The criminal hall of shame

Dan Rodricks

September 28, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

The Baltimore County police have nabbed a locksmith for a burglary in Pikesville and consider him a suspect in at least 100 other break-ins in some of our more well-off neighborhoods, from Woodlawn to Cockeysville. The cops say this guy was so good he pulled off the robberies without leaving a trace.

Which distinguishes him dramatically from the legendary Puffy Hoffman -- who always insisted on leaving a trace.

Puffy liked breaking into houses, taking jewelry and silverware and packing it into suitcases. He always weighed the suitcases on a bathroom scale. That way, he knew how much he had boosted, and he could ensure that his fence wouldn't chisel him. Puffy always conducted the weigh-in just before leaving a house -- usually in Guilford, Homeland or Towson -- and that's why the unhappy homeowner always found the bathroom scale by the front door. (Puffy insisted on leaving by the front door.)

The police called him the Bathroom Scale Burglar.

He'd rob 30, 40, sometimes 50 houses before the police caught him. He was a legend among Baltimore County police. Years ago, in the city, Puffy sold his loot to the equally legendary Louie Comi of East Baltimore. Many are the veteran property crime cops who remember the unhappy homeowners who ventured down to headquarters to identify their valuables -- all victims of Puffy Hoffman.

Puffy was smart, and brazen.

Fortunately, we haven't heard from him in a while now. (Hopefully, he's sweeping a warden's office somewhere.)

But, if Puffy ever went back into action, it is widely believed that his modus operandi would remain the same, and that his victims still would find a bathroom scale by the front door.

While Puffy insisted on leaving a signature, most burglars go to lengths to avoid it.

Some, of course, are too sloppy. Or too stupid.

Consider the punk who hit Connie Hilling's house. When Connie returned home from a trip to North Carolina this summer, she found that someone had broken into her home and robbed it. Luckily, only a few things were missing: among them a valuable gun.

There were a few odd traits of the burglar's presence in the house:

* A chair had been placed by the telephone.

* A pack of cigarettes and a lighter had been left by the phone. Connie doesn't smoke. And she couldn't help but notice that the cigarettes were the same brand smoked by an acquaintance: Connie's daughter-in-law's sister. It wasn't conclusive evidence, but it hinted at something. And Connie was suspicious about the girl anyway.

A few weeks later, the phone bill arrived and Connie decided to do a little detective work. She noticed that a number of calls had been placed from her house while she was away. She traced them. Some of the calls had been made to gun shops and antiques dealers; the burglar, presumably, had priced the stolen gun while sitting in Connie's kitchen.

Connie kept suspecting her daughter-in-law's sister.

The daughter-in-law's sister had a boyfriend.

It turns out that the daughter-in-law's sister had taken part in the robbery, and that she had taken along her boyfriend. But the boyfriend is the one who did most of the goofing -- and he had the easy job. All he was supposed to do was drive to the scene of the crime!

But he got lost on the way.

So he stopped and asked directions.

Guess whom he asked?

He asked a State Police trooper!

The trooper gave directions and, to no surprise, easily recalled the incident a month later when the break-in was reported. (Connie Hilling's house is in a rural area where just about everybody knows just about everybody else, especially the resident troopers who live there.)

"It was so dumb," Connie said. "It was just so dumb."

And, of course, the boyfriend also parked his car in Connie's front driveway during the break-in.

It was parked there for several hours. The neighbors saw it and remembered it distinctly: a beat-up, brown 1972 Cadillac, Pennsylvania tags.

With all this evidence, Connie confronted the robbers. After Connie threatened to turn them in to the police, the gun was quietly bought back from a gun shop by the boyfriend, and

returned a few days later.

Puffy Hoffman might be a legend. This locksmith might be headed for the hall of fame, too. But it's the dumb ones we love the most.

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