Call it vengeance. Call it good samaritanism. Call it plain old frustration. Every day, it seems, more Americans are taking the law into their own hands. With some criminal outrage going down right in front of them, it appears as if they have no other choice. But only some of the time do they wind up getting a medal for heroism. They could very well wind up in court, the hospital—or worse. Even so, experts like Tom Reppetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, do not recommend standing there doing nothing. Act, he says, "but use common sense. "Some examples:

A Denver man takes on would-be burglars—and wins

A pickup truck pulled into a cul-de-sac in the Lakewood suburb of Denver around 11 P.M. on Dec. 17, 1991. Two men got out and began rifling cars in the Bunce family driveway. As it happened, Stephen Bunce, 25, was visiting his parents, spotted the men from an upstairs window and raced downstairs. The two heard Bunce coming and ran to their truck. One jumped into the driver's seat, the other into the back. Bunce caught up just as the truck was pulling away—and dove into the rear.

"What are you? Nuts?" the intruder yelled. It was a good question. The odds weren't exactly in Bunce's favor. At 5'7" and 150 lbs., he was 7" shorter and 50 lbs. lighter than his opponent. Bunce had another disadvantage: As a child he had contracted Osgood-Schlatter disease, a bone disorder that left him particularly vulnerable. A break, he says, "would probably leave me crippled."

As the two wrestled in the back of the truck, the driver took off, racing at high speeds, swerving from one side of the road to the other, braking and accelerating abruptly, doing anything to get rid of Bunce. None of it worked.

Bunce held on to his opponent and tried to disable him. Two punches didn't faze the man, but a choke hold did. The intruder passed out—or so Bunce thought. While Bunce tried to break the rear window of the cab with his feet, his opponent regained consciousness and jumped off. Bunce grabbed his foot as the truck dragged him down the street. "He was yelling, 'Stop! Slop!' " Bunce recalls. And the driver suddenly hit the brakes. The jolt freed the man from Bunce's grasp, and he took off running.

But he stumbled, and Bunce caught up. He forced the man—identified as Stanley Packard, 19—to the nearest house, and police were called. The driver, a juvenile whose name was not released, was picked up a few days later. Both suspects were convicted earlier this year and placed on probation. Police lectured Bunce on the danger he had faced. But later, Bunce, who runs his own limousine service, received five awards for heroism. "I hate fighting." Bunce says. "But if someone is in trouble. I don't think twice."

A shooting raises tensions between blacks and Koreans in L.A.

For years, Korean-born Soon Ja Du, 51, worked long hours behind the counters of the many Liquor stores and delis her family owns in the Los Angeles area. Today she stays home, trying to keep a low profile. But Du is an explosive symbol of the continuing tensions between Koreans and blacks in Los Angeles—and an underlying reason why so many Korean-owned businesses were looted and razed during the riots in April 1992.

In March 1991, Du was working behind the counter of the Empire Liquor Market Deli in South Central Los Angeles when a black girl, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, walked up to the counter. A blurry black-and-white store video shows the two arguing, with much grabbing, slapping and punching. Suddenly Du takes out a .38-caliber pistol. As the girl turns to walk away, the gun goes off. Du shoots Harlins in the back of the head, and the teen falls to the floor, dead.

The shooting was over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Witnesses said Harlins was trying to pay for the juice, which she had already put in her backpack. But Du thought Harlins was trying to steal it. She said later she only intended to threaten Harlins, but the gun, one she had never used before, had a hair trigger. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a charge carrying a prison term of up to 16 years. But her sentence was nothing like that: She was ordered to pay Harlins's funeral costs, placed on five years probation and given 400 hours of community service.

Among blacks in Los Angeles the relatively mild sentence became a symbol of injustice and disregard for human life. "The system did us unfair justice," says Latasha's grandmother Ruth Harlins, 50. "I believe [Superior Court Judge] Joyce Karlin was in favor of the Du family. She acted as though my granddaughter was a criminal."

Karlin disagrees. "Before I imposed the sentence, I did a lot of research," she says. "That included seeking out judges who had imposed probation in voluntary manslaughter cases in which children had been killed." Du's supporters also think the verdict was fair. They point to the 15 burglaries and robberies the Dus experienced during their first two years in business. "It's easy for people to Monday-morning quarterback," says Du's attorney, Charles Lloyd. "But if they knew what Mrs. Du knew about the number of robberies, acts of arson, murders of Korean merchants in South Central L.A., they would have acted in a like manner."

A cabdriver stops a mugger, but the thief has his day in court

It is not where most politicians begin their careers, but then Chuck Hollom, 51, is not like most politicians. Today he is one of 26 candidates vying for six available seats on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Not long ago he was a cabbie in trouble for chasing down a mugger.

In May 1989, Hollom saw a man run up to three young Japanese women, knock one down and steal her purse. He and another cabbie gave chase. When the second driver screamed "Halt!" the mugger whirled, yanking something shiny from his shirt pocket. It turned out to be a stolen money clip, but Hollom thought it was a gun. He drove onto the sidewalk, pinning the mugger against a wall with his front bumper. Three minutes later police arrived, and the mugger, Ocie McClure, now 26, was arrested. Hollom was hailed as a hero; the woman, a tourist, got her purse back; and McClure was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

That might have been the end of the story. But to Hollom's dismay, a civil jury decided last February that he had used "excessive force" in the capture and awarded McClure $24,595 to help pay for his medical expenses. While pinned by Hollom's cab, McClure suffered a fracture in his right leg, a severed artery and a torn calf muscle. "Instead of driving into the mugger, [Hollom] could have cut him off," wrote jury foreman Robert Miller in the San Francisco Examiner.

Hollom, a former stunt driver (The Blues Brothers, Bullitt), was stunned by the verdict—as was most of San Francisco. Then on March 27, 1992, Superior Court Judge Carlos Bea dismissed the award and permitted a new trial, which is pending. Hollom is still not pleased. "Someone hearing about this ridiculous lawsuit might hesitate, if only for a moment, in helping someone who is being attacked," he says. "That's what frightens me."

Foiling a robbery leads to a shooting death—and a trial

Robert Bizon was sick of being ripped off. Youths from nearby Rutland, Vt., were repeatedly breaking into his garage and stealing tools and liquor. So the electrician, who also owns a bar, rigged up a silent alarm, connecting it to a clock radio in his bedroom, where he always kept a loaded gun. One night in March 1991, the alarm went off. Five youths, celebrating the end of the high school basketball season, had decided to steal a bottle of Bizon's whiskey. "It was," one of the boys said later, "there for the taking."

Indeed, the garage was unlocked, and a secure storage-room door was pried open quickly. But all the boys found were some empty bottles and a large, crudely worded sign reading F— YOU, A———S. At that point, lights went on in the house and the panicked teens decided to run for it. What they did not know was that Bizon was standing a few feet from the garage door with a .357 Magnum revolver. He ordered the fleeing youths to stop, but when they kept running, he opened fire. His third or fourth shot struck James Ashcroft, 17, in the hip, severing a major artery. Only after questioning Ashcroft and another teen for several minutes did Bizon allow his girlfriend, Joan Lebo, to call for help. By the time an ambulance arrived, medics later testified, Ashcroft was unconscious. He died soon after.

Bizon, 47, was charged with involuntary manslaughter, and his case polarized the community. Supporters contended that Bizon, an avid hunter and gun collector, had the right to protect his properly, even to the point of using deadly force. They also noted that Ashcroft had pleaded no contest to stealing videotapes from a store the previous year and was doing 200 hours of community service.

The anti-Bizon faction argued that the youths were basically "good kids" who did well in school. And a former neighbor complained to town officials that Bizon once threatened "to shoot anyone who came on his land." He had been convicted in 1972 for killing a deer illegally and in 1982 for assaulting his former wife. Even his lawyer, Peter Langrock, admits Bizon is "a kind of Rambo."

It look nearly two days for the jury to decide: not guilty. Bizon still faces a wrongful-death suit filed by Ashcroft's family. "We don't think he acted in self-defense," says the youth's mother, Maria Ashcroft. "Those were just boys who made a big mistake.

An alert couple rescue a 7-year-old girl from molestation

The summer sun bore down on Jeffrey and Lisa Mishou's canteen truck between the docks and the railroad track along the Bangor, Maine, waterfront. It was midafternoon, and business was slow. As the couple sat in the shade, watching boats in the bay, Jeffrey, 30, picked up his binoculars and spoiled a thin, shabbily dressed man collecting bottles and cans along the railroad tracks about a quarter of a mile away.

Suddenly the man ducked into the brush next to a deserted depot. "I saw a little girl come along on her bike," Jeffrey recalls. "Then I saw the man's hand come out of the woods." He was beckoning to the child, a 7-year-old, who got off her bike. "The girl started walking over to him," Jeffrey says. "I said, 'I can't believe it. She's gonna go into the woods.' Then he grabbed her by the back of the head, hit her in the face and dragged her in.

The couple sprang into action. While Jeffrey called 911, Lisa, 31, drove to the depot, hoping to stay safe by finding some way to help without leaving the car. But when she heard the 7-year-old's cries, she put aside her fears and ran into the woods toward the child's muffled whimpers. "He was lying on top of her. pinning her down," she says. Lisa started screaming and when that did no good, began kicking rocks at the man. Finally she managed to pull the little girl free. The child's face was bruised, her lip was bleeding, and she was hysterical. Lisa got her to the car as Jeffrey arrived, but the drama was far from over.

The man was running away, and Jeffrey look out after him. He caught up quickly because the man was overburdened with his bag of bottles and cans—which he swung at Jeffrey. "I said, 'Don't you do it, or I'll snap your neck like a twig,' " recalls Jeffrey, who is big enough to back up his words. The man gave up immediately.

He was later identified as Frederick Bernard, 60, an ex-con with a record of murder, kidnapping and child assault. On Aug. 13, 1991, the day he was arrested, he had been free for only 14 months. He pleaded guilty to charges of assault and criminal restraint and was sentenced to two years in jail—not long enough as far as the Mishous are concerned. "I believe he would ve gotten more jail time if he had pushed her down and stolen her piggy bank," Lisa says.

JOE TREEN
VICKI BANE in Lakewood, LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles, LIZ MCNEIL in San Francisco, YVONNE DALEY in Rutland, HEIDI J. LAFLECHE in Bangor

  • Contributors:
  • Vicki Bane,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Liz McNeil,
  • Yvonne Daley,
  • Heidi J. Lafleche.