Just past midnight on a cold Easter night in April, five men entered the loading dock area leading to the exclusive Neiman-Marcus store in Northwest Washington, expecting to come away with the best the Dallas-based store had to offer in furs and other finery.
But after spending about 15 minutes trying to chip through the cinder block walls, the men stepped into the arms of a waiting police surveillance crew, and "60 Minutes," the CBS television show famed for its on-the-spot footage of confrontational scenes.
"You should have seen the look on those guys' faces when we all came charging out of the room with the cameras running," said Craig Chucker, the director of security for Neiman-Marcus, who hid along with four police officers and the three-member camera crew behind a door in the loading dock area for more than five hours on April 7. "The cameras really threw them off. They didn't know what was going on."
The case has raised a few eyebrows in the U.S. attorney's office in the District where some have called the presence of the "60 Minutes" camera crew "preposterous" and has led to questions about using a shopping mall security guard to help set up the burglary. The security guard agreed to help in the break-in after police told him to go along with requests for aid from one of the suspects.
Four men pleaded guilty Monday to second-degree burglary in the case; a fifth had pleaded guilty to similar charges about two weeks earlier.
"It didn't surprise us that '60 Minutes' knew about it before we did," said one prosecutor. "But it was preposterous."
A producer for "60 Minutes" had been following the police department's elite Repeat Offender Project for a few days when he heard about the planned stakeout of the Neiman-Marcus store in the Mazza Gallerie at 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW. The producer, who was working on a story about the unit, asked if he and his crew could go along.
"A lot of us fought it when we found out they were going to be there," said Sgt. James Pawlik, the first man to burst into the loading dock area and announce the arrest. "I thought, 'What if I shoot someone on tape and maybe the camera angle will look like I'm wrong.' But the unit chief believes we have nothing to hide and if we do a good job it's on film, and if we do a bad job, 'well, don't do a bad job.' "
Edward Spurlock, head of the three-year-old unit, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
"To be honest with you, I never thought it would happen," said TV producer Paul Fine yesterday, who along with the two other TV crew members wore bulletproof vests during the stakeout. "At one point when we were running through a dark mall and heard the alarms going off and cops were running out with silhouettes of guns, I thought, 'Hey, we're in the middle of this . . . . What are we doing here?' "
The stakeout began about 7 p.m. with coffee at the Pleasant Peasant, a restaurant in the Mazza Gallerie, through which the police and camera crew planned to enter the loading dock area. The police assumed the restaurant would be deserted on Easter night.
"The place, of course, was packed," said Pawlik, "and as we were walking into the restaurant, I noticed that the barrel of the shotgun that one of the detectives was carrying was sticking out from under his raincoat. I kept looking at the family across from us looking at us."
Four of the police officers and Chucker and the three television cameramen then waited for more than five hours in a small storage area from which the loading dock could be seen through a fist-sized hole 10 feet above the ground. Other police officers were in the store, as well as stationed at the WMAL building across Wisconsin Avenue NW.
Finally, at about 12:30 a.m., the officers heard the men arrive. Two of the burglars quickly went upstairs and began trying to hack through a wall but returned about 15 minutes later, according to court documents.
At this point, Pawlik said, the security guard who had let the men in and who was wearing a hidden microphone became nervous, approached the hiding officers and began singing softly, "Come and get them."
The officers, Chucker and the TV crew then sprang from the storage area with cameras rolling.
U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova yesterday called the Repeat Offender Project work "terrific" and praised prosecutor Drew McKay. He said that questions about using a civilian to facilitate a crime where the person could be in danger did not apply here. The security guard, who had notified authorities after he was approached by one of the suspects to aid in the break-in, is considered an officer of the law in the District while working.