NEWARK, N.J. — Sharpe James, the charismatic former mayor of Newark, N.J., and a convicted felon, knows a little something about the power of empathy in the face of criminal charges.
James, 77, was put in a chokehold and robbed of a gold chain and cross Thursday afternoon in the city he once led. He was not injured.
Hours later, police arrested 20-year-old Alhafeez Williams and charged him with robbery.
But James, a larger-than-life politician who was given a hero's welcome when he returned to Newark in 2010 after serving more than two years in prison on federal corruption charges, said he believes in second chances. He thinks Williams should be given a job, guidance and mentoring instead of another criminal charge.
"I'd like him to be paroled to Sharpe James," the former mayor, who often refers to himself in the third person, told The Associated Press.
"I will not be pressing charges. I will be pressing for rehabilitation," James said.
The ex-mayor said he learned that Williams's grandfather has been "a James supporter since the 1970s." James said the grandfather has a framed photo of the two hanging in his living room.
James said he was helping a senior citizen cross the street when he felt someone grab him from behind. That was not unusual because everyone likes to horse around with the former mayor and, James said, it keeps him humble.
"I thought it was horseplay," James said. "People always run up to you and are grabbing you from behind, and I start moving like a football player."
James said he turned around recognized the robber as someone he saw playing basketball nearby earlier in the afternoon. It wasn't until the man started running down the street that James realized he had been robbed and his chain was missing.
"He reached and grabbed my cross and yanked it two times and ran down the street," James said. Had he known a robbery was occurring, James said he would have taken action.
"I had a cup of Dunkin' Donuts hot tea in my left hand," James said. "The first response if I thought I was being mugged, robbed, was to throw the hot tea in their face. I never lost a drop of the tea because I didn't think I was being attacked."
James said a group of young men ran to the nearest police precinct and alerted authorities that James had been robbed. James said he wouldn't have called the police.
Williams was arrested early Friday. Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman said Williams was in New York City at the 33rd Street PATH commuter train station and asked two Port Authority police officers, Angel Correa and Luis Herrera, if he could have a free ride back to New Jersey to meet his parole officer.
Correa and Herrera asked for the parole officer's name and made a call, Coleman said. The Newark police told them that Williams was suspected in James's robbery.
The officers accompanied Williams on the train to Hoboken, N.J., where he was arrested by Newark police and charged with robbery. He is being held on $50,000 bail.
Court records show Williams has pleaded guilty to two other robbery charges.
Coleman said Williams's girlfriend, who was with him at the time, had James's chain and cross.
James said he is waiting to hear from police about getting his jewelry back. He said officials confiscated an old chain and cross when he reported to prison, and he never got them back. James said he bought another gold chain and a two-inch gold cross, which contains a figure of Jesus being crucified, when he got out of prison. Those are the items that were stolen Thursday.
James said he usually keeps the cross tucked inside his shirt, but it sometimes irritates a large scar he has from open heart surgery. The cross was outside of his shirt Thursday, and James guesses Williams saw it.
"If he would have asked I would have given him the chain," James said. "I would have kept the cross. It's sentimental value."