ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – A woman arrested in the daytime stabbing deaths of two Canadian tourists near an Atlantic City casino laughed, frowned, grimaced and repeatedly asked where her lawyer was Tuesday as she was charged with murdering the women, one of them 80 years old.
Antoinette Pelzer stabbed the women Monday morning as they were walking in an area where most of the city's casinos have their entrances and parking garages, authorities said. Pelzer's aunt said she has long suffered from mental illness.
Superior Court Judge Michael Donio read from a criminal complaint that said Pelzer, 44, stabbed the 80-year-old woman and tried to steal her pocketbook. "When the victim would not relinquish, the suspect stabbed her additional times," he said, reading from the complaint.
The judge said the older woman was stabbed in different parts of her body with a 12-inch butcher knife, and that the younger woman, 47, was stabbed in her lower body, hands and shoulder when she tried to help.
Autopsies showed the older woman died from being knifed in the heart, while the 47-year-old woman bled to death. The victims are not being identified until relatives can be notified.
Donio had difficulty getting the defendant to focus and respond to his questions. Pelzer laughed out loud when the judge asked her whether she had applied for a public defender.
"I done trying to find out where my public defender's at," she said. "Whatever you call it, whatever. I don't know."
As the judge read parts of the criminal complaint charging her with murder and robbery, Pelzer silently shook her head "no." At other times, she made odd faces, frowned and narrowed her eyes while looking at the judge and the prosecutor.
Public defender Eric Shenkus said his office had not yet received an application to represent Pelzer but predicted it would begin representing her shortly.
Donio set her bail at $1.5 million.
Monday's killings took place in the heart of Atlantic City's new tourist district, a state-designated jurisdiction encompassing the casinos, boardwalk and shopping districts. The district is the centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie's efforts to make the nation's third-largest gambling market clean and safe, and thereby more attracting to tourists.
Authorities say Pelzer approached the women on the sidewalk on Pacific Avenue, across the street from Bally's Atlantic City and a half-block from the hospital trauma center where they were pronounced dead.
A police officer on patrol intervened when he spotted the attack, subduing Pelzer at gunpoint.
Pelzer had been living in an Ohio shelter until December, when her mother brought her back to Philadelphia, said Pelzer's aunt Nadine King, also of Philadelphia.
Pelzer has long suffered from schizophrenia and had been homeless since January, said King, who said she had seen her niece out "begging for money."
She did not know how long she had been in Atlantic City, which has long been a magnet for the homeless, some of whom are bused there by welfare agencies from other counties and cities.
King said her niece, a mother of three, did not have a criminal record. She blamed her mental illness for what happened.
Gladys Pelzer, the suspect's mother, told WPVI-TV in Philadelphia that the stabbings apparently occurred while her daughter was trying to get money to buy cigarettes.
"I feel sorry about the people she hurt all because she wanted a cigarette. That's what this was all about," she told the TV station.
In addition to murder, she is charged with assault and weapons charges.
The killings marked the third and fourth homicides involving visitors to Atlantic City in the past two years.
Exactly two years before the women were attacked, a casino patron from northern New Jersey was carjacked inside the Taj Mahal casino parking garage and later killed. A man convicted in that case is to be sentenced on Thursday.
In September, another casino patron, also from northern New Jersey, was carjacked from the same garage and later fatally shot. Three young men are awaiting trial in that case.
Jack Allton, a Bally's customer from Jacobus, Pa., said the attack left him shaken but that he and his wife, Peg, will continue to come to the resort he has been visiting for nearly 60 years.
"It's not a positive thing for Atlantic City's image, is it?" he said. "But people who come down here all the time know there's crime here and there always has been. It's a real tragedy, but it happens."
Housel, the prosecutor, voiced similar sentiments after the court hearing. In response to a question from a Canadian broadcaster, Housel said the killings could have happened anywhere.
"It could have happened in Philadelphia. It could have happened in Las Vegas," he said. "Don't think this is something negatively special about Atlantic City that doesn't exist anywhere else. There's actually crime in Canada too, I hear."
Associated Press writer Andrew Duffelmeyer in Trenton contributed to this report.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.