Better late than never with tales of dumb crooks

DAN RODRICKS

August 07, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Chuck Shepherd -- I call him "Shep," even without his say-so -- must be a kindred spirit. We have a lot in common.

I write this local column for The Sun. He writes a syndicated newspaper column called "News of the Weird." I specialize in chronicling the life and times of the governor of Maryland. Shep specializes in collecting strange tidbits, too.

Shep just had a collection of dumb crook stories published, entitled, "America's Least Wanted Criminals."

On this he beat me to the punch.

For 12 years -- ever since the legendary Bumper Rip-off in Glen Burnie -- I have been meaning to do what Shep has done. (See, these two guys went to a Ritchie Highway bank, tied one end of a chain around the bumper of their car, the other end around the handle of a night deposit box. When they gunned the engine of the car, the bumper ripped off. Sensing trouble, the duo fled the scene, leaving behind the bumper and the license tag!)

So I have been collecting Dumb Crook stories all this time, with an idea they'd fit neatly into a cheap paperback (you know, $6.95 U.S., $24.95 Canada) that would fit neatly on the back of a commode. The working title is, "Guilty But Mostly Stupid." Friends have encouraged me to find a publisher.

So all right, already, Chuck Shepherd did it first. (Hey, boccie eats up a lot of my free time.)

I would tell you all about Shep's book except he's already received plenty of publicity -- he was on the front page of The Evening Sun, for crying out loud! -- and I haven't read the thing. (I went to two Baltimore bookstores yesterday in the rain and both of them had sold out of Shep's book. Maybe he'll be a shameless plug-seeker and mail me a free copy.)

Though I should have published this book myself, I'll drop the professional jealousy and, instead of whining, celebrate the arrival of Chuck Shepherd's book by breaking out my own Dumb Crook classics.

Why?

Criminals aren't cute; the days of guys 'n' dolls are gone. The newspaper is filled daily with violent and ugly stories. The only crime that amuses is the crime that fails, the caper that kaputs the crook. So, years ago, I started hunting trinkets in police blotters, overnight sheets, court records, daily newspapers, wire services and in interviews with cops, judges, prosecutors and FBI agents.

At a Fraternal Order of Police convention, nearly every cop I spoke with had at least one Dumb Crook story. A couple of Philadelphia's finest remembered the fellow who, during a chase, jumped out of a car into what he thought were hedges. The hedges turned out to be the tops of very tall trees along a very high bridge.

Robbers have shown up in banks with their names emblazoned on old Army jackets. They've written stick-up notes on personalized stationery and deposit slips. One guy in New York attempted his crime on a Friday, a pay day, while the bank was filled with FBI agents from a nearby field office. Once, during a lineup, several robbery suspects were asked to repeat the phrase, "Give me all your money or you're dead," and one of the suspects shouted, "That's not what I said!"

In Baltimore we had a band of burglars load up a rented van with so many stolen television sets the van sank over its axles in mud. (And the fellow who arranged for the van used his real name on the rental form.) Three years ago, a shoplifter ran out of a department store in Baltimore County, banged on the door of a stranger's car and demanded to be driven away fast. The obliging driver was an off-duty cop named Vincent Romeo.

A felon who went AWOL from Florida's computer-based monitoring system was seen two days later giving a live interview to a TV reporter from the infield of the Daytona 500. Another man, wanted for stealing a Pittsburgh police car, was spotted on live television expressing support for our troops in the Persian Gulf. (As Samuel Johnson once said: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a car thief.")

In Maryland, we've had guys take cabs to convenience stores so they could rob the places. At least two thieves have answered the cellular phones inside stolen cars and made arrangements to meet their owners. (The cops showed up, too.) At least twice that I recall, bandits locked keys inside getaway cars. There was a guy who spent a weekend in the chimney of a Light Street rowhouse when it turned out he was too fat to gain entry that way. Three years ago, Baltimore cops arrested a man who had 21 stolen pigeons in his pants. "He looked like the Michelin tire guy," the arresting officer remarked.

One of my all-time favorites came from Lompoc, Calif. A woman walking her dog and carrying a brown paper bag was accosted by a guy who jumped out of a passing car and grabbed the bag. The woman's 50-pound Rhodesian ridgeback took a bite out of the guy's thigh. However, the bandit got in the car and escaped. There's one other detail -- the bag was full of dog droppings.

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