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Philadelphia 'Granny' Squad Cop Dies

The Associated Press
via Knight Ridder

NOREEN BURNS was responsible for a lot of collars when she worked the Police Department's "granny" squad.

She would pose as a woman burdened with packages walking in high-crime areas, an inviting target for muggers.

When somebody grabbed her, she called in reinforcements, and the thief was arrested.

Once, while the cops were trying to catch a rapist, she carried bags of groceries from a store, trying to lure the man into attacking her.

That went on for weeks and the packages got heavier and heavier.

"Finally, she started buying paper towels because they were lighter," said one of her sisters, Barbara Rilling.

The assailant was finally caught and Noreen chalked up another of the numerous commendations she received for that dangerous assignment.

Burns, a woman who lived for excitement - whether it was catching criminals, riding a Harley-Davidson hog, exploring caves and banding bats, living on a houseboat or sailing - died yesterday of a brain tumor. She was 60 and was living in an assisted- living facility but had lived for many years in Fishtown.

"She was independent," her sister said. "She was the family rebel."

Another sister, Mary Beth Hardiman, added "free-spirited" to the description of this unusual woman, who lived life her own way.

She was born in Philadelphia to Joseph and Mary Burns. She graduated from the John W. Hallahan Catholic High School for Girls in 1963.

She was a talented artist who, as a student, helped create the mosaic that is still on display at the school entrance.

"She was very talented, but she wanted to be a cop," Barbara Rilling said.

Although she continued painting and took some courses at the Moore Institute of Art, to which she had received scholarships, she devoted herself to police work.

When she joined the force at the age of 21, women were largely relegated to the juvenile aid division, but when other jobs opened, she was assigned to the vice squad and the undercover granny unit.

She retired from the force in 1982 because of illness.

Burns had a deep sense of community while living in Fishtown. She got tired of looking at a vacant lot on Sepviva Street near Lehigh Avenue. So, she started a 4-H Club and got the neighborhood kids to plant a vegetable garden.

On another vacant lot, she showed movies to neighborhood youngsters every Friday night in the summer and early fall, flashing the images on the wall of a house.

"She did it to help improve her community," Rilling said. "The neighborhood kids loved her."

When she was younger, she lived for a year on a houseboat owned by a friend's stepfather at Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

It was also in North Carolina that she explored caves and banded bats for scientific research.

She bought a Harley when she was 19 and rode it for about 10 years. She also had a Karmann Ghia automobile. "She loved cars," Rilling said.

"She was intelligent, very curious," Rilling said. "She had a very good sense of humor. She was fun to be around."

Burns vacationed in North Wildwood every summer and became active with St. Anne's Church there. She sold chances for the church on the Boardwalk.

She was a passionate Flyers fan and had season tickets.

Burns, who never married, was devoted to her five nieces.

"She shopped from catalogs for them," Rilling said. "She knew each of their personalities and what would appeal to each one."

"She was very independent, very adventurous," Hardiman added. "She did things that women just weren't doing in those days."

She was a member of St. Anne's Church in Philadelphia.

She also is survived by a brother, Joseph.

Services: Funeral Mass 10 a.m. Wednesday at Christ the King Church, Morrell Avenue and Chesterfield Road. Friends may call at 7 tomorrow night at the Burns Funeral Home, 9708 Frankford Ave., and at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Burial will be in Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon.

Philadelphia Daily News
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