The woman pulled into her darkened driveway of her McLean home and immediately sensed that something was wrong.
"The house just looked funny," she recalled, "and then I opened the door and walked inside." She found drawers rifled, their contents scattered about the floor. A sterling silver tea service that had been a wedding gift was gone, along with all the silverware and jewelry -- a total of more than $5,000 in loses that had not been recovered.
Burglars even had smashed a 20-gallon aquarium tank, flooding the living room with water and fish, now dead. It was more than the woman, employed as a court stenographer, could deal with: "I ran out of the house furious and scared to think that someone like I see in courtrooms had been in our home."
She is not alone. Every 12 1/2 minutes a burglary is committed in the Washington area, a rate that makes it one of the region's most serious and, police say, fastest-growing crimes.
"There's no question," says Lt. Robert Minnick of the Arlington Police Department. "Burglary is a major problem in every jurisdiction."
In the District, where serious crimes have jumped by one-third in the latest comparison with 1979 figures, burglaries are reported rising even faster, climbing 53 percent during the summer, according to police figures.
In Montgomery County, vastly higher prices for precious metals have had a dramatic effect, boosting the dollar value of goods stolen to $6.5 million in the first five months of the year, compared with $1.9 million in the same period of 1979, an increase of more than 300 percent.
A Rockville attorney and his wife on vacation in Florida recently got a telephone call from relatives telling them their homes had been ransacked and an irreplaceable $1,000 coin collection stolen.
"There was shock and disbelief," says the woman. "They had gone through our bedroom and our children's bedroom. It was a total invasion of privacy."
Floodlights now illuminate the grounds, new locks have been installed, and a neighbor visits the house periodically when the couple is away for even a few days.
"Neighbors said that they had seen a man with a painter's cap and clipboard at our home two days before the burglary, but they thought it was normal. We weren't having any work done on the house," the woman says.
Police in Northern Virginia call burglaries the single most prevalent and troublesome major crime problem. They account for nearly $22 million in stolen property since 1978 -- goods that are often difficult, if not impossible, to recover.
"It's a real headache," says one Alexandria detective. People give us descriptions like 'It was a 19-inch Sony with a gorgeous picture' and that's all they say -- not one serial number, not one mark of indentification.
"Too many people can describe a toaster perfectly, but not a silver set."
Fairfax County police report that $300,000 in jewelry and precious metals are stolen in a typical month, but an average of only $20,000 worth is ever recovered.
Behind the steep rise in the latest figures, say authorities, are several factors, including:
Drug addicts areawide who must steal to support habits that may run into hundreds of dollars a day;
The high price fetched by gold, silver and other precious metals, which has multiplied the value of heirlooms and valuables;
The increased professionalism of burglary rings, some of which use police scanners and CB radio to orchestrate their operations and even fill orders taken in advance, and
Inflation, which has swollen dollar figures for stolen items.
Coinciding with the boom in thefts, some new techniques have cropped up among both burglars and their victims, say area law enforcement officials.
In Arlington County and Alexandria, juveniles and and young adults, with a loose confederation of contacts, prey on homes within blocks of their neighborhoods, frequently fencing (selling) stolen goods withing hours of the thefts, according to Arlington's Minnick.
On the isolated estates of Middlesburg and Upperville in Loudoun County, gypsies and illegal aliens from as far away as Mexico and Romania conspire with professional networks of East Coast buyers of stolen goods, according to Loudoun investigator Bill Harris. Posing as roofers, gardeners and lawn furniture salesmen, they are actually casing homes for future burglaries that can amount to more than $100,000 in stolen merchandise, Harris said.
One such network, according to Harris, starts in the fall and methodically works its way down the East Coast from Maryland and Virginia to Florida.
In Fairfax County, where nearly five of six of the 613 burglaries reported in August occurred at private residences in broad daylight, there is little doubt that more professional groups of thieves are monitoring police calls with radio scanners to avoid frequently patrolled areas, says police official Warren Carmichael.
In retaliation, many victims belatedly install expensive alarm systems or buy guns for protection, say investigators. "To most victims, burglary is a rape. Some stranger has been in your home, going through your things," says Capt. Andre Salvas of the Alexandria police. "It's easy to overreact."
In suburban Woodbridge, frustrated homeowners, hit by a series of break-ins, formed a vigilante group to patrol residential streets. Now, under a neighborhood watch program organized by county police, pairs of residents patrol their own neighborhood from 8 p.m. to midnight.
Still, police say, burglary persists in a definable pattern.
In Prince William County, where burglaries are "clearly the number one problem in dollar value," Sgt. Charlie Deane recalled the case of two 16-year-old youths who burglarized a home for $2,500 in gold and jewels. They apparently fenced the items to a local gold buyer less than 12 hours later. The youths were arrested after a second burglary, but allegedly committed a third while awaiting trial for the first two offenses.
That example highlights four problems, according to police:
Most thieves commit a number of burglaries before they are caught;
Burglary has one of the highest repeat-offense rates of all major crimes;
Juveniles are sometimes used by professionals to commit crimes since punishment for nonadults is often no more severe than probation, and
Most local or transient precious metal and jewelry buyers ask their customers few if any questions about where the merchandise came from.
"In the case of the two 16-year-olds, that gold buyer didn't ask them one question about where they got the stuff," Deane said.
Recently passed legislation in Alexandria and Prince William County requires all temporary buyers to keep a daily record of transactions, physical decriptions of the merchandise and the seller, even a listing of the seller's license plates, in an effort to make buyers more leery of potential thieves.
In most jurisdictions, however, younger burglars unload stolen goods unsuspecting, and otherwise reputable, citizens. Said Cpl. Robert Clouser of the Vienna Town Police, "You get very few professional jobs here. We'd be in trouble if we did."