Fallen Angel

updated 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HE HAD DEDICATED HIS LIFE TO BATTLING CRIME ON THE STREETS of Mew York City, earning praise from some citizens and the enmity of local thugs. So when assassins tried to rub out Curtis Sliwa, 38, the founder and leader of the vigilante Guardian Angels, neither admirers nor opponents could have been shocked. But that did not stop his wife, Lisa, 39, from voicing her outrage at an emotional press conference. "Curtis nearly got killed," she said with an angry sob. "One bullet just missed his head. Another missed his spine by one inch. They tried to destroy my husband and the Guardian Angels."

In the predawn hours of Friday, June 19, Curtis had left his apartment in the seedy East Village and headed for the morning radio show that he and Lisa host. He climbed into a wailing taxi that suddenly sped off in the wrong direction. A man hiding beside the driver sat up, as Sliwa told police, and opened fire, shouting, "You son of a bitch!" Sliwa, hit in the abdomen and leg, lunged into the front seat to wrestle the gunman. In the tumult, he was thrown from the car. Lisa heard his cries for help. "I was in a car coming from our other apartment, and when my walkie-talkie went, 'Code Red! Code Red!' " says Lisa, "I said, 'Oh my God! It's Curtis.' " She arrived as he was being lifted into an ambulance.

There was no shortage of potential suspects. Says New York police lieutenant Kevin Gilmartin: "He's aggravated enough people to fill a New York City phone book." For days, Lisa was even badgered by tabloid speculation that the incident was part of a violent love triangle. Both she and Curtis ridiculed the allegation.

Lisa, who was a waitress at the time, met Curtis when she joined the fledgling Angels in 1980. While their backgrounds were dissimilar—she was an economics major from Lake Forest College in Illinois, he was a high school dropout from Brooklyn—they married in 1981. With his eye for publicity and her attention-grabbing good looks. their organization blossomed. Numbering 13 in 1979, the Angels now claim 5.000 members in five countries.

Their romantic life was a mixture of though love and vigilante devotion—a relationship that even one of their closest friends describes as bizarre. Asked in 1990 if she had married for love, Lisa replied, "No, absolutely not. Look at him. I mean, he needs lobe thrown in front of a couple of open fire hydrants and deloused. There's no way it would be for love. It was for the organization." When they got the radio talk show with WABC, Lisa used the money to get a second apartment (their "love nest," as she describes it) in a neighborhood safely removed from the East Village. Meanwhile the tiny tenement apartment (sarcastically known as the Mansion) where Curtis spent most nights organizing patrols—and was constantly visited by Angels—is covered with pictures of Lisa, love notes and devotional poetry.

Since the attack, Lisa has taken charge of the Angels for her husband, who is expected to make a full recovery. "We love each other first, and the work is an outgrowth of that," she insists. Curtis's wedding ring, removed before his surgery, now dangles from a chain around her neck. "I'm lucky," says Lisa. "I've got all these guys at my disposal to find out who's behind this. And I feel for those people who don't have all this protection, this support. For those people—that's why we have to do what we do."

CORY JOHNSON in New York City

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