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Ronnie Polaneczky: A bystander was severely beaten by the 'flash mob'

YOU KNOW the horrifying rampage of thousands of teens in and around South Street that happened 12 days ago? Remember how it was reported that there were no severe injuries sustained by terrorized victims?

YOU KNOW the horrifying rampage of thousands of teens in and around South Street that happened 12 days ago? Remember how it was reported that there were no severe injuries sustained by terrorized victims?

A man I'll call John might beg to differ - if only he could speak.

John (his family requests I not reveal his name) is a 52-year-old maintenance mechanic who works at The Wistar Institute. He was viciously beaten and robbed near Broad and South streets by eight of those marauders as he bicycled home from work.

Since then, he's been fighting for his life in the ICU at Hahnemann University Hospital, where he's being treated for a frontal-lobe brain injury, broken facial bones and ribs, contusions and a punctured lung.

This week, doctors finally began weaning him off the heavy sedation that he had needed to hold still as his body recovers from the shock of the battering.

The feeding tube is still in place, but the respirator that helped him breathe has been removed. Still, he cannot speak. The emergency tracheostomy he underwent to save his life prevents that for now.

"He can write us notes," says his friend, Marcia Houston-Leslie, with whom he works at Wistar. She has been a constant presence in the ICU, as have John's siblings and elderly parents, who live out of town.

"Last night, [John] wrote, 'Did you eat dinner?' He knew it was evening. That was a good sign."

John, whose memory has been damaged by his injury, does not yet know that the savages who nearly killed him were part of a rampage instigated via text messages and other electronic summonses.

The irony?

John doesn't even own a cell phone.

In theory, it sure seems harmless.

Revelers respond to a viral text message, e-mail or social-networking alert to report to a designated location, en masse, creating a "flash mob."

In the best circumstances, they do something joyful and silly, like sing a Broadway tune together, creating a serendipitous moment of delight for passers-by.

In the worst, they do what they did on and around South Street on May 30: fan out and terrify the innocent.

If this is a harbinger of what's to come in this city, we oughta be quaking in our boots. Because it's easy for anyone in a mob to do severe, anonymous damage. All they have to do afterward is slip back into the crowd.

As of now, that's what it appears the May 30 assailants have done in the attacks that occurred that night:

The carjacking of a cabdriver, and the assault of a female driver and her passenger on South Street; the beating of a man in front of a McDonald's near Broad and Christian streets; and John's savage attack.

The frustrating thing about the attack on John (he's the only victim who required hospitalization) is that police didn't know, for almost four days, that it had occurred.

That night, a witness called 9-1-1 to say that an injured man needed an ambulance. A medic unit transported John, who was unconscious, to Hahnemann. His wallet had been stolen during the beating, so he had no identification on him.

"For two days, I didn't know where he was," says Houston-Leslie, who became worried when she couldn't reach John on Sunday about a planned dinner. By Monday, when she learned that no one at work had seen him since Saturday night, she was frantic.

By then, someone at Hahnemann had found a piece of paper among John's clothing that had his sister's name and number on it. Swiftly, everyone converged at Hahnemann.

It wasn't until Wednesday that John's mother thought to ask, "Has anyone called the police about this?"

No, they hadn't.

Central Detectives arrived after her call. They quickly figured out that John's beating took place during Saturday's melee, and turned his case over to South Detectives, which is investigating the rampage. John's mother says that they've been all over the incident ever since.

"Obviously, it's better when we can start an investigation as soon as possible," says Capt. Larry Nodiff, commander of the South Detective division. "At this point, we're asking any eyewitnesses and anyone who took still photos, cell-phone pictures or video of any of the incidents to contact us [call 215-686-3013]."

John's mother doesn't know what her son will make of all that has happened to him. He's an easygoing man, a hard worker, both outgoing and low-key at the same time. But doctors aren't sure if that's the man who will emerge from this incident, since injuries like his can alter a victim's personality. Only time will tell how much of the old John will survive this assault.

"I just don't understand how people could do what they did," says John's mother.

"He was just trying to get home after working hard all night at a job. He was doing the right thing. For this to happen to him, it makes no sense."

No sense at all. *

E-mail or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at