On this cloudy January night, for the first time in his career, Superthief was relying on others. He waited, a thin, solitary, six-foot figure cloaked in the short black cape that was as uniquely and mythically his as Superman's red or Batman's blue trademark were theirs.
What bothered him most was being on the outside, away from the action. He was so used to total control: working solo on the planning, the entry, the theft itself and the escape.
And so he was uncharacteristically edgy this night. He paced along the red clay tennis court behind the opulent Coral Ridge home of Keith Wold, MD.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom, he could see the movement of shadows and hear his three accomplices at work. They had handcuffed the ophthalmologist, and at gunpoint ordered him to sit in a chair as they threw $1 million in jewels and cash into a pillowcase.
Superthief reached into a zippered canvas pouch strapped around his waist for a Milky Way, one of the standard items he carried in his emergency kit, along with a small flashlight, a set of maps, a compass, a first-aid kit, and a change of white clothing. As he dropped the candy bar wrapper onto the manicured lawn and lifted his pantyhose mask to take a bite, one of the two Motorola HT220 police scanners on his waist belt sounded a warning: Signal 21 at 2798 Northeast 37th Drive, police code for a burglary in progress at the Wold residence. The call had been triggered electronically by a silent alarm, wired to the doctor's bedroom safe.
His tension melted in the humid night: Now he again was in control. No jolt of surprise registered on his angular, sun-browned face -- simultaneously streetwise and childlike. No sense of panic dilated his deep-set blue eyes. His meticulous planning made him ever ready for these contingencies.
He keyed the other Motorola radio on his belt, and in calm, soft-spoken New England cadences transmitted a warning to the three men inside. He was so relaxed now that he didn't bother to lower his mask immediately, giving the thugs a quick glimpse at the face of this man they knew only as Jack.
Within seconds the four were running across the Robert Trent Jones golf course that abuts the Wold residence, racing toward two getaway cars.
"You got the money?" Superthief asked one of the thugs.
"You got the jewels?"
"You got the radio?"
"No, I thought he had the radio."
"Jezuzzz, you idiot," Superthief moaned, his prior anxiety now justified. "I told you we're as good as caught if you left that behind."
He knew from the chatter on his scanner that the police were already approaching the Wold residence.
So the four men separated, abandoning their own flaw on the elegant dining room table: a Pace FM 152 VHF walkie-talkie.
John Arthur MacLean had never called himself Superthief.
That was an appelation others in his trade had used to define this legend they knew so little about. He worked alone, they said, carried no weapons, stole solely from the rich, never harmed the houses he robbed -- not so much as a door jamb or a flowerbed -- and always reset burglar alarms.
"I would never want some punk to be able to walk into a house I had just hit and make a mess of the place," he says.
Police claim that 33-year-old Superthief was responsible for 2,000 brilliantly executed burglaries up and down the East Coast that they say grossed $133 million in jewels and cash over a six-year period. "The most successful burglar in history," says Detective Arthur McLellan of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's robbery division.
While Superthief accepts neither the police estimate of his take nor the magnitude of his exploits, he admits that he pulled hundreds of jobs and figures he netted about $50,000 a week from his work. He says he's not really sure when he started his criminal career.
Although his exact take may never be known, he did spend plenty. He owned a Hughes 300C helicopter equipped with pontoons, a Lake seaplane, a Cessna 172 modified to carry a trail bike, a $40,000 Scarab high-speed boat and several fast cars and motorcycles.
Police say he has an IQ of 167. He certainly has the skills of an electronics wizard, the wit of an outlaw Woody Allen and an encyclopedic knowledge of burglar alarms, which he constantly updated. After being foiled several times by Rollins alarm systems, he tore one out of a house and dragged it home to master its workings.
Superthief's most legendary characteristic was his ability to use the hardware, the dialogue, and the procedures of law enforcement to outsleuth the police. He had the same equipment, but better maintained; the same skills, but more finely honed; the same mentality, but shifted from a defensive to an offensive position.
And so it was that he could fly in his helicopter and use police lingo and police radios to access the federal stolen goods computer network. He would wait until a month or two after a job to check on whether particular items had been reported stolen. If they had not been, he could keep or sell them; if they had been, he would swing out over the ocean and deep six the potential evidence.
He studied the police with a school-boy fascination, the way they might dream of studying criminals. At times this entailed photographing police activities, simply to discover the mistakes they made. On another occasion he staked out a stakeout, conversing with the cops as if he were part of the pack. On one evening when he was not busy working, he says, he followed an FBI agent into a Burger King. The agent himself was following a suspect, and when their eyes locked, Superthief said to the agent: "Nice night for a stakeout . . . I mean a steak dinner out."
If he consistently displayed a sharp sense of wit, it was partly because he perceived the roles of cop and criminal to incorporate much of the art of a professional actor.
After he once penetrated a home with an open-line telephone alarm (which requires the user to call in after returning home), the alarm company routinely called house, thinking that the subscribers themselves had forgotten to report in.
Superthief knew he would have to produce a code number, so he says he instead answered the phone in a baby's voice: "Hello, is this Daddy? Do you want Mummy? Mummy's on the potty." He set the phone down, continued burglarizing the house, and finally came back to say, "Mummy still can't come to the phone but she says to tell you this house has just been burglarized."
Such was his sense of humor. He would glue old sets of dentures to doorknobs, short sheet beds, empty bullets from self-defense weapons found in drawers and leave them -- chambers open -- arranged in symmetrical rows in conspicuous places. If he considered the amount of jewelry he found too insignificant or insulting to take, he would set the gems on the kitchen table and steal the control panel of the victim's burglar alarm instead. He says he often left telephone books open to the appropriate page, the police department listing circled with the notation, "Call this number."
"I didn't want people to take this too seriously," he says. "I wanted them to be able to laugh in the midst of their misfortune."
The same playful sense was also manifest by day in the working-class neighborhood where he lived with his girlfriend, down the street from a policeman's house. He was a Pied Piper to the children on the block. They spent hours playing in his pool or with his four poodles, or watching him work on his motorcycle. He would give them presents, and toss frisbees around his yard with them.
What they liked best was when Jack, as they called him, would fly his helicopter over the neighborhood and wave to them while hovering above their homes. They laughed and clapped when he turned on the police siren that he had placed on the aircraft, along with two $150 gold leaf sheriff's stars. The Loss of Control
Moments after his retreat from the Wold residence, even as his girlfriend, Ruth, was driving him back to their house, Superthief understood completely why he had avoided accomplices all along: control, control, control.The word flashed through his synapses as automatically as the six frequencies of the Fort Lauderdale police department cycled through his scanner.
In the 20-minute drive, Superthief must have reconstructed the caper a hundred times, coming up with only one conclusion: He never should have gone."I never should have let the control out of my hands," he thought to himself. "I never should have trusted men who carry guns. The energy you expend thinking about the possibility of pulling a trigger is energy you're taking away from doing things smoothly."
He always had loved sitting alone in the office in his home, acting like a millionaire, thinking about the money in the heavy safe behind his right shoulder as he listened to his police radios. He loved looking at the photographs of his planes and helicopter hanging on his walls, the shots of him hang-gliding in New England, almost as much as he enjoyed studying the three $110 county wall maps that he used to plan burglaries.
It was his empire, this house and the burglaries alike, a methodical life that he shared only with Ruth and their poodles, all of it so meticulous: studying the wall maps, the aerial reconnaissance, the pocket maps he'd prepare for each job, the predetermined sequence of escape contingencies, which even allowed Ruth to decoy the police away from Superthief by calling headquarters from a phone booth and claiming to be a distressed baby sitter.
His planning had been almost as meticulous for the Wold job. A year earlier he had broken into the house, only to discover a safe he couldn't crack. At the urging of his fence, he agreed to work with three accomplices who could. They went though two dry runs. He lectured them, he says, "with overkill."
"I went over and over it with them: Stick the radio in your pants hard, so hard that it hurts. Make sure that it hurts, because then you'll be sure you have it."
Later that night, sitting in his home, it was painfully clear that they didn't have it. And one of his associates muttered:
"Now we'll have to blow up Savoy Electronics so the police can't trace the crystals in the radio back to us." The Cape and the Caper
When neighbors asked veiled questions about his wealth, Jack told them that he had come into a large inheritance from a wealthy uncle. They rarely saw his girlfriend. Ruth Fischer, except when the two spent hours together in the Florida sun caring for the hundreds of plants and trees they had hauled in to landscape their house. The neighbors considered them an odd couple.
Indeed they were -- more than the neighbors suspected. For by night they became a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. They stole together, she driving the car, he carrying his special set of tools -- channel locks, vice grips, corbin pliers -- wearing the black cape she had sewn to conceal his police radios. The exploits steadfastly increased in sophistication: Their first job was done with her old '70 Chevy Malibu, the two of them keeping in touch with a pair of CB radios. Ruth's car battery went dead. She had to call a service station for a jump, and was half an hour late picking up Jack.
Later in their career together, their jobs seemed as commonplace as a Friday or Saturday night date.
"Pepper," as Jack calls Ruth after the Angie Dickinson character on the TV show "Police Woman," once dropped him off at a townhouse, where he disconnected an alarm and opened a sliding glass door into the master bedroom. He immediately found, as he recalls, "gobs of money and gobs of jewelry -- it was like Christimas."
Thirsty now, he walked confidently into the kitchen to search for his favorite beverage, ginger ale, but was forced to settle for his second favorite, Seven-Up. He froze as he sensed another presence, and looked down to discover a tiny puppy playfully nipping at his heel. He carried the dog into the living room, where he cavorted with it for about 20 minutes and discovered that both he and the dog were hungry.
He slipped outside and noticed that a neighbor was grilling seven steaks on a backyard barbecue, so he returned to the house for a plate and fork. He says it took 10 minutes and two attempts to purloin one of the steaks, and he lingered to savor the moment when the man discovered that one of his steaks was missing. He was looking under the grill and under a bush, scratching his head.
Superthief returned to the house and cut part of the steak into tiny pieces, which he fed to the puppy. He drank a glass of milk, played with the dog for 10 minutes more, rinsed off the dishes and placed them in the dishwasher. He ate a banana and carefully placed the peel into the disposal unit, with part of the skin extending up into the sink -- "so they knew that I was neat," he says. He then summoned Pepper on one of their special frequencies, and the two drove off casually into the darkness.
This was a real and typical evening's scenario. On jobs where Superthief was unable to find adequate refreshment in the house, he would dispatch Pepper to a nearby 7-Eleven for a Seven-Up. He once helped himself to three slices of a chocolate cake and left a 35-cent tip under his dirty plate. In the course of his work, he says, he encountered pet monkeys, armadillos, a bobcat in a cage, skunks, owls and even another burglar, about to break a window and set off an alarm. "Stop thief," he yelled, and the man ran away. Midnight Summons
At midnight, Detective Arthur McLellan of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department robbery division was awakened at home and summoned to the Wold residence.
McLellan is a big, tough cop. Sixteen years ago he joined the police force, first as a one-day-a-week volunteer with powers of arrest and then as a full-time member of the vice and narcotics squad in 1974, he began investigating robberies.
McLellan's crew was unable to lift any usable fingerprints. All they could find were a few Milky Way candy wrappers and a walkie-talkie that didn't seem to work.
Hardly much evidence McLellan thought. So the 37-year-old detective returned home to his sleeping wife and called it a night. On the Carnival Road
When he was 8 years old in his hometown of Reading, Mass., John Arthur MacLean was known as Smilin' Jack, a good, Episcopalian lad and blithe spirit, inseparable from his family poodle and always ready to help someone out.
Young Jack used to share a bedroom with his grandfather, and early on he developed a passion for practical jokes. He used to shortsheet the 60-year-old man's bed, rig a window shade to flap wildly around his pillow and set an alarm clock, buried deep in his sock drawer, to go off at three in the morning.
As a child, his parents recall, he was fascinated by electronic toy sets, constantly drawing diagrams and constructing items like walkie-talkies; and he was unusally fanatic about tidiness.
By the time he had entered high school, Jack had developed another indelible trait: He was a natural ladies' man. His mother recalls his soft blond hair being "as golden as the wheat blowing in a field." He had, after all, appeared as an infant in Mullins' Baby Food ads, and now Mrs. MacLean found it difficult to explain to their other child, a high-school-age daughter, why it wasn't all right for her to phone boys and invite them on dates the way girls in his class called Jack.
While he was in high school, Jack had amused himself by building a rope ladder out of half-inch hemp and wooden dowels. He strung the ladder on swivel joints at a 45-degree angle between the ground and the roof of a shed behind the family's house, so it spun around like a top. It took him months to learn to climb it without falling to the ground, were a well-worn ditch bore witness to his failed attempts.
Shortly after he graduated from high school, Degler's Midway Carnival happened to roll into the Topsfield Fair Grounds, near Reading. Jack came bounding home to his dad with a business proposition. The manager of the carnival would allow him to set his ladder up in the fair for a mere $250 a month, and if Dad would just put up the first month's rent, the money would come rolling in.
Mr. MacLean was not exactly a wealthy man and told his son that he just didn't have $250 to spare.
So Jack badgered the fair manager, bargained him down to $150, cajoled the money out of his father, set up his ladder at the fair and, after his first night on the job, woke up his father at 2 in the morning.
"He reached into his pocket," Mr. MacLean recalls, "and pulled out a big wad of bills and I knew from that night on that Jack was going to do all right for himself financially in this world. The boy had a way with making money."
In 1969, Degler's Midway Carnival pulled into Palatka, Fla., for the annual Putnam County Fair.
Linda Ives, 17 and cute as a button with red hair and freckles, had taken the afternoon off from high school. She wandered around the carnival, but kept coming back to the tall, smiling, 23-year-old barker who dared people to climb his swiveling ladder. She like his outgoing manner, his flashy sense of showmanship and the twinkle in his blue eyes, which constantly drifted back to her. She came back the next day, and the next. And when the fair pulled its stakes, Linda Ives forgot about high school and old friends and family and became a carnival gypsy with Jack MacLean.
They never married, but lived together for seven years as common-law man and wife. His parents loved Linda; hers loved Jack.
Linda adored Jack's impetuous behavior. On a whim, he learned to fly small planes and later took up hang gliding. Simultaneously, he became addicted to motorcycles. When they went to a drive-in to see the film "Earthquake," Linda recalls, he nearly cried at the sight of a little white poodle almost gobbled by a fissure. The next day Jack went out and bought a white poodle, which he named Muffin, even though they already had one called Pokey, coincidentally Jack's nickname for Linda.
What got to Linda was that they had no quiet time together. Jack had become addicted to radios. If he was home, his police scanners and CBs were going. If they went to a drive-in, the radios went along. Even when he played his favorite records by Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand or the Bee Gees, the music's quiet passages were overwhelmed by radio chatter.
After three years on the road with the carnival, Jack and Linda moved to the White Mountains of New Hampshire along with their scanners and CBs and dogs. Linda opened a candystore and sold Mrs. Nelson's Famous White Mountain Fudge (using a recipe from Jack's mother); Jack sold radios through his C&P Electronics, named after their CB handles: Chuckwagon for Jack, Paddywagon for Linda (their dog Muffin was called Tailwagon). Jack's old roommate -- his grandfather -- also bankrolled him through a correspondence course in locksmithing which he'd come across in a Popular Mechanics ad.
The following spring, Jack and Linda paid a visit to Florida. During the trip they attended a CB rally -- a gathering of CB addicts -- where they met Ruth and Tony Fischer. The two couples became friendly, Tony and Linda sharing an interest in photography; Jack and Ruth equally obsessed with radios.
Ruth was a local girl, much closer to Jack's age than Linda was. She graduated from Nova High School in 1966, one year after Jack had gotten out of Reading Memorial.
Jack sensed something in Ruth that he didn't find in Linda. Certainly, she symbolized sensuality in her spike shoes and tight blouses -- the sort of clothes that would have looked almost comical coupled with Linda's milk-fed countenance and slender frame.
There was a sense of adventure about Ruth, a sense of the forbidden. She was, after all, a married woman -- a married woman with a child, no less. And she liked the good life.
"She always wanted a 450 SL Mercedes," Jack says. "That was her idea of heaven."
It was a story as old as Adam and Eve and the neighbor's wife. Somehow in Ruth, Jack was able to abandon his childhood innocence. Just being with her proved his manhood more than anything else.
"We were never bored together," says Ruth. "We excited each other."
A few months after the CB rally, Jack bought what Linda calls "his Chevvy whorehouse van: two-tone brown with mirrors on the ceiling and shag carpeting. "It's not as if Ruth was the first other woman in Jack's life, but the next thing I knew he had bought a house and was living with her and all of a sudden he went from a moderate lifestyle to an extravagant one." The Telltale Crystals
Two weeks after the robbery, almost on a whim, Detective Arthur McLellan decided to focus on the abandoned walkie-talkie.
The back plate of the radio had been changed, eliminating a serial number that might have been used to trace it. Inside there were four crystals, each stamped 803 -- the code number for Ft. Lauderdale's Savoy Electronics, which had manufactured them.
Twenty-six days after the Wold robbery, McLellan got his big break. A technician placed the crystals on a bench test until that calibrated their frequencies: 151.633, 151.647, 151.682, 151.723 -- bastard frequencies, special-ordered by some customer who wanted a secure, impenetrable band width. It was a simple matter of sifting through invoices to come up with the customer's name: Bob Frost.
Fortunately for McLellan, Frost had other crystals on order at Savoy. The detective asked the store manager to call him when Frost showed up again. tTen days later, when "Bob Frost" strolled into Savoy Electronics, McLellan followed him to another electronics shop and then to his home at 661 Arizona Ave. The house was deeded to John Arthur MacLean. Reflections in the Dark
On the evening of March 15, 1979 -- 47 days after the Wold job -- Jack MacLean and Ruth Fischer had an argument, a protracted quarrel that ended when she ran out of their home and drove off in the Corvette he had bought her.
He sat alone and tried to analyze what had gone wrong, thinking about all the times he had read Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking." He knew that Ruth was upset because he had been dating another woman. He thought about his relationship with Linda, how he had left her for Ruth, and how the pattern was re-emerging.He thought about the issue of control: controlling his own life; controlling hers; his loss of control at the Wold job. He had been afraid to work ever since that awful night.
What he realized above all was that he loved Ruth. He was worried about her. Where had she gone? Where would she sleep? At 12:30 he got into bed with his four dogs, and slept fitfully until 7:27 the following morning.
He remembers glancing at a clock as he heard a car pull into his driveway at high speed. Maybe it was Ruth. But then he heard the door slam shut before the wheels had stopped.
Strange, he thought. And somehow eerie, coming on the heels of Ruth's departure. He wanted her back. He wanted to be somewhere else with her -- perhaps in Maine, where they had a vacation home.
Now two men were prying on his back door. Almost simultaneously, his police scanners were filled with conversation on the TAC channel used by detectives. For one brief moment he thought, "Oh no, Ruth has flipped out and spilled the beans."
But there was little time for reflection. He opened the back door and encountered Detective Arthur McLellan.
"We have a warrant here to search your house," said McLellan, who had convinced a judge that he had probable cause that MacLean was involved in the Wold job because of the traced crystals.
Within minutes, 15 squad cars were on the street in front of the house.
And John Arthur MacLean, who had always wanted to be a cop, found himself strangely comfortable in the midst of this Armageddon.
He knew these voices. He had listened to them for endless hours on his radios. He greeted them in their code names: "Hello, Kilo 60, hello Kilo 29. You must be Kilo 31."
The FBI units were similarly confounded, particularly when they found tapes of recorded communications from some of their most sensitive stakeouts.
The cops moved through MacLean's home. As they were about to walk into his bedroom, he yelled, "Hold it! There are dogs in there." The cops froze in their tracks, reaching for their guns. MacLean opened the door, and four tiny poodles marched out.
Ultimately, police claim, they recovered about $1 million in cash and jewelry from his home. If he did gross $133 million, if he did net the normal 10 percent from his fence, several million dollars is unaccounted for. He says the money never existed; police suggest that he has it stashed away.
It took the state of Florida six days in court to convict John Arthur MacLean of grand theft at the Wold residence. The state granted his associates immunity from prosecution. They all testified against him, including Ruth Fischer, who in court was dubbed "the black widow spider" by MacLean's attorney:
"After mating, she turns on her lover and devours him."
The thugs who had worked with MacLean on the Wold job had known him only as Jack. But they testified that they could identify him because they had seen his face when he lifted his pantyhose mask to eat a Milky Way.
John Arthur MacLean was sentenced to 15 years in state prison by Judge Leroy H. Moe for the Wold burglary and 16 lesser counts, which included a number of other burglaries. Sitting in court at the sentencing were about 25 schoolchildren, some of them MacLean's old neighbors. They seemed shocked as the bailiff slipped a set of handcuffs over the well-dressed defendant's wrists, even more so when he turned to them and said:
"I want you kids to see that this is proof: Crime doesn't pay." Dreams of Flight
What Superthief dreams about now is parole or an appeal bond, getting out of Dade Correctional Institution, where his heart sighs a bit everytime an F-4 screams overhead from nearby Homestead Air Force Base: the freedom of flight, frustrating to any pilot on the ground, is particularly annoying in the slammer. The howl of the jet mixes with a portable radio playing on the prison compound, broadcasting Billy Joel's "You May Be Right": I was only having fun Wasn't hurting anyone And we all enjoyed the weekend for a change.
He looks out of place in that drab blue prison uniform, this dapper, clever man who stole puppies and diamonds and the hearts of women with equal ease.
"I'll be okay," he says. "I'm going to write book and a movie. The movie has a happy ending . . ."
FLASH FORWARD. A hughes 500 helicopter kicks up dust as it settles in front of the gates of Dade Correctional Institution.
CUT TO the gate opening. CAMERA PULLS BACK as Superthief struts out in a pure white linen suit, a pink carnation in lapel. He climbs into the bubble of the chopper, smiles and lifts off, slowly disappearing into a sumptuous southern Florida sunset.