For years, the Flower Bandit proved as elusive as a peony in winter.
He evaded amateur garden surveillance and eluded traps set in flower plots, as well as fences, cameras and the law. He was finally arrested in 2014 during an undercover police stakeout of a lush garden in Northwest Washington’s Glover Park, authorities said.
Police said he never showed for his court hearing, and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
For months, flowers remained where they had been planted. But in recent weeks, police said the thievery started again, renewing worry for community gardeners.
Police said the latest targets included Glover Park, the District’s Chevy Chase area and Rose Park in the West End. Residents sent police pictures of the man, and police sent them to Internet bulletin boards for posting.
On Friday, a woman shopping in the Glover Park Whole Foods recognized the suspected culprit. He “was standing right next to me,” she said in an interview. She called police, who made an arrest.
Maged Ali Sandouka, 68, was charged in a warrant with failing to appear in court, and he remains charged with a single count of theft from his 2014 arrest. Police said he appears homeless; he lists several addresses on court documents, including one where he said he lived for a single day — the Jordanian Embassy.
Authorities have speculated that the alleged thief was selling the flowers at local restaurants. But Sandouka offered a different motive: He told police, according to his arrest affidavit, that the flowers’ scent helped with his ailing heart.
He also stated that he was wrongfully arrested because the District did not have a “flower charge,” the court document states.
Cmdr. Melvin Gresham, who heads the garden-rich 2nd Police District, said detectives are continuing to investigate the latest thefts but believe that the man who was arrested is responsible. Gresham said the suspect had disappeared for a couple of years, “then all of a sudden, a citizen alerted us that he was back in the community.”
For years, the theft of the flowers was the talk of Northwest Washington. The thief targeted the expensive stems: hydrangeas, peonies and lilacs.
Residents debated how far to go to catch the man. Some were reluctant to publish his description, fearing an innocent person might be picked up. And, indeed, there were reports of men carrying flowers who were stopped, questioned and released once they produced receipts.
Community gardens were ravaged, with 30 to 50 plants at a time ripped from the soil or snapped at the stem. Linda Blount Berry, who was a landscape designer, said she lost up to $10,000 of flowers she was growing for her business. She is now retired in eastern Baltimore County in Maryland.
“Last spring was the first spring I have seen some of my peonies bloom in over 10 years,” said Berry, 68.
Two police commanders, including Gresham’s predecessor , were also victims of a thief. Flowers from one commander’s home turned up for sale at a local florist’s shop — the proprietor had no idea the flowers were “hot” — and police don’t know if they were taken by the Flower Bandit or someone else.
Police questioned Sandouka several times but never had enough evidence for an arrest. The one time they found him carrying flowers before 2014, police said, the owner declined to press charges. People reported spotting him, and some chased him.
On May 24, 2014, U.S. Park Police Officer Robert Rowlett, in an unmarked cruiser and dressed in plainclothes, arrested Sandouka during covert surveillance at the Glover Archbold Park Community Garden. The takedown came at 5:19 a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, when Rowlett noticed someone’s head “moving quickly between the rows of the garden.”
The man ran but halted when the officer yelled, “Police! Stop!” The affidavit states that “when Sandouka left the woods, he was still in possession of the flowers. Rowlett identified the flowers as peonies.”
Sandouka could not be reached for comment, and his attorney did not return calls. Much of his personal information in court documents is unverified. He told police that he was born in Jordan and has lived in the D.C. area for 38 years.
Gresham said files on the Flower Thief have been passed down over the years. “From the outside, it may look like it’s just flowers,” the commander said. “But we take all crimes seriously.”
Sandouka’s next court appearance is June 14, and authorities plan to ask the judge to bar him from garden areas.
Berry, who said she was furious at the thefts, has a new perspective. She even thought of giving the suspect his own community plot to grow flowers.
“In my heart of hearts, I think that everything can be solved if everybody has a garden,” Berry said by telephone from her new home, 50 miles from the District.
The case, she said, “makes you angry and makes you sad at the same time. I wish him the best. I hope he gets some help. A part of me has grown a little older, a little wiser and a lot more compassionate.”
Martin Weil contributed to this report.