista’s phone.
“He disrespected and ignored me,” the man said.
“You need to bring that guy’s cellphone back,” Washington said. “And you need to apologize.”
“Why should I do that?” the man replied, offering instead to leave the phone somewhere the cops could find it.
Just then, Washington saw a girl going into the school with a teddy bear, perhaps an end-of-school gift for a teacher.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” Washington said to the man. “If you give me that cellphone, since I’m over here at the church, I promise you that St. Peter Claver Church will give you one of their special teddy bears. It will be a blessing to you for the rest of your life.”
Of course, there are no such teddy bears, but the man seemed intrigued. He said he was less than half a mile away, up Vineville near Vineville Christian Towers, and that he’d meet the cops near there.
“At this point,” Washington said later, “I’m motioning for my guys to go get this knucklehead.”
Washington needed to keep the guy on the line, string him along.
The sergeant told the man that to make sure he didn’t surrender to just anyone that he should tell the deputies a code word when they arrived.
That word? “Teddy bear.”
Washington said, “Don’t surrender to anyone else. One of the deputies is gonna be black, one of them’s gonna be white. The white guy looks a lot like the guy from ‘Happy Days,’ Richie Cunningham.”
A minute or so later, after the deputies took off up the street, Washington recalled, “I could hear this guy on the phone yelling, ‘Teddy bear! Teddy bear!’ to the deputies. To which Cpl. (Darius) Inzar replies, ‘I got your teddy bear. You’re under arrest.’ ’’
Sean Parker Stephens, 42, who lives a block away on English Avenue, was charged with robbery by force and aggravated battery.
The landscaper got his phone back, and deputies took Stephens to a nearby precinct office before hauling him to jail.
“He still wanted the teddy bear,” Washington said.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.