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Caught by Mistake in a Vice Squad Roundup, Susan Heeger Sues for $300,000 in Damages

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One of my first thoughts as he grabbed me was, “Now I know what it’s like—I know the kind of panic there is when someone is going to take you away and kill you and there’s nothing you can do.” And my next thought was, “My mother is just not going to get over this.”

As a 25-year-old Harvard graduate who wants to be a writer, Susan Heeger had heard plenty of stories about New York City’s mean streets. But that didn’t stop her from moving to Manhattan from Charlottesville, Va. last June, accepting a part-time job with a publishing house and settling into a small East Side apartment. “Living alone in New York,” she recalls thinking, “thank God the police are around.”

Then one sticky July night Heeger stepped off a subway four blocks from her home on 25th Street. Although she seldom walked alone at night, she assumed she would be safe if she jogged. When she saw a battered car that seemed to be trailing her, she dashed for the safety of a traffic light. “That’s right,” someone yelled from the car. “Keep running, keep running.” Suddenly a paunchy, T-shirted man jumped from behind the wheel, grabbed her hair and yanked her to the ground. While Susan struggled, she claims her assailant knelt on her stomach and handcuffed her. Terrified, she began screaming for the police.

The trouble was, Frank Costantino, 33, was the police—a 10-year veteran of the force. Now on the vice squad, he was making his nightly round-up of prostitutes. “Look at my face, don’t you recognize me?” he asked.” ‘Why should I recognize you?’ “Susan remembers sobbing. “I had no idea what was happening to me. I thought I was being mugged.” Only as she was led to the unmarked car did she begin to realize what had happened. Piled in the back seat were half a dozen suspected prostitutes in hot pants. “It was very late,” she recalls, “and for some reason it occurred to me that they looked like they were going to the beach.”

As a gathering crowd clamored for Heeger’s release, the cops and their captives set out for the precinct house. In the car Susan babbled half hysterically—about Harvard, her job and her background. By the time they reached the station, Costantino was listening. At first, Heeger says, he tried to calm her with offers of dinner and a drink. Then he drove her home. “He went on and on about how he had to work 10 years at a desk so that he could get this job, and he really stood to lose a lot,” she says. “I could see he wasn’t sorry at all. He was afraid.”

With reason. Two days later Susan contacted New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Richard Emery, who has filed a $300,000 damage suit against Costantino, another policeman and city and state officials. He hopes also to have the state’s vaguely worded anti-loitering law stricken from the books. The statute was rushed through the legislature one day before the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York. “The law permits the police to pick up anybody they want,” complains Emery. “And that’s what they do.”

Still shaken by her sidewalk encounter, Susan has left her apartment and moved in with her boyfriend, 24-year-old screenwriter Rob Steiner. The crank phone calls that bothered her for a while have all but stopped now, and she is determined to stay in New York. “I don’t want this to completely take over my life,” she sighs. “If I went somewhere else, having run from this, I would be a little less strong a person.”