Painful path to prosecution

Dan Rodricks

December 12, 1990|By Dan Rodricks Goucher College intern Margot Kaufman contributed to this column

Submitted for your approval . . .

Meet Big John, owner of a downtown Baltimore pub and, as such, a man with many worries. He worries about minors trying to get a drink in his establishment. He worries about the hotel next door and the continuing complaints that the live entertainment in Big John's place is too loud. He worries about the Liquor Board cracking down on him. He worries about bills. And he worries night and day about being robbed left and right.

Among all his employees -- the bartenders, the kitchen workers, the waitresses -- one of the most trusted and loyal was a janitor named Thomas. He'd worked for Big John for three years, an impressive length of time in the bar business, which has more turnovers than Muhly's.

Then, late last summer, something happened.

One the morning of Sept. 7, Big John was in his basement office, doing something he loves -- counting the previous night's receipts. He was interrupted when a woman making a delivery arrived at the pub. Big John went to the first floor to tend to the delivery.

He left the cash, about $300, in his briefcase. He left the briefcase on a chair. He slid the chair under his desk.

Attention, my dear Watson: It should be noted at this point that the only persons in the building at the time were Big John, the delivery woman, Thomas and three men installing a beverage system in the basement. Thomas was cleaning on the first floor.

Big John said that when he returned to his office, everything was in order.

But the money was missing from his briefcase.

Two of the men in the basement, Ed and Scott, swore independently that they and the third worker were together at all times while in the basement of the pub. They worked on the beverage system the entire time Big John was away from his office. There was, however, a period of time when the three men went to the first floor, leaving, one assumes, Thomas alone in the basement.

Big John fumed over the missing money. He questioned everyone in the building. It was Big John's testimony that Thomas appeared nervous when he was confronted about the missing cash. Big John had Thomas remove some of his !B clothing. He rummaged through Thomas's pockets. He went outside the bar and picked through the garbage cans and trash bins.

Unable to find the cash, Big John returned to his office, where he spent the remainder of the day, mad as a wet rooster. That afternoon, he paid Thomas his weekly salary. Still suspicious of the janitor, Big John ran outside, scampered up to the second-floor landing of the pub's fire escape and waited for Thomas to leave the building.

When Thomas walked into the alley, he took a "wad of cash" from one of the trash bins. The money, Big John said, was as "clear as day."

Having alerted two of the workmen, Ed and Scott, Big John walked into the alley, the workmen at his heels. All three confronted Thomas. Big John said he noticed a bulge in Thomas's pocket.

"Why did you take the money?" he asked. "Are you in some kind of trouble?"

Thomas turned and ran away. Big John, Ed and Scott chased the janitor for several city blocks, then gave up. Big John called the police. Formal charges were brought.

Last week, the case arrived in Central District Court for trial.

Big John told his story. He swore that he saw Thomas take money out of the trash bin.

Ed and Scott both reported having seen Thomas take "something" out of the trash bin. However, neither was exactly sure what Thomas had taken out of it.

In addition, one of the men said he saw Thomas reach into a Dumpster, while the other was sure Thomas had reached into a garbage can. The prosecutor told the court that such discrepancy was reasonable; from an overhead vantage, looking down into trash, it is difficult to distinguish where one container ends and another begins. Besides, argued the prosecutor, why would these men lie? If they were lying, they weren't doing a very good job of it, since there were conflicting points in each man's story.

Thomas remained silent. When the public defender emphasized that no one had actually seen Thomas remove the cash from Big John's briefcase, the scent of reasonable doubt filled the courtroom.

Getting a good whiff of it, the judge found Thomas not guilty. Big John went on fuming. And that's the way life is. Ain't it the truth, though?

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