Burglar steals treasures as well as sense of security Police say suspect admitted 86 break-ins

February 25, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

He is suspected of being a one-man crime wave who for months preyed on some of Baltimore's most historic enclaves by breaking into homes and stealing their most prized treasures.

Missing items -- most of which will likely never be recovered -- include century-old cast-iron light fixtures from Victorian Bolton Hill, ornate window grates from Charles Village and kerosene lamps from Madison Park.

"He likes expensive things," said Maj. Steven McMahon, commander of the Central District police station.

Albert Leander Johnson, 33, was arrested last week and charged in two of the Bolton Hill burglaries in which a post-Civil War baby carriage was taken from one house and a marble table from the other.

But police documents state that Johnson has admitted his involvement in up to 86 break-ins and thefts since July in which residents lost an estimated $56,688 in property. Though police say Johnson will not be charged in the cases, they have closed the files based on his statements.

McMahon said police are investigating two secondhand shops in Southeast Baltimore and an antiques dealer in Virginia who they believe skirted laws requiring them to record transactions to help trace stolen merchandise.

The crimes sent victims scouring secondhand shops throughout the city -- often searching for their own property at the same places the burglar used to unload the stolen merchandise.

Police said most of the stolen items were sold for a fraction of their cost. A pine fireplace mantel with mirror worth $2,000 was hawked for $75. A Victorian-age baby carriage valued at $1,500 brought $125 at a Fleet Street second-hand shop.

"They tore my house completely up," said Wilbert Bevans, 73, who lost an oak kitchen table, six chairs and two cabinets filled with china. His grandparents had brought the furniture, built in the late 1800s, to Baltimore from Virginia at the turn of the century.

"They don't make furniture like that anymore," said Bevans, who estimated his loss in the thousands of dollars. "How does someone walk out of a house with a big dining room table and china, and not anyone see it?"

Victims are most astonished by the burglar's ingenuity. A dining room table and chairs were taken from one house without anyone stopping the thief. A poster frame was painstakingly unscrewed from the wall at another. The burglar allegedly used a beige van with the word "antique" written on the side to make his hauls appear legitimate.

Johnson, of the 1800 block of Druid Hill Ave., has been charged 23 times with offenses ranging from theft to murder since 1981. He has been convicted twice -- of breaking and entering in 1986 and burglary in 1987.

He was arrested in November on a burglary charge, and in January he was charged with breaking into a car. He was out on bail in those cases until his arrest Feb. 17 on the latest charges. He has been released again, on $15,000 bail, but could not be reached for comment.

In addition to leaving a trail of damaged and missing family heirlooms, the break-ins and thefts have caused fear among residents in classic rowhouses from lower and upper Charles Village to the old Victorian mansions on Eutaw Place.

Most residents interviewed said they planned to stay in their homes, but they admit that it gets harder as crime erodes their sense of safety and takes the very items that give their communities character.

'In broad daylight'

"We're trying to be optimistic," said Patrick Francis, who moved into his Bolton Street house two years ago and was home when his $600 cast-iron light fixture was ripped from the ceiling of his vestibule in January.

The burglar "got this thing in broad daylight on a Saturday," said Francis, who has been searching secondhand shops for a replacement. "He jumped up and pulled it, and off he went."

One of the more fortunate victims is Sara Bigham, who lives in a restored 1883 rowhouse on Eutaw Place. On Feb. 2, someone broke in and stole her brown wicker baby carriage and antique doll dressed in a flowing white christening gown.

"The doll is the joy of my life," said Bigham, who collects Victorian children's furniture and found the carriage 23 years ago in a South Charles Street antiques shop. "It was a very special thing that had been a big treat for me."

Bigham then went in search of her stolen carriage, distinguished by its large wooden wheels and tufted velvet seat. She dressed in raggedy clothes to blend in as she checked stores in more dangerous neighborhoods, and she told workers at secondhand shops that she was looking for Victorian toys for a gift so they wouldn't suspect she was searching for stolen merchandise.

Proper paperwork

The secondhand shop that paid $125 for Bigham's carriage had filled out the proper paperwork, enabling police to locate the stolen carriage. They called Bigham last week with the good news.

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