PORT RICHEY — Jessica Bendl was on the phone, putting her groceries into her trunk. It was after 10 p.m. on March 17 in the parking lot of the Port Richey Walmart.
A woman walked up behind Bendl.
"Do you have a cigarette?"
"I don't smoke," Bendl said, continuing to put away her groceries.
The woman moved closer.
Bendl realized what was happening too late. The woman grabbed Bendl's purse from the shopping cart and took off toward a silver Oldsmobile sedan with the engine running.
Bendl ran after her. The driver swung open the passenger door. The woman jumped in — just as Bendl caught up and grabbed the purse.
The driver floored the gas, with Bendl still holding on to the purse — the thief not letting go.
Bendl, 29, was dragged about 100 feet before falling onto asphalt. A tire rolled over her knee. Crowds of people rushed toward her, in the parking lot.
She heard a man shout and point toward the Oldsmobile, tearing out of the parking lot. Bendl jumped into her car and followed them. She couldn't lose her purse. She had everything in there. She was supposed to take a flight to the Bahamas the next day to visit her dad and sister. Her passport was in there. Cash. Social Security card. A video recorder her boyfriend got her for Christmas with video of her daughter's eighth birthday party in February.
"My whole life was in that bag," she said.
She went to the store that night for dog food and some groceries. Now she was bleeding, wearing only one shoe. The other was somewhere on the pavement, along with her smashed cell phone.
She couldn't find the Oldsmobile, so she went back to the Walmart and found that she hadn't been the lone victim.
The two women in the Oldsmobile had been circling the parking lot that evening. The woman who grabbed Bendl's purse tried to use the same cigarette line on a woman nearly eight months pregnant.
"Sorry," said Sabrina Stark, 19. "I don't smoke."
Stark was there with her fiance, Matt McDonald, 19. They were putting groceries in the car when the woman walked up. While McDonald was busy with the groceries, the woman hit Stark on the shoulder and tried to pry off her purse.
"She was pushing and shoving me," said Stark, who is due next month with her first child, a girl, whom they will name Riley.
"What the (expletive) are you doing?" Stark said.
That got McDonald's attention, as Stark doesn't often curse like that. When he came toward the woman, she ran — leaving behind her two flip-flops. Stark was shaken, but physically okay. They called the police and got the Oldsmobile's license plate number.
But that didn't deter the two criminals.
The car kept circling slowly, the thieves searching.
Stark saw the car idle near Bendl — saw the chase, saw her being dragged. She couldn't believe Bendl survived.
"I don't know how she was walking after that," said Port Richey police Detective Bill Sager.
"It could have been a lot worse."
Officers tracked down the owner of the car — a man who said his girlfriend had been driving it. After searching for several days, police on Tuesday arrested:
•Tiesha Ann Legette, 25, of 4616 Mayflower Drive in New Port Richey.
Authorities say she was the get-away driver. She was charged with attempted auto burglary, two counts of first-degree strong-arm robbery and driving with a suspended or revoked license. Legette was held at the Pasco County Jail in lieu of $110,150 bail.
She had just been released from jail Feb. 25 after serving seven months for burglary, possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia, violating her felony probation and several charges of failing to appear in court.
•Lauren Nicole Eggleston, 21, of 6051 Chesham Drive in New Port Richey. She is charged with two counts of robbery by sudden snatching, grand theft, aggravated battery, simple battery and attempted auto burglary. She was held in lieu of $125,150 bail.
She was released from jail on Jan. 12 after serving seven months for failing to appear in court on drug, theft, criminal mischief and worthless check charges.
According to their arrest reports, Legette and Eggleston admitted to the thefts and said they did it because they were high on prescription drugs at the time. They said they needed the money for more drugs, police said. "It's pretty disgusting," Sager said. "But that was their rationale."
Bendl spent this past week going to various doctors. Her right knee is banged up and she can't drive. She hasn't been able to make it to her job as assistant at an oncology office since that night.
Sager is trying to get the suspects to tell him where they ditched Bendl's purse.
"They haven't rolled on that," Sager said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.