By Jay Meisel
PORT ST. LUCIE - When a Port St. Lucie man saw another man steal an elderly woman's purse, he didn't hesitate about going after the thief, he recalled Monday.
"I didn't think about it," said Nelson A. Melendez, the Port St. Lucie man who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq from 1998 to 2006.
He said it wasn't a big decision for him to make, despite that the robber might have a knife or a gun.
"What would I want someone else to do if it were my mother, my wife or my sister?" Mr. Melendez asked.
Port St. Lucie police arrested Phillip Watson Stephen, 52, 759 N.W. Cardinal Drive, Port St. Lucie, and charged him with robbery and battery on a person 65 years old or older.
Events leading to the arrest began after Mr. Melendez said he arrived at the Port St. Lucie Wal-Mart on U.S. 1 after attending an open house with his son at a school.
He saw his mother and his daughters at Wal-Mart and while talking with them, heard his son "scream, 'Daddy, he's stealing that woman's purse.'"
He said he turned around and saw the man taking the purse and then fleeing.
"I chased him down," he said.
The man got into a recreation vehicle and Mr. Melendez reached into the vehicle and retrieved the purse, he said.
When asked by the thief, what he was doing, he responded, "What are you doing stealing the woman's purse?"
He said he then went to the back of the vehicle to get the tag number in case the man fled in it, but discovered no tag existed.
Then he went to the front to check for a tag and heard people yelling, "He's getting away," he said.
Mr. Melendez went to the back and found the man getting onto a bicycle behind the recreation vehicle.
He said he knocked the bicycle onto the ground and prevented the man from getting up.
"I told him not to move," he said.
Some Wal-Mart employees who arrived may have thought he was beating the man up, but he explained what happened, Mr. Melendez said.
When police arrived, the suspect started saying, "You're not a veteran. You're a piece of crap," he said.
The suspect started "screaming things left and right out of the blue that made no sense," he said.
Mr. Melendez said he later talked with the victim to make sure she was OK and she thanked him.
The victim told police she came out of Wal-Mart and was loading groceries into her trunk when a man she later identified as Mr. Stephen asked for her shopping cart, an incident report said.
The victim said the man left, but returned and grabbed her purse, causing her to fall and strike her knees on the ground, the report said.
When police later arrested Mr. Stephen he told the officer writing the report that "he had been smoking crack for the last few days and doesn't know why he did what he did," the report said.
Later, "... the defendant stated that he had been in trouble several times in the past and each time it was because he took something from people that owed him money. I asked him if the elderly woman (the victim) in this case) owed him any money and he laughed and said, 'no,'" the officer wrote.
"I transported him to the county jail. The defendant made several comments on the way, such as, 'I can't believe I'm in the system again. I never thought I'd be going to Rock Road (the location of the St. Lucie County jail). I deserve all this,'" the officer wrote.
Wal-Mart employees told police Mr. Stephen parked his vehicle in the Wal-Mart parking lot several weeks ago and they asked him to move it several times, the incident report said.
They also said they planned to have the vehicle towed.