MAYS LANDING — Antoinette Pelzer, 44, made strange faces, looked directly at media members and, at one point, laughed as she had her first hearing on murder charges in a Monday morning attack that killed two women visiting Atlantic City.
“I’m just trying to find out where’s my public defender at,” the Philadelphia woman arrested in a fatal knife attack on two Canadian tourists told the judge Tuesday afternoon during her first appearance.
Charges read in court indicated one of the women was attacked first with a 12-inch butcher knife as they walked along Pacific Avenue just a half-block from the hospital where they would later be pronounced dead. The second woman came to her aide. The victims — two Asian women ages 47 and 80 visiting from Scarborough, Ontario — were referred as only to in court as only Jane and Sally Doe.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel, who presented the case to the judge himself, asked that the record be sealed and the women be referred to as Jane and Sally Doe until next of kin have been notified. The Canadian consulate is assisting with that, Housel told media outside the courtroom.
Superior Court Judge Michael Donio agreed to seal the names for 72 hours, at which time the office will either have released them, or they will have to come back to court for a possible extension.
According to the charges read in court “Jane Doe” was attacked first, and then “Sally Doe” tried to intervene and was stabbed multiple times. The pseudonyms caused some confusion in identifying which woman was older, since that was not given in the complaint.
An investigator indicated the younger woman fell during the attack. Once on the ground, Pelzer tried to grab her purse, the complaint said. When the woman wouldn’t give up the bag, she was stabbed some more.
Atlantic City Police Officer Jacob Abbruscato was patrolling the area when he came upon the attack and pulled his weapon, arresting Pelzer. The officer intervened within 13 seconds, Housel said.
Both victims were taken to the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, where they later died of their injuries. An autopsy showed the 47-year-old woman bled to death from multiple sharp-force injuries, a release said. The 80-year-old died of a puncture to her heart.
“Both?” Pelzer asked the judge when he indicated two deaths, seemingly surprised by that news. She also said she believed she was charged with two crimes: “I don’t know where these others come from.”
Pelzer has been homeless since January and suffers from schizophrenia, an aunt told The Associated Press. Nadine King blamed Pelzer’s illness for the attack, saying the woman has no criminal record.
During her court appearance, Pelzer showed at least some knowledge of the legal system, asking for a public defender and letting out a laugh when Donio asked her if she would be able to hire her own.
Defendants in Atlantic County typically do not have representation at a first appearance, but will indicate whether they can afford to hire an attorney or will need to apply for a public defender. A form has to be filled out, although Pelzer didn’t know if she had done that. It was unclear how long she had been in Atlantic City.
“She’s not from here or had anything to do with any of our social services,” said Officer William Wenz, who works with the city’s homeless.
Pelzer was not among the more than 180 people living on the city’s streets that he has interviewed and cataloged.
Witnesses told police robbery appeared to be the motive for the attack on Pacific Avenue, near Michigan Avenue.
David Common, of the CBC news agency in Canda, said his country is curious about what happened, especially since it was so close to a hospital and on a rainy morning in tourist area. He said they believe the two women were mother and daughter and are from Scarborough’s Asian community, but that had not been confirmed.
His sources believe family members are also in the United States, and that is why they have not been reached yet.
“We know this is a city in transition,” Common said.
But is it a safe one?
“This could happen anywhere,” Housel said outside the courtroom. “I go (to Atlantic City) and feel safe. My daughters go there and feel safe.”
Donio set Pelzer’s bail at $1.5 million full cash. She is charged with two counts of murder, along with robbery and weapons offenses. No future court dates have been set.
This is the third fatal attack on Atlantic City tourists in two years. The attack happened on the two-year anniversary of a fatal abduction from the Trump Taj Mahal parking garage. Martin Caballero was killed in that attack. Craig Arno and Jessica Kisby will be sentenced for murder and other charges Thursday.
On Sept. 18, 2011, a couple was carjacked from the same garage. Sunil Rattu, 28, was killed in that attack. His girlfriend was wounded.
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