Superhero in High Heels

Purse-snatchers beware: Erin Donovan is on the case

Published in 2006 Oklahoma Super Lawyers — November 2006

Batman could learn a thing or two about secret identities from Erin Donovan. This Tulsa attorney and amateur crime fighter has a very unassuming alter ego. One warm day in May, after a morning in court, she stopped at the post office near the Utica Square shopping district to buy some stamps. Donovan, as usual, was dressed smartly, in a tangerine power suit and 3-inch heels.

As she left the post office, she noticed something was wrong. Elaine Stoeppelwerth, grandmother of three, was in trouble. Two young thugs had stolen her purse. “If they had taken my purse, I probably would have screamed, thrown my shoe, and that’s it,” says Donovan. “But it was another person, an old person. It just ticked me off.”

Let’s say right away that Erin Donovan has a special bond with, well, old people. She’s an estate lawyer, but her connection with the elderly goes beyond that. “Last Christmas I ended up buying seven Christmas presents for little old people who are not in my family,” she says.

Without hesitation, Donovan took off running, her hands still clasping her stamps and her wallet, chasing the thieves through Utica Square. Three other women, one in a car, joined in the chase. But Donovan, zeroed in on her targets, never noticed them. “There wasn’t a soul between me and those kids,” she says.

Digging into the ground with her heels and pulling out her cell phone, Donovan kept up the chase, all the while screaming at maximum volume. “I’m on the phone with the police, and I’m chasing them,” Donovan recalls. “I thought I’d just tell the police where they were and keep them in sight. I didn’t think about stopping.”

Until she came to a corner, where she found the thieves in their getaway car, poised to escape. “I said, ‘Do not move! Do not touch that car!’”

It didn’t occur to her that she might be in danger. “There wasn’t any hesitation,” she says, “but part of that was because it wasn’t very well thought out.”

The criminals, seemingly hypnotized by the panting woman in high heels, stared at her. “The kids looked concerned at this point,” says Donovan. “They’re like, ‘Whoa! What the heck is going on?’” Then, rather than slamming the car into reverse and driving away, they bolted. Donovan followed.

A few minutes and hundreds of strides later, Donovan had them cornered in the bathroom of a coffee shop. “It’s Starbucks at 3:30 on a weekday afternoon and these two guys run like hell into the bathroom,” she says. She enlisted the help of a security guard, who nabbed one of the purse-snatchers when he made a break for the door.

“The poor things probably couldn’t believe this 50-year-old woman was still after them. It was almost like Butch Cassidy, like, ‘Who are these guys?’”

Then the second purse-snatcher, the one actually holding the purse, made his move. Donovan, positioned between him and the door, remembers thinking, “I’ll be damned if after all this he’s going to get away,” and then she wrapped her arms around him and held him for 30 seconds before he broke free, only to run into the hands of two men outside, who threw him up against a parked SUV. Then the police finally arrived.

Did Donovan feel like a hero? “I felt kind of foolish, really,” she says. Utica Square is near both her business and her home, so Donovan had unwittingly put on a show for an audience of clients and friends. One of Donovan’s clients, a restaurant owner, had watched the entire incident from her business. “She was ready to leave for the day, then here comes Erin, running down the sidewalk,” Donovan says. “So she sat down, grabbed a beer and watched it unfold.”

Embarrassed or not, Erin Donovan has enjoyed a period of minor fame. After the local papers ran articles on her adventures, Reader’s Digest picked up the story. For the elderly, the story has struck a nerve. “I get unsolicited letters from older people that I don’t know. I like their perception: that someone should stand up for old people.”

Maybe a costume and a sidekick are in order.

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