Flower bandit filches Cleveland Park blooms

They’ve waged war against deer and battled hungry possums that snatch tomatoes just when they are at the peak of their flavor. But there’s one pest the Newark Street gardeners have been unable to thwart: a certain two-legged rat with a penchant for peonies.

For 10 years, gardeners in this Northwest Washington neighborhood believe the same man has been stealing spring blooms from their plots in the Newark Street Community Garden. Not just a few stems, mind you, but bunches — as many as 30 to 50 at a time.

“He does this every year, starting with the peonies,” said Marcia Stein, one of the flower thief’s victims, who lost a bunch of blooms this month. “Last year, he stole all of my peonies.”

Gardeners say the suspect has expensive taste. He ignores lesser flowers in favor of pricier blooms. (At Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center in Cleveland Park, peonies sell for $8.99 a stem.)

And when he steals them, he’s not gentle: He rips the blooms right out of the ground.

For years, the gardeners kept quiet, fearful that publicity would encourage more thefts. The Newark Street Garden, with 220 plots, is one of the biggest community gardens in the District, and the gardeners know it’s an attractive target for thieves in search of many crops. So, they installed elaborate fencing to protect their flowers. They laid elaborate traps in their plots. Some installed locks. A few years ago, a group even held a series of early morning stakeouts.

Flowers continued to disappear.

Linda Berry, a landscape designer who has lost at least a hundred blooms over the years, estimates that the elusive flower thief has made off with $5,000 in peonies alone.

This year, the gardeners decided to go public. In search of leads, Stein posted a message to a Cleveland Park neighborhood e-mail group.

She was dismayed to learn that she and her fellow Newark Street gardeners were not the only victims.

The elusive flower thief — described by those who think they’ve seen him as a white male in his 60s with salt-and-pepper hair — allegedly has been pinching blooms from front yards and gardens across Ward 3 for years.

Susan Connolly spotted the alleged thief — with an armful of her prized hydrangeas — in her front yard two years ago. She and her small terrier chased him from her home on 46th Street to Western Avenue, but he hopped on a bus before they could collar him.

“If I ever see him again, I’m taking his picture,” Connolly said.

This year, a man fitting the flower bandit’s description was spotted in American University Park with an armful of peonies, near the Washington National Cathedral carrying flowering shrubs and on the path behind McLean Gardens loaded down with lilacs.

“We always assumed that it was just us” who were the object of the thief’s unwelcome attention, said Anatol Steck, the president of the Newark Street Community Garden Association. “But it turns out it’s the entire neighborhood.”

Oddly enough, one place the alleged thief hasn’t been spotted has been at the community garden, which happens to be behind the Second District police station.

“We don’t know how he’s getting away,” Berry said. “People have seen him, but just not in the garden.”

So who is this man, and why does he do it?

Theories abound. Some believe the flower thief sells the blooms to local restaurants. Others suspect he might be selling to local florists.

Many surmise that, since he seems to knows the gardens of Ward 3 so well, he must live in the area.

“One wonders: If he loves flowers so much, why doesn’t he just grow them himself?” Berry said.

In response to the reports, police in the area say they have stepped up patrols around the Newark Street garden.

The gardeners acknowledge flower theft isn’t exactly a high priority when it comes to crime. But just knowing he’s out there has some concerned about their personal safety. (He hasn’t, however, shown any inclination toward violence.)

Many say the thefts have begun to wear on them. This year, Stein said she invested so much time fortifying her peony bushes with extra fencing that it almost took the fun out of growing them. The thief managed to steal them anyway.

Stein has since put a lock on one of her plots.

“It is really just such a violation of your personal property,” Stein said. “If he wants some flowers, why doesn’t he just ask?”

Even if the police aren’t able to catch the flower thief in the act, many gardeners hope the publicity will help them nab him. At the very least, perhaps the notoriety will force him to retire.

“All we can hope is that someone will see him and have an ‘a-ha’ moment,” Stein said. “I go to the garden to enjoy myself, not to worry about some guy.”

 
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