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Angry Mount Dora residents offer reward after attack

Residents in this lakeside town known for its quaint shops and quiet lifestyle are up in arms over the stabbing of a marathon walker and community volunteer.

They jammed phone lines at Mount Dora City Hall to pledge $1,500 in reward money for the capture and conviction of the attacker.

Mount Dora is in Lake County, northwest of Orlando.

Residents are planning a Saturday march against crime in light of the robbery attempt that left Frances Meli, 45, with a severed artery to the heart and knife slashes on her abdomen and thighs.

Police on Wednesday said the suspect _ a thin, young man wearing dreadlocks and dark clothing _ wielded a knife with a blade measuring more than 6 inches during the 6:30 p.m. Monday attack on Meli.

She was power walking just blocks from the downtown retail and dining district, where joggers are a common sight.

"A lot of residents are really upset about the viciousness of the crime," Mayor Paulette Alexander said.

"The brutality was just so unnecessary."

Meli was listed in stable condition Wednesday in the intensive care unit at Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Police Sgt. Jim Jicha said hospital officials plan to move Meli, whose spleen has been removed, to a private room soon.

She has been amazingly strong since the attack, Jicha said. The detective said Meli was talkative when police visited her to get a description of the suspect shortly after the incident.

"She was fine. I was talking to her at the hospital," Jicha said. "Ain't that something? She was just worried she wasn't going to make it."

As Meli recovers, police continue to hunt for the robber who approached her from behind and demanded cash as she walked through a residential neighborhood just three blocks from the Police Department.

The marathon walker, who typically exercises in the mornings with a group of women, on Monday went out alone after dark instead.

The attacker slashed her chest, abdomen and legs after dragging her behind a print shop. Meli started screaming, and residents in the area called 911.

Jicha said the robber left no evidence behind.

"We're trying to get people to help us. I know someone knows something, but nobody's saying nothing," Jicha said.

Jicha said Meli probably was a random victim. If the attacker was looking for money for drugs, she likely was just the first person to come along, he said. But it is unusual for a robber to injure a victim, especially a victim who has no cash, he said.

The attack occurred on a quiet street of modest homes. But city officials and residents said street-corner drug deals are becoming all too common there.

Linda Muntner lives half a block from the crime scene.

She said Mount Dora isn't the sleepy, safe city some believe it to be.

Since she moved to 11th Avenue eight years ago from New York City, Muntner said, her car has been stolen, items have been taken from her yard and she once was held up at gunpoint while sitting in her car in the driveway.

Muntner said the incidents have made her "paranoid." She carries Mace and a telephone in her pocket even when walking to the mailbox.

"I've been on the warpath, and now I'm really fighting mad," Muntner said, who said she pesters police constantly about crime on her street. "It's the most unsafe place to live."

The march against crime through the neighborhood is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at 11th Avenue and Unser Street. The march isn't the first effort by residents and police to stomp out violence in the area.

Six to eight months ago, residents along 11th Avenue near Donnelly Street, as well as Eastown residents to the south, expressed concern over increasing criminal activity.

Drug selling and related crime slowed after police beefed up patrols and brought in undercover officers from other departments to help catch dealers, Alexander said. But a community effort is necessary, she said.

Muntner said she plans to sit down with other residents who want to find ways to stop crime.

"I'm ready to work. I cannot be a one-woman crusade," Muntner said. "Nothing happens unless it is the masses. You have to start somewhere."