I WAS BEGINNING to feel snakebit. First, someone apparently tried to steal my brand-new Jeep. I emerged from my apartment in Alexandria's West End one morning to find a vent window smashed and glass all over the inside of the car.
Nothing was stolen. I don't think they even opened the glove compartment, and I couldn't tell if the wiring or the ignition had been tampered with at all. Even weirder was that three people sat inside the car at one point; I know that is so because there were three sets of dirty footprints on the floor mats. The police found one fingerprint, but it wasn't much help.
(For those of you who love mysteries, keep the Jeep incident in mind. It will play a major role later, but probably not in any way you might imagine.)
The automobile incident was nothing compared to what happened a week later. It was a Saturday morning, and I had been away overnight, plenty of time for them to work. My first clue was that the door opened too easily; one of the two locks wasn't locked. Normally one of my first views just inside the door is the television set and the stereo; there was nothing but a void where they used to be.
Ignoring all the advice I should have remembered, I rushed inside without thinking that the burglars might still be there. Luckily, they weren't, and neither were a lot of other things: a camera, a CB radio, a couple of radio scanners. The bedroom was the worst. They had gone through everything, throwing anything they didn't want on the floor. A lot of personal things disappeared, including a watch I hated to lose. They took every key in the house, my checkbook and -- ominously -- they took my appointment book out of a suit hanging in the closet, leaving the suit behind.
The Alexandria police were professional and they were polite, but burglary is a common crime, mainly a crime of victims and statistics and insurance reimbursement. It's rare to catch the crooks; the cops have other fish to fry, such as murderers and rapists.
Within half an hour of my calling to report the crime, a policeman was at my door, a nice fellow who took a rather complete list of what I knew to be missing. He left me his card, with a notation, "Case will be suspended if no prints are found, due to no suspects." I began to feel more and more like a statistic.
There was a moment of hope when the crime investigation unit arrived to dust for prints. "We're going to have some fun here," he said. At one point, he mused, "I couldn't have done better if I had inked these myself."
Good, I thought. Progress.
Wrong. They're probably juveniles, he said. There's probably no prints on file. The best I can hope for, possibly, is that some day they will be caught and then I will know who they are. It was unspoken, but almost no one left any hope that I'd ever see any of my possessions.
I had to leave town for a few days, so I called from a phone booth in a small town in New Mexico to determine whether the prints turned up anything. The detective assigned to me was understanding, but it was obvious that he hadn't even looked at my case. I told him about the prints, and promised I would call again when I reurned. He said fine.
At that point, I came to a conclusion: any progress on my case would be up to me. I asked myself, what do I know?
Well, first, I know they're probably still in the area. The detective told me there had been 20 to 30 burglaries in my area in the last year, probably by the same people.
Second, since they were likely locals continuing to work the local area, I knew I would see them again -- on the street, in a car, wherever. The question was, how would I recognize them? Well, they stole several sweaters and distinctive T-shirts. Would they be stupid enough to wear them?
Third, I knew they were stupid, or at least careless, probably both. No one leaves such beautiful fingerprints, even if they have never been printed before.
Fourth, I knew there were at least two of them. One of them was neat; he carefully removed items from the top of the items he planned to steal. The second one was crude; he merely rummaged, throwing things everywhere.
Fifth, I knew at least one of them was young and athletic. He had to shinny up a drainpipe and around an overhanging balcony to get to my place.
Sixth, at least one of them was a soul music fan. The one radio they left behind had been tuned to a soul music station.
My first move was to start making the rounds of pawn shops, hoping to recognize something. I checked local dumpsters for possible discarded items. I began wandering around the neighborhood in my spare time, watching for suspicious-looking characters and following them to determine whether they lived in the neighborhood or were merely visiting. I was surprised how many of my neighbors looked suspicious.
My next move would have been to visit local high schools with a list of easily recognizable T-shirts. Perhaps the principals and teachers would help. Maybe I could begin enlisting some neighbors, particularly the ones who were around during the times I was at work.
That didn't turn out to be necessary. Sometimes, blind, dumb luck joins the side of the good guys.
Remember that smashed vent on the Jeep? As always, getting something like that repaired becomes more complicated that it should be. So three weeks after it was broken, I headed south to a glass shop in Springfield to have the final part installed -- the little spring handle that holds the vent shut.
As I headed back toward Washington, the vent began to whistle. Obviously the glass wasn't tight. Rather than return to the shop, I decided to drop by my apartment and do the job myself.
As I worked on the vent with a screwdriver, one of my burglars walked by. I have no idea why I was so suspicious so quickly. He wasn't wearing any of my stolen clothes, nor carrying any of my watches or radios. But now that I look back on it, I think it was a combination of things. He seemed of school age, but wasn't in school. He clearly was athletic; he walked like a boxer or a dancer, and could have easily scaled my balcony. And something about the aimless, but somehow still purposeful way he was walking told me in a way that I was certain about that he was up to no good. He simply looked guilty. At one point, he was no more than three feet away, and in the split second that we looked into each other's eyes I knew.
He was the one.
I attempted to follow him at a discreet distance, but lost him. For a moment I wondered if I was wrong, if perhaps he was a fine, upstanding resident who simply walked into his own apartment. Nonetheless, I hung around the parking lot a while, pretending to work on my car.
There he was again, a block away. He had joined a bigger, older guy. I decided the best way to get a better look at them was to drive past them, so I headed up the street, even though it was a dead end and obviously not the way to leave the complex. I wondered if they would get suspicious.
As I drove past, a shock passed through me. The bigger guy was wearing my sweater. It had to be my sweater. How many aqua, ragg wool, backpacking sweaters are there in Northern Virginia? I bought mine in Colorado. How in the world could I get a closer look? Maybe see the label?
I turned around at the end of the dead-end street, convinced they had noticed my suspicious activity. Then came another break. They were getting into a car as I drove back by. I parked again in front of my apartment and wrote down the license number and a description of the car, then pulled out behind them as they drove away. Apparently they had taken no notice of me.
I followed them until they pulled into another apartment complex. Rather than push my luck, I kept going and called my detective.
For the first time, I heard a sense of urgency and excitement in his voice. He asked me for every shred of description I could muster on the two suspects -- the car, the sweater and any other clearly personal item he might find. "This may be our break," he said. "I'll call you back tomorrow."
Within four hours, he was on the phone again. He said he had hopped into his car immediately and found them. They tried to explain away the sweater as something they found in a Goodwill box, but they had a hard time explaining the burglary tools and they had an even harder time explaining why the fingerprints matched. They didn't even try to explain why hundreds of stolen items were found in their apartment, including perhaps half of my stuff.
"I think I just closed 20 cases," bubbled my detective.
Over the next week, piece by piece, he tracked down almost everything else that I had owned, including the watch.
I think I can take some of the credit, too, but I must say that I have a lot more respect for the police. It's a shame that they don't have the resources to go after every burglar, and I have to understand why. There are just too many burglars. How frustrating it must be for them. But with a little help from a citizen, they moved. And they were even happier than I was.
I watched my detective, Frank Schoenle, evolve from the public-relations posture of keeping the citizen calm to absolute glee as he shut down a crime wave. And once things got good, they got better. During one of his sojourns to retrieve some of my property, he told me, he happened to drive past three men loading television sets into a truck. He stopped to ask what they were doing. "I just booked them," he said. "I can't do anything wrong today."
In my time as a reporter, I've run into a lot of bad cops, particularly in my native South in the 1960s. I had some bad experiences then. But now I've had a good one, and I'm grateful for the reminder that there are a lot of good cops out there, too.
I learned a lot of lessons from this experience, not the least of which was that you can help yourself. Don't just sit back in despair and leave it to the police. Keep your eyes open, and report what you see. The police will be the first to tell you that only citizen cooperation can really fight crime. So, before you complain about the police shrugging off your burglary, help yourself first.
But there's a few other lessons too, many of which I wish I had learned before the burglary:
Get a security system. I certainly am. If you think you can't afford it, then ask yourself what you could afford to lose. At a minimum, buy some timers to turn the lights and appliances on and off, giving the apartment or house a lived-in look.
Get a safe deposit box and keep in it the things that can never be replaced. Thieves will steal the darndest things, and fire is an even worse thief.
Check your insurance policy. If it isn't endorsed for full replacement value, then call your agent. Change insurance companies if necessary. For just a few dollars more a year, you could save yourself many thousands.
Get to know your neighbors. Keep an eye on their property and ask them to watch yours, especially when you will be gone. If you see something suspicious, call the police.
Don Phillips is an assistant national editor of The Washington Post.