Lost and found: Woman, 82, on being robbed in North Berkeley

Nancy Bickel was waiting outside for a friend on a recent morning when two young men pulled over and took her purse. This is her first-person account.

Lost and found: Woman, 82, on being robbed in North Berkeley
A Berkeley woman who was robbed as she waited for a friend near Colusa and Marin has shared a first-person account of what happened to her — as well as the kindnesses that followed. Nancy Bickel

By Nancy Bickel

On Friday, March 31, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my house waiting for our friend Ann Schiff. We were going to listen to some retired "Rosies," women who had worked in factories or building ships during World War II, talk about their experiences.

A black sedan drove past me and stopped. Two young men jumped out and ran toward me.

"Give me your purse," said the tall slim young man as he grabbed the strap from my shoulder.

"Get away from me," I yelled.

The young man, perhaps 15 or 16, jerked the purse from my hand and shoulder and ran to the car. Both guys jumped in, slammed the doors and the car drove off.

I watched it and tried to remember the first few letters and numbers on the license plate as I ran up my steps and rang the bell and banged on the door. My husband Peter finally opened the door.

16 hours in Berkeley: 3 robberies and a hot prowl burglary
Robbers tore a purse from the hands of an 82-year-old woman. Other culprits ripped a cash register out of a McDonald’s drive-through window.

I ran to the phone and called 911. I told the dispatcher my story.

"This just happened? An officer will be with you shortly."

Our friend Ann arrived and joined us. Within about 10 minutes, Berkeley Police Officer Yu arrived. He asked questions, listened to my story.

Ann suggested that, if Peter and I had linked our phones, we might be able to locate my iPhone on Peter’s phone.

Standing by our open door, Peter’s iPhone in his hand, Officer Yu spoke quietly into the microphone pinned to his chest. He was in contact with the dispatcher.

A dramatic police chase

He could see an image representing my iPhone on a map. It moved around Berkeley, then to Albany, then to Richmond, then onto the freeway to San Francisco airport.

Then, after a pause, back on the freeway to the Target parking lot and back to the same Richmond neighborhood where it had been earlier.

The dispatcher relayed the info to the Berkeley, Albany and Richmond police and to the Highway Patrol: They were trying to find and follow the car and possibly catch the robbers.

When the image of the phone stopped moving, several police cars gathered in the Richmond neighborhood where my phone signal was visible, but the officers found that the iPhone tracker was not accurate enough to identify one of several nearby houses as the one my phone was in.

They also found that none of the cars parked nearby were dark or had the partial license number I had reported. They did not have enough evidence to knock on a door or ask questions or search houses, Officer Yu explained.

An unexpected guest

As he was about to leave our house, a woman arrived at my door.

"My name is Tammy Hegen. Are you Nancy Bickel? I found all these cards and papers scattered along Curtis Street," she said.

She handed me my two charge cards, which I had already canceled, my driver’s license, medical insurance and COVID shot records and more. Wonderful! None were missing.

She had not found the electronic key for my Nissan Leaf, my iPhone or my purse. We thought they were still with the robbers, who must, we thought, have switched cars.

Officer Yu asked me for the serial number of my still missing iPhone. I said I would have to look for it and let him know.

Putting the pieces back together

Saturday morning I drove off right after breakfast to make sure all the info in my phone was secure and then to replace it.

Wai Lee, the owner of M.A.C. Berkeley, my favorite computer shop, assured me the phone info was well protected; it was unlikely that anyone could get my data.

Wai also found that my iPhone had been backed up automatically to iCloud the previous day, so all my info could be downloaded to a new iPhone.

Off I went to the Apple store on Fourth Street. Two young women "geniuses" and a male colleague sold me a new red iPhone 13, downloaded all my data and found the ID number of my stolen phone.

With my new red iPhone in my pocket, I drove to the T-Mobile store downtown. The young man expert there transferred my number to my new cellphone.

I was reconnected to my life.

I left Officer Yu a message with the ID number of my stolen phone. I had disabled the old phone so no one else could use it. We had done all we could do for now.

We started to pack for a week’s visit in Moscow, Idaho, with my sister Betsy and her husband Bob. We flew off Sunday afternoon from San Francisco airport.

Another twist

At 6:30 Monday morning, the click of a message on my phone woke me.

Our daughter Amanda texted: "Mom, your purse, keys and phone are found. Call Sophia Reed at…"

Later she explained what happened: Sophia’s parents had found my purse lying in the street. Sophia had driven her parents to the airport; they had given her the purse and asked her to find the owner and return it.

The purse had my old phone and my car keys and other odds and ends. No cash. The robbers seem to have thrown everything else out of the car almost immediately.

The dramatic police chase must have involved following Sophia’s parents’ car and then Sophia’s car to the airport and to Richmond.

I texted Sophia. She explained that, even though I had disabled my phone, she had used a special feature of the iPhone to find my emergency contact and thus had found Amanda’s name and number.

When I returned to Berkeley from Idaho, I picked up my purse.

"I feel lucky"

The purse itself must have been thrown into the street and cars must have driven over it. All the hardware fastenings are scraped and broken. The strap that the young robber had grabbed is torn from the bag.

Inside I found fragments of several pens and a lipstick, my damaged old iPhone, a banged-up keychain and a partly-broken plastic car key.

The key still works. My crumpled hankie just needs a wash.

I feel lucky. Now we know that the young robbers only took $60 of cash and got rid of everything else very quickly and carelessly. They were not sophisticated enough to keep the iPhone to sell or use.

Thanks to a capable policeman and many other police staffers and officers in three cities and the Highway Patrol, and to four good Samaritans — Tammy, Sophia and Sophia’s parents — I will soon have all the paraphernalia of my life back.

I am relieved that the dramatic police chase after my phone did not lead to Sophia or her family being accosted by suspicious police.

I wonder whether I should have waited to replace my phone. I didn’t imagine that generous fellow citizens would find and return everything.

If you've been directly affected by crime in Berkeley, The Scanner would like to hear from you.