Westport store worker face-to-face with fleeing suspect
Erin Fraenza knew a murder suspect was on the loose in Westport. She knew he was violent. And she knew police lost track of him Wednesday afternoon a few hundred yards from the women's clothing store where she works.
But she unlocked the door to the shop and stepped outside anyway.
For 90 minutes, Fraenza and her co-worker had been studying a photo of the suspect's face. He had hollow cheeks. Sandy hair. Green eyes. They found it on a news website after a postal worker stopped in the store and told them about the manhunt.
"You better bolt the door," he said.
As soon as he left, they did.
But about 4 p.m., for no reason in particular, Fraenza walked outside Splash of Pink, the shop where she works, to chat with a friend on her cellphone.
Mid-conversation, she was interrupted.
"Hi," said a man.
He had hollow cheeks. Sandy hair. Green eyes.
"I took one look at him and I knew exactly who he was," Fraenza, 29, later told a reporter of her encounter with Thomas Gardner, a man who led police on a five-hour chase through Fairfield and Westport on Wednesday.
But she kept her cool.
"Hi," she said with nonchalance.
Casually, she retreated into the store. Once inside, she locked the door and dialed 9-1-1.
"I didn't freak. I knew just to act normal," said Fraenza. "I guess I watch too much `CSI.' "
Within minutes, police wearing bulletproof vests had the suspect belly-down on the ground. They handcuffed him, put him in the back of a squad car and hauled him to police headquarters.
The apprehension marked the end of a four-hour hunt for a Gardner, who is wanted by Massachusetts police on a charge of murder.
"I just saw a murderer apprehended 100 feet from my cash register!" exclaimed Richelle Luedee, manager of the nearby Organic Market, to no one in particular.
Unimpressed, a woman at the checkout counter who had missed all the action suggested Luedee refocus on scanning her groceries.
"Murder suspect?" she said skeptically. "It's probably a ... rumor."