The line curled through the hallways of Fairfax County police headquarters and stretched halfway around the building's exterior. Nearly a thousand burglary victims had come, hoping to identify valuables confiscated from Bernard Charles Welch, alleged Washington area superthief.
Some excitedly had glimpsed their goods in Friday news pictures. Others gathered bits and pieces of broken collections and objects, hoping to match them with the estimated $4 million of reportedly stolen items. And some had been burglarized years ago, but were still clinging to a vain hope of recovering the memories of weddings and gifts from cherished friends.
What they confronted was a line that moved at an exasperatingly slow pace, culminating in a wait of several hours that was compounded when police resorted to handing out tickets that told the victims to come back at later hours of the day. Many just shrugged in the cold air and waited, filling up on coffee and snacks from enterprising vendors.
"Well, we've spent enough time looking through pawn shops, at the suggestion of Montgomery County police," said burglary victim Eugene Korn. "We may as well waste a few more hours here."
Yesterday morning at 9, Fairfax County police opened their doors to the public for the first of three scheduled displays of a cornucopia of goods taken from the Great Falls home of Welch, the man that has been called a one man crime wave and the accused slayer of Washington cardiologist, Dr. Michael Halberstam.
By 3:15 in the afternoon, about half of the valuables that filled two large rooms and a corridor had been identified, said police spokesman Warren Carmichael. He added that the vast majority of the identified items were stolen within the past six months.
"We are very gratified that it does appear to be working. We regret the inconvenience to citizens who had to wait a long time, but there was an overwhelming initial rush of people," said Carmichael, who noted that the people thee were not fighting over the rightful ownership of the thousands of items on the tables.
Of those who were fortunate enough to locate their valuables, none was more ecstatic than Rockville's Ann May. Her family had returned home from a restaurant dinner Nov. 16 and found their home ransacked. Theirs was one of five houses burglarized in the area that frightening day.
"I found our antique music box, a necklace, and a couple of silver pieces. I saw one of them on the news yesterday and was all jelly for awhile when I finally saw them," said May. "It's the end of it now. The guy has been caught and we'll get our goods back in a few weeks. But now our home is like a fortress with all the plexiglass and new locks."
A woman who shares the same babysitter with May and did not want to be identified found "90 percent of my jewelry . . . the costume stuff as well as the good. We were hit the same night that [May] was," she said. "It was very exciting to find them, but very upsetting, too. I keep thinking that [an alleged] murderer and rapist was in my home."
Norman R. Ashton's Bethesda neighborhood has been the target of several burglaries. He lost a collection of antique pipes and potter holders last September, but wasn't confident about finding his valuables. Said Ashton: "It's just a shot in the dark, but it's worth a try to look."
If victims found their goods, they were to provide a tag number to investigators from their police jurisdiction who were also on hand yesterday. Then the thefts would be verified using existing police reports. But the system broke down when a stunning number of people showed up at police headquarters as early as 7 a.m., forcing authorities to hand out the numbered tags, telling them to come back during specific half-hour periods during the afternoon and evening.
Lt. Col. Carroll D. Buracker, Fairfax County's deputy police chief, said that the public displays would continue at noon Sunday, but the procedure would continue for as long as it takes to give every person a chance to see the goods. "If it takes a week, then we'll do it for a week," Buracker said.
Alex Spanos and Mike Rokakis were fed up with the whole process, however.
Both had lost silver coin collections worth thousands of dollars. Said Spanos, "I've been here since 9 a.m. and have waited three hours. Now they give me a ticket and say come back at 3 p.m. It's not right to have the people stand here like this."
Michael L. Bare, president of the Lettuce Munch restaurant in Fairfax, saw the huge line from his home. Visions of dollar signs soon danced through his head.
"I came by and sort of chuckled at the line," said Bare, who drove up, sold snacks and gave away free coffee to the grateful crowd. "I thought I might as well take advantage of the situation."
Margaret Dickens of Arlington sat comfortably on a wall heater, certain that she would find here her missing valuables and not caring how long it took the line to move.
Another man whose friend found her antique clock and several valuable figurines, would not soon forget the man he credited with making the recovery of so many items possible.
"We owe it all to him, to Dr. Halberstam for running that guy over," said Ed Gatley of Falls Church. "This never would have happened if he hadn't done that."