Crime victim's dilemma after thieves are caught

April 11, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

Am I soft on crime? Quite a few readers have been on the phone saying so. They're upset because I oppose the vicious lashing of the young American in Singapore who took part in a wave of vandalism.

The answer is that most of the time, no, I'm not soft on crime. I have no problem with the death penalty for killers proved guilty beyond doubt. I believe chronic sex offenders should be locked up for life. Any crime against children, throw away the key.

But I suppose there have been times when I might be guilty of being a bit soft. So I'll tell this story:

It was 22 years ago. I was living on a quiet, suburb-like street on the far northwest side of Chicago.

While I was out of town with my family, someone smashed open my back door and ransacked the house. To my surprise, nothing was taken, although there were the usual items -- stereo, TV, etc. -- that a burglar could sell.

A few weeks later, the cops called. They caught my home invaders: three high school seniors from decent, middle-class families. One was an all-state football player who had been offered numerous scholarships.

They had committed several burglaries -- but always of homes that were unoccupied at the moment.

The cops asked me to come to the police station where the young jerks were being held.

I went there almost breathing fire. Damn punks breaking into my house? I was ready to put a noose around their necks.

But I arrived a little early. It was my old neighborhood, so I went down the street to have a beer at a tavern that used to be owned by a friend of my father.

Standing at the bar, I saw a gray-haired man in a business suit. He walked over and introduced himself as the father of one of the young criminals.

I told him I was sorry about his problems. As a father, I could understand his feelings. He shook his head and very firmly said: "No, there's no excuse for what he did. He grew up in a good home, part of a good family. He had everything he needed, now he has made his own bed and he has to sleep in it."

But by the time he got to the last few words, his voice choked, his lips trembled, his head dropped into his arms and he was sobbing. Then he talked haltingly about what he might have done wrong. Working long hours, not enough time with his kids, the usual parental guilt.

When we got to the police station, a detective told me something that was almost funny.

"The reason they didn't take anything from your house," he said, "was that they didn't know it was your house when they broke in. Then when they went through your desk, they saw your name on papers. Turns out the leader of the kids is a big fan of yours. You're one of his heroes."

I made a lame joke about giving up my job if I was inspiring a generation of youthful burglars.

Then the detective told me something that wasn't funny. Another father was in his office downtown when he took the phone call telling him about the arrest of his son.

He dropped the phone and fell over with a heart attack.

So we had one father on a guilt trip and another in intensive care.

I sat down in an office with the detectives and an assistant state's attorney.

They told me that the three young men had been caught with stolen property in a routine traffic stop and had admitted everything.

They had burglarized several houses, but only when they were sure nobody was home.

The assistant state's attorney asked me what I thought they should go for in court.

The question didn't surprise me. His boss (no longer in public life) was a politician. So they were aware that I wrote a column for a major newspaper and could turn the break-in into a major crime.

I asked several questions. Had there been any previous arrests? None. Why had they done it? They weren't sure, although they thought it might have been to buy marijuana or just for the adventure. Had they vandalized any of the homes? No, except for my house, they took some valuables and left. Did the detectives, with years of experience, consider them dangerous characters? No, the detectives thought they were young goofs.

The futures of the three young men were in my hands. Politics being politics, I knew that the state's attorney would accept my recommendation. If I said go for their throats, he would. And with a hard-nosed judge, they might do hard prison time.

So what would you have done? Remember, one father was a nervous wreck, another was in a hospital with tubes in his arms and nose. The mothers were probably experiencing crying jags. The lives of entire families were being ripped apart because of the youthful stupidity.

On the other hand, they had committed crimes. And in Singapore, we now know, they would be imprisoned, fined and tortured.

So what did I do?

Damn, I'm getting old. I don't remember . . .

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.