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Column: This 94-year-old was shaken after 3 burglaries in one week, but she’s not giving in

Marjorie Romer
Marjorie Romer, a resident of the Westlake neighborhood, was recently burglarized three times in five days. She shooed away the burglar a fourth time.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Things don’t stay the same for very long in Los Angeles.

The Lakers soar and then sink, neighborhoods rise and fall, tacos get reinvented, stars are hot and then not.

Marjorie Romer holds steady through it all, fixed in her ways, with roots that run deep.

She was born in 1923 and grew up in Los Feliz. For almost 50 years, she has lived in a Westlake house built in 1910, a couple of miles west of downtown Los Angeles.

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This is the story of how that house was burglarized three times in five days, with Mrs. Romer at home each time, and how she shooed away the burglar a fourth time.

At 94, she is a spunky one.

Twice now I’ve sat with Romer in her wonderful Craftsman-style house, which in 2010 was cited as L.A.’s 980th historic-cultural monument. A relief over the fireplace depicts an Asian woodwind player in a grove. A spring-lever hatch in the hallway releases a cross-current through the house on warm days. The inglenook, as Mrs. Romer describes a sweet little cove with a hearth, was designed as a cozy parlor for the coldest winter days.

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Mrs. Romer likes to tell stories and I like to listen, so we hit it off. In her childhood, she said, she used to roller skate all over the city with her friends. In 1937, they skated all the way to the Carthay Circle Theater to see Dorothy Lamour in “The Hurricane.”

“I’d never seen a hurricane,” says Romer, who was 14 at the time and remembers that a nickel got you a bag of candy.

On her refrigerator is a photo of Romer at the age of 8 or 9, seated with 10 other kids on what she called a hootenanny. It’s a long plank, with roller skates nailed onto it, and the kids rolled through Los Feliz on that thing like it was a trolley.

“It was the greatest time in Los Angeles,” she said.

Romer went to UCLA during the war and found clerical work at a publishing company. There, she met a divorced man with kids and they married, moving into the home where she still lives, 28 years after his death.

“It’s a wonderful house, and I’d never want to leave here,” she said.

Late on the afternoon of Jan. 7, Mrs. Romer was reading the L.A. Times in her living room when suddenly, she heard a man calling out from the rear of her house.

“So I got up and I thought, ‘Who could that be?’ ”

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A young man in his 20s was coming toward her.

“I kept saying, ‘Who are you?’” says Mrs. Romer.

The intruder insisted she must know his father, who used to do yard work for houses on the block. Romer told him his father certainly didn’t work for her, and she demanded to know how he got into her house.

“He said, ‘Well, you left the door open.’ ”

Come to think of it, she had forgotten to lock the garage after returning from an errand. The man asked why she hadn’t heard him calling out to her, and Romer would later regret her answer.

She told him she’s hard of hearing.

After the man left, Romer checked her bedroom and realized the contents of her purse — including several hundred dollars for the week’s bills — had been cleaned out.

You are working with the people who robbed me. Now go!”
Marjorie Romer
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Romer chose not to call the police.

“I thought, it’s my mistake,” she said, somewhat regretfully, “and a good lesson for me to always close the door.”

Two days later, she was targeted again after returning from the bank and setting her purse down in the bedroom before her afternoon reading. Later, when she wandered back to the bedroom, her closets and drawers had been ransacked, her jewelry stolen.

A hole had been punched through a screen door. Romer assumed the same burglar, or perhaps a cohort of his, had taken advantage of her hearing impairment to rob her, brazenly, again, while she was present under the same roof. This time, she called police.

“I was so shaken,” Romer says.

She told me she felt so sickened she could barely bring herself to clean the mess and inventory the loss. She didn’t want to touch anything the thief had touched.

“She’s a sweet lady and they took advantage of her,” said Isidro Chavez, 41, a neighbor, friend and handyman who brought over a sleeping bag and spent the night at Romer’s to help calm her.

Two days later, the doorbell rang. Romer didn’t open the door, but a woman stated her business from the front porch.

“She said recent buyers were having problems with hearing aids and she had been sent to check on them,” said Romer.

Romer had indeed recently bought new hearing aids, and was having trouble adjusting them. She was suspicious, so she cracked the door open an inch to have a look. The woman on her porch said she was pregnant and asked to use the bathroom.

“I guess that softened me,” said Romer,who eyeballed the woman’s belly and believed she was honestly pregnant.

The woman helped her set the hearing aid and then backed slowly down the hall, asking if Romer could still hear her. This took quite a while. After the woman left, Romer went into the two bedrooms and realized the woman had been distracting her while someone stole what hadn’t been heisted the first two times.

It was the third burglary in five days.

“I was so upset,” says Romer, whose loss included artifacts she and her husband had collected while indulging their interest in the archaeology of the Southern Hemisphere. “There were beautiful necklaces and bracelets that had been custom made for me. They were treasures to me.”

Two days later, a knock at the door. It was the pregnant woman, back, ostensibly, to check on the hearing aids.

“You are working with the people who robbed me,” Romer told her. “Now go!”

The woman disappeared, but then a man knocked on the door. Romer shined a flashlight on him through the door, and he left. She then called her neighbor, Chavez, who confronted the man on the street. The man claimed his truck had just been broken into and he was looking for help.

Chavez didn’t buy it. He coaxed the man back to Romer’s house, saying she’d been a victim of theft, too. Chavez slipped into the bathroom to call the police, but the man fled.

“It’s horrible,” LAPD Officer Diana Riddle, of the Rampart Detective Bureau, said of the thieves targeting Romer.

Riddle took a liking to Mrs. Romer and has been driving by her house to see if anyone looks suspicious or anything looks out of place. She said she’s juggling 15-20 open burglary cases and hoping for a break in this one.

Romer described the first thief as white and in his 20s. The pregnant woman was roughly the same age, perhaps mixed race, with dark shoulder-length hair and olive skin. If she wasn’t faking, Romer said, she’s either extremely pregnant now or gave birth recently. The man Chavez tried to detain appeared to be in his 20s, possibly Latino. The stolen goods include a jade letter opener and antique Asian and Iranian jewelry.

If you have any information, call Officer Riddle at (213) 484-3487.

Romer said a good-size dog would surely help prevent burglaries, but she can’t take care of one at her age. She’s wiser for her experience and feels safer now that Chavez has installed closed circuit monitors around her house. She wanted me to tell readers to consider similar measures, including good outdoor lighting.

Romer said her neighborhood was once the first western suburb of downtown L.A. It’s far more urban now, its mansions divided into apartments. In the six months ending Jan. 22, there were 1,191 property crimes and 544 violent crimes.

Romer, too determined a survivor to surrender to cynicism, still finds much to appreciate about her neighborhood and neighbors. She plans to stay put, for now, in the house that is her home.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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