Dec. 22, 2009 — -- In Cleveland, Ohio, where earlier this month Anthony Sowell was indicted for luring 14 homeless, drug-addled women into his house of horrors and then allegedly sexually attacking them and strangling 11 of them, a local self-defense store is having trouble keeping merchandise in stock.
Fears of violent criminals like Sowell have led local women to invest in self-defense gadgets marketed directly toward them, such as pepper sprays disguised as lipsticks or knives that on first glance appear to be hair combs.
"We've seen a spike in business because of the Sowell case," said Carlos Crespo, the owner of Cleveland's Rose Guardian, a specialty store for self-defense and protection products for women. "We've seen 150 percent more business since the end of October."
Crespo's store, which also accepts orders on its Web site, sells everything from stun guns, to tasers to pepper spray to sharp objects, but all with a catch.
Each item is disguised to appear as something that a woman might typically carry in her handbag, whether it's a tube of lipstick, a blush brush, a hairbrush or even a cell phone, often offered in a variety of colors.
"One of the main things that our customers love is that the products don't look like weapons," said Crespo, "If a woman is approached and the assailant thinks the weapon they're holding is really a cosmetic of some kind, they are likely to approach you in a different way."
Crespo said his business, now only four months old, was born out of a previous career in surveillance, in which he would routinely see women targeted who rarely had means to defend themselves.
"We wanted to supply a place where women come and find a product that fits their lifestyle," said Crespo. "If they usually carry a cell phone on their belt, they can get a cell phone stun gun here. Or if they're going out a lot to night clubs they can get a blush brush that is really pepper spray and put it in their purse."
Lipsticks, Cell Phones Double As Self-Defense Weapons
According to Crespo, the hottest item they sell is called "the cat defender keychain." The device, which Crespo says customers have "bought by the dozen," is essentially is essentially a keychain replacement that has sharp plastic points which can be used to scrape an attacker's face.
"It looks like a kitty cat with eyes, and you put your fingers through the eyes and the tips of the ears are the scrapers," said Crespo, "It gives you support in the palm of your hand unlike holding your keys."
Crespo said that a female cab driver recently came in to stock up on blush brush pepper spray because she said it had come in so handy catching aggressive passengers off guard on her nightly shift to and from local nightclubs.
Martinez said that she believes her store thrives because of the "element of surprise" her products offer.
"Assailants might think a woman is just taking out a lipstick but she's not," said Martinez. "By concealing a product it's not as easy for a [perpetrator] to respond."
Among her best selling products, Martinez says pepper sprays disguised in perfume bottles or pens are often the first buys for women looking for protection.
Woman Flock to More Discrete Weapons
Self-defense expert Chris Wright-Martell, who is the owner and head instructor of the Modern Self-Defense Center in Middletown, Conn., said that if disguising weapons as female accessories encourages women to protect themselves, he's supportive.
"Women have the innate hesitant to want to hurt someone even if it's clearly a situation when its justified, so it can be tough to get people used to the idea of standing up for themselves," Wright-Martell said. "And this could help -- anything that makes people more comfortable with the idea of protection is a good one in my book."
Kathy Olvesky, a self-defense expert based in North Carolina, said she doesn't see the point of disguising weapons, just as long as you have one on you that you know how to operate.
"If you disguise a weapon, the odds of having it in your hands is slim, it does no good in your purse," she said. If you have Mace or a key chain you should carry in your hand where it's visible so you're less likely to become a victim."