By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 10:51 PM
People have been cursing out Pepco for nearly a week.
But now, there may be a silver lining in the days-long power outage.
On Friday, two days after a powerful and quick-moving snowstorm cut power to about 210,000 Pepco customers, a man broke into a Silver Spring house to steal jewelry.
That's been happening a lot lately in eastern Montgomery County. About 40 homeowners have experienced a similar fate, and police were stymied.
Which brings us back to Silver Spring. As the burglar was rifling through the rooms in that house, the homeowner's son arrived and startled him. The burglar jumped out a window and fled. The son called police, who searched the house.
They were stunned at what was found: a cellphone, charging in an electric socket, that didn't belong to the homeowner.
The phone led police to Cody Wilkins, who is now charged in 10 burglaries.
Police say that Wilkins's home lost power in the storm and that he needed a place - anyplace, it seems - to charge his phone. In his haste to flee, he left it charging.
Now he is cursing Pepco louder than anyone.
Wilkins, 25, was being held in the Montgomery jail on a $1 million bond. Officers said they suspect he is responsible for more thefts.
Detectives were able to use the phone to get to Wilkins in part with a ruse that involved calling a number programmed into it. They told the woman who answered that the man whose cellphone they were calling from had been involved in an incident, law enforcement officials said. They needed to know his name.
It amounted to a huge break in an investigation that had frustrated detectives for weeks - 42 burglaries since Jan. 1 in the Silver Spring and Wheaton areas. Most cases have involved stolen jewelry.
Detectives closed in on Wilkins about the time his power came back on, and he was trying to flush jewelry down his toilet, police said.
Bob Hainey, a spokesman for Pepco, declined to say whether Wilkins's home had power Friday, citing a policy of not commenting on specific addresses. But Wilkins's address - in the 12800 block of Littleton Street in Silver Spring - is within Pepco's service area, according to the utility's online maps. Police and Wilkins's neighbors confirmed that they lost power during the Jan. 26 storm and that it wasn't back on at the time of the Silver Spring burglary.
"Very cold, very dark, very depressing," said James Lenahan, who lives on the block.
By Friday, as anyone who has suffered through power outages with dead cellphones and other devices can attest, Wilkins must have been frustrated.
About 3 p.m., police say, he went through the rear window of a home near Bel Pre and Layhill roads. The son of the homeowner walked in and heard noise upstairs, according to police records.
In the master bedroom, he saw the window open and the screen on the ground, according to police accounts. The man went downstairs "and saw a male with a red stocking cap run past the kitchen window towards a neighbor's house," according to an arrest affidavit signed by Montgomery Detective Cory Brodzinski.
The resident chased him, following him by sight and then by footprints in the snow, but couldn't catch him, police said. Back inside the house, the son found a Cricket Sanyo cellphone plugged into the wall, according to arrest records. He called police.
Police searched through the phone and called a number. The person who answered identified herself as Wilkins's girlfriend. The ruse worked, and detectives learned where Wilkins lived, according to arrest records.
By Friday night, officers were banging on his door.
Lenahan had just returned from dinner with his wife and son at a T.G.I. Friday's and happily saw the lights come on about 6:30 p.m After hearing noises, Lenahan went outside and saw that police had converged on Wilkins's house.
"We saw them bringing him out in handcuffs," said Lenahan, a salesman at a heating and air-conditioning business.
Lenahan said he was able to keep his own cellphone juiced with a car charger. He laughed when told what the suspect had allegedly left behind. "If in fact he is guilty of these burglaries, he had it coming," Lenahan said.
No family or friends of Wilkins's could be found Wednesday. Online court records did not indicate whether he had a lawyer.
Detectives were able to link Wilkins to 10 break-ins based on witness accounts, jewelry found at his home and tread marks left by his boots, according to arrest records.
In one burglary, in Olney, Wilkins is accused of taking 30 pieces of jewelry valued at $26,695, $3,000 worth of U.S. Savings bonds and $2,986 in cash.
None of it could buy him power in the storm.
Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.