The wilderness challenge: For some, it's burglary


August 09, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

They were your trail-hiking, backpacking, white-water-rafting types -- not your scruffy, camo-clad, chaw-chewin,' deer-huntin' types. Know what I mean? They looked like a couple of clean, healthy 20-something male models from an L. L. Bean catalog.

But here's the thing: As much as they adored the great outdoors, they had a penchant for the great indoors. Some thrill-seekers like to take a canoe through a mad riffle in the Shenandoah. Or they love mountain-biking down a craggy trail. But these two, police suspect, liked to get off the beaten path to steal fine artwork from West Virginia homes -- and, believe me, that can be a challenge.

"In grave contrast to the peaceful, respectful people who are outdoor enthusiasts, these were your Darth Vader types, if you will," said J. A. Laing, mild-mannered West Virginia state trooper, yesterday down in Martinsburg. "These two enjoyed backpacking, canoeing, white-water rafting, and they were mountain bikers. But they saw their outdoor trips as opportunities to go unnoticed through areas where people have seasonal homes and hunting cabins. . . . They were not typical, though I don't want to make them sound like exotic criminals. But they were unusual -- thrill-seekers, if you will."

(Burglary as an outdoor adventure -- there's a concept. Maybe some day it'll be an Olympic sport, with triathletes kayaking down rivers, biking up mountains, then breaking into hunting lodges.)

Laing and other troopers have been investigating dozens of burglaries in six West Virginia counties and western Maryland over the past two years. The two suspects they've arrested -- 28-year-old Stephen Craig Thompson and 29-year-old Michael Scott Hofias -- have been charged in the case and are under investigation in more than 100 more burglaries that could result in 250 charges. Though they're in separate jails right now, the pair once shared an apartment in Frederick. It was used as a stash house, according to Laing.

"I mean every square inch of it contained items that we confiscated," Laing said. "There was no attempt to hide anything in the apartment. Every inch was packed full. When we cleared the place out, all that was left was a couch and a milk crate."

The backpacking suspects were men of discerning tastes. They passed up TVs, VCRs and stereos in favor of antiques, 19th-century paintings and big-game trophies. "What broke the case, as silly as it sounds, is the elk's head," Laing said.

An informant told the trooper he had seen the trophy, and that's what led Laing to his prime suspects. Among the things police found in the Frederick apartment was the mounted elk's head, a taxidermied head and shoulders of a black bear and a lion's skin. They also found lots of African artifacts, oil paintings, antique swords and firearms, custom-crafted knives and engraved sterling objects.

Hofias, who worked in a Maryland bank, turned himself in to West Virginia state police in Hardy County last week. Thompson, an aspiring artist, was arrested by the FBI in Florida. At the time, Laing says, he was fixing to change his identity and move to

Canada. (Where there are more stuffed moose heads per capita than any place on earth.)

Rules of the house

Had a bad experience with a slob of a home improvement contractor? Ellie Henry did and it steeled her to a new kind of consumer vigilance. She devised a set of "rules for workmen" and now requires all contractors to initial them before starting a job at her north Baltimore house. Highlights:

"If you are working inside the house and need to go to another area of the house as part of the work you are doing, ask one of the owners to accompany you. Do not wander around the house unescorted.

"Don't even think about smoking anywhere inside the house. When smoking outside don't throw your cigarette butts on the ground.

"Sweep up after yourself at the end of each work day. . . . If you need to use our broom, ask!

"Dispose of packing materials immediately. Take shipping crates with you on the day you open them. . . . Be especially careful with Styrofoam material, which is nearly impossible to clean up once it has blown around.

"Urinating anywhere except in a toilet while on this property is grounds for a lawsuit.

"Accidents happen. We will eventually find out if you damage any part of our property including trees or plants. We tend to be more understanding if you tell us about the damage yourself."

lTC Ellie says one general contractor -- "Apparently the only one in Maryland with a sense of humor" -- now uses her rules when giving marching orders to employees.

Heavy-metal rodeo

Speaking of contractors . . . Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. says it's still having problems with contractors hitting underground utility lines (known in the trade as "outages caused by third-party digging"). The company says there were 1,509 hits to electric and gas lines last year.

So, on Aug. 25, BGE is sponsoring "No-Hitter Team Day," a heavy-metal rodeo/bull roast for contractors at the National Business Park at Annapolis Junction. "Contractors will compete in various damage prevention activities," the announcement says. One contest will test how accurate a guy can be with a backhoe and auger. Orioles Hall of Famer Mike Flanagan will be on hand, which is great, but what these guys need is a date with Miss Utility.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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