BELLEVILLE — When Rita Eckert saw four young men walking toward her in the shadows of a street light Sunday night beside her florist shop on West Main, she didn't pay that much attention.
When the men passed by her and one said, "How's it going?" she answered, "Fine."
But that all changed a few seconds later. Eckert, the wife of Mayor Mark Eckert, had been loading items into the back of her green minivan and had left the vehicle's rear hatch in a raised position. Before she had time to react, one of the men reached in through the back of the van and grabbed her purse, which was laying on a passenger seat, and then all four took off running.
"I said, 'Hey, what are you doing?'" And then she took off in pursuit of the purse snatchers. As she ran, Eckert said she was able to dial her husband's cell phone on her own mobile device.
Mark Eckert said when he got his wife's frantic call, he was sitting in Mariachi's Restaurant on South Illinois with their two daughters and two women employees from their florist shop, waiting for Rita to show up for dinner.
"I couldn't understand what she was saying. I thought she had been in an accident," said Mark Eckert, who immediately got into his own vehicle and took off to help his wife, who by this time had run to the area near the Fountain on the Public Square. Along the way, she said, a couple in a red car saw her running and yelling, "They've got my purse!"
Rita Eckert said the people in the car, who she later learned were from Waterloo, tried to follow three of the men who were seen running and called police, who also had been alerted by the mayor. Mark Eckert said he, too, saw the three men in the vicinity of East Washington and High Street.
"They were heading south," he said.
Within minutes, Belleville Police apprehended a 21-year-old Collinsville man who was taken into custody, Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay said. Rita Eckert's credit cards were found on his person and her purse was found Monday morning in an alley in the downtown area.
"She was so angry she ran right after him," he said.
Clay said the suspect is awaiting charges, and police continue to investigate.
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at email@example.com and 239-2625.