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Crowd Watches As Woman Stripped, Forced Off Bridge

August 22, 1995

DETROIT (AP) _ As dozens of onlookers gathered, and some cheered, three men pulled a woman from her car, ripped off her clothes, then chased her until she either jumped or was forced off a bridge to her death.

None of the 40 or so passersby tried to help Deletha Word during the confrontation that began with two minor traffic accidents early Saturday on Belle Isle, said police Sgt. John Morel.

A man who arrived late tried to rescue her from the Detroit River but couldn’t reach her. The 33-year-old woman’s body, missing a leg, was found several miles downstream later that morning.

``My baby was down there all by herself. I know she was scared to death,″ the woman’s mother, Dortha Word, said as she cried Monday. ``How could they be so cruel?″

Trouble started around 3 a.m., Morel said, when Word was involved in two minor traffic accidents on Belle Island. One car with three men inside chased her onto the bridge connecting the island to the city and rammed her car, forcing her to stop.

One of the men smashed her car with a crowbar and pulled her from the car, ripping off some of her clothes, Cmdr. Gerald Stewart said. The man pushed her against the car and beat her, he said.

One of the men weighed nearly 300 pounds, according to a police source quoted in The Detroit News. Word, who was 4-foot-11, weighed 115 pounds, her mother said.

When Word tried to run away, police said the man with the crowbar chased her. What happened after that is unclear.

Police are not saying whether Word jumped or was forced off the bridge, but Mrs. Word said she is sure her daughter was forced into the Detroit River.

``They ... made her leap over that bridge and beat her hands. She was holding onto the bridge, and beat her hands away from that banister,″ she said said, citing an account she said police gave her.

Word’s cousin Carol Neely said Word would have never jumped because she did not know how to swim.

Lawrence Walker, 21, was in the bumper-to-bumper traffic that had formed on the bridge when he noticed a crowd running to the edge. He got out of his car and followed, jumping into the river after her.

``I wasn’t trying to be Superman or anything,″ he said. ``I just saw something and jumped in without thinking about it.″

But Word moved away from him and a friend in the water and he quickly lost sight of her. He worried afterward that perhaps she thought he was one of the people after her.

``I think my trying to help her maybe made her swim a little further out than she could,″ he said.

Walker said about 50 people were gathered when he ran up, many of them laughing about the men beating Word. He said one person had a cellular phone but would not call police.

``It seemed like people didn’t care,″ he said.

By Sunday afternoon, police had arrested three men, two age 20 and one age 19. It was not clear what charges they faced.

Relatives described Word, who had a 13-year-old daughter and worked at a grocery store while earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing, as the backbone of their close-knit family. When her brother, James, was shot to death in May, she had been the family’s support.

``If she had been on that bridge, and somebody was beating somebody, she wouldn’t have stood and watched,″ Mrs. Word said. ``She would have helped them. She might have got hurt trying but she would have helped.″

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