Fairfax County police said yesterday that alleged master thief and accused murderer Bernard C. Welch could be implicated in more than 160 Washington-area burglaries committed within the last six months as a result of positive identifications of valuables confiscated from his home.
As of 6 p.m. yesterday, more than 1,000 area burglary victims had filed through Fairfax police headquarters since Saturday morning, claiming more than half the estimated $4 million in allegedly stolen goods.
Police conducting the viewing, among them 37 officers representing the FBI and jurisdictions from as far away as Richmond, estimated that much of the remaining trove could be identified by this morning. More than 3,000 items were seized in a police search of Welch's Great Falls ranch house on Dec. 6.
Burglary victims gathered in droves yesterday morning in a repeat of Saturday's mass viewing. Police opened the doors at 10 a.m., two hours ahead of schedule, after a line began to form at 9 o'clock.
Unlike Saturday's confusion, when hundreds of anxious victims waited hours in the cold, yesterday's showing was calm and well-ordered. Dozens of victims stood, sat and squatted in hallways exchanging personal tales of burglary woe, while hundreds of others were issued tickets to return later in the afternoon.
So far, approximately 40 percent of the victims who have viewed the goods -- most of whom were accompanied by one or more family members -- have identified something as theirs, police said. Surprisingly few items have been claim by more than one household, according to authorities.
Some goods may be returned to their owners within a few weeks. It could be months, however, before other victims receive their belongings because details of the identifications are being given to police representing several Washington-area jurisdictions.
Along with area prosecutors, they will decide which burglary cases to prosecute and which items will be held as evidence, Fairfax police spokesman Warren Carmichael said.
Unprecedented in Northern Virginia, the event has drawn a cross-section of surburbanites as well as residents of the District of Columbia. Young couples, affluent professionals, retirees and the elderly all waited patiently for their chance to make a claim yesterday.
Among them was one Montgomery County couple who already had identified several pieces of jewelry on Saturday. They returned to Fairfax police headquarters yesterday because the woman had seen a fur coat resembling hers, but had not discovered one missing until she returned home Saturday night and checked her closet.
As the line moved slowly forward (about 26 victims were escorted by police through the basement identification rooms each hour), the woman stood near in tears. Bitterly, she told how the man who burglarized their house -- whom she believes was Welch -- was spotted by her daughter from a neighbor's window just moments after the couple left to shop for Christmas at Montgomery Mall two weeks ago.
"She saw him come out of the bushes just after we left and knock on the front door. Then he ran around the house," the woman said. "She called the 911 number. If only the police had come quicker, they might have caught him before he ever had a chance to kill" Dr. Michael Halberstam, the cardiologist Welch allegedly shot to death the night he was captured.
Montgomery County police arrived about 15 minutes later, she said. By that time the burglar had jimmied the back door, ransacked much of the house and left with several pieces of jewelry and gold watches.
"We thought, maybe it's him. But police said no, it couldn't be. They discouraged us. If we had gone with what they said, we never would have come here. But I had a feeling. . . "