What I learned from my burglars

January 05, 1996|By Melissa Grace

THE BURGLARS stole my stereo, they stole my lap-top computer and they stole my gold necklace. They got everything I owned of any significant monetary value. They know that, because they riffled through every drawer, cabinet and closet to make sure.

I now know there are 30 to 50 scenes like this in Baltimore every day.

I learned first-hand that break-ins are traumatic and personal. I also learned that the security in my apartment building and others like it is almost casual, inviting to burglars. And I learned that the criminal-justice system in Baltimore isn't serious about catching thieves.

I probably should move from my Mount Vernon neighborhood. If I do, the reasons would be a penny-wise landlord and neighbors who don't lock the building's outside doors. This city would be much safer and have fewer thefts if more landlords installed better doors, locks and bars on the apartments they lease.

With a good kick I could break in my apartment's front door. A Phillips screwdriver could get the bars off my windows. Why screws, and not secure fasteners with butterfly ends, hold the bars on the window frame is as incomprehensible as my building's wooden fire-escape.

The cops, the landlord, the neighbors, the locksmith, all say crime in Mount Vernon is mostly small-time burglary. It's for something to sell fast on the streets. The cops were surprised that my lap-top was stolen. Nobody ''on the street'' has any use for one, they said.

The criminals are amateurs, my landlord told me, which is why he doesn't want to put better locks and a heavier door on my apartment. (I am now negotiating for upgraded security.) These guys are looking for a quick hit, he said. They're not going to break down the doors to get into my apartment. That would attract too much attention.

He is right. My thieves came in off the alley, through two outside doors that apparently were left unlocked. Then they apparently forced my bottom lock (there are gouges in the door) and picked the top one.

Open-window policy

My neighbors, too, need a better understanding of city life. The girl in the front, street-level apartment doesn't have bars on her windows. Her windows were wide open all summer. What are the chances of catching these thieves, I asked the crime-laboratory technician, Michael Bailey, who dusted my apartment for prints?

Very good, he said.

Great! I thought. Good? Really?

But, he tempered, they'll walk.

Walk?

Yup, he said, they'll walk. They take a plea-bargain. They aren't first-time offenders and most have criminal records. When they've been arrested they get a much reduced sentence by agreeing to show the police the last 30 places they broke into. The primary objective of the criminal-justice system, apparently, is to close unsolved burglaries -- not to prevent others, or to punish burglars or take them off the streets.

Could I expect to get my stuff back, I asked Mr. Bailey?

Not likely, he said. It's possible if they unload it at a pawn shop, because the police department circulates lists of stolen goods every two to three weeks. But even then it's not likely. As for the necklace, even a pawn shop would more likely melt it down than return it.

When I walked into my apartment that night the window was wide open. An empty space was where my stereo had been. CDs, papers, books were scattered all over the floor, drawers were pulled out of their sleeves and rifled through, the medicine cabinet had been given a once-over.

One of my stereo speakers was in the bathroom closet. The police guessed the thieves probably dragged it in there looking for a bag to carry it out in and left it when the bag they found was too small. The speaker was there, my bag wasn't.

Undisturbed amid the chaos in my living room sat my TV set -- right next to the open window through which they took my stuff. The police said that was because the burglars couldn't get it through the bars on the window. A flat stereo fit through easily. It seems the thieves thought it might be stupid to carry a TV out the front, and neither it nor the speaker would fit in my duffel bag.

My thieves were in no hurry. Even the refrigerator door was opened. Were they looking for something to eat? No food seemed to be missing.

I've lived in cities all my life, but never had been burglarized. A friend came over when I told him what had happened. On his way, he told me, he saw a man peddling a gold necklace at a red light. ''Hey, you, what'cha have there, huh?'' he called to the man. But it wasn't mine. It was probably from one of the other 30 break-ins in the city of Baltimore that day.

Melissa Grace is assistant to the book editor of The Sun.

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