By Bob Schwabach
Originally published in the News-Journal, August 7, 1973, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune and other Knight papers.
Wilmington, Delaware —
WE ARRIVED home from vacation at three in the morning. I knew something was wrong as I looked in the living room window and saw the desk drawers and papers strewn over the rug, and bookcases knocked flat in the hallway.
The entire house had been ransacked. Room after room: drawers, clothes, books, boxes, closets, all emptied into piles on the floor. All very thorough. Lots of time.
Welcome to the statistics. One person in ever three living in an urban area has been burglarized, mugged, stuck-up or otherwise deprived of his property. That’s about 50 million of us, and it’s what keeps the old counter humming in the Federal Bureau of Investigation building in Washington, even at three in the morning.
The first squad car wanted to know when we had first discovered the robbery. “When we walked in, officer,” I replied.
THE SECOND squad car wanted to know if the crime had been reported previously by any neighbors. It had but the records department couldn’t find the earlier report so they radioed the men at the scene (as they say in local parlance) that it hadn’t.
So the third squad car came and took pictures and dusted for fingerprints. This is not the exact science everyone seems to think it is. There were no clear prints– not even our own.
“What’s missing?” one policeman asks.
“Well, there used to be a camera in that camera case. And there was a tape recorder in the tape recorder box. But as for the rest of it, I don’t know yet.”
“OKAY, WE’LL turn this over to the detectives and they’ll be in touch with you. Sure is a hell of a mess to clean up.”
It took until eight in the morning to clean up just the downstairs. It took all of the next day to clean up the rest.
The day after that I caught the burglar.
There was nothing very dramatic about catching the burglar–no chase scene, struggles on the stairway, “Ha, gotcha,” sort of TV nonsense. It was done from knowledge of a previous incident, some assumptions, questioning around the neighborhood and some rather unpleasant nosing around.
HE TURNED out to be a 10-year-old kid, with similarly pint-sized accomplices. Not too nice, that –lowering the boom on a 10-year-old kid. But the rubbery social conscience was stiffened later by learning that this kid had previously hit maybe a dozen other houses in the neighborhood and had three previous arrests for burglary. The kindly old judge had released him each time.
The way I caught the burglar was this:
Two weeks before, my wife had noticed an open garage door that she had clearly remembered shutting, and going into the garage she found two kids in the process of collecting our kids’ toy trains into a bucket.
“What are you doing here?” she not unreasonably asked. They split for the tall timber, as the folks back home used to say.
SO, ARMED with the knowledge of this previous incident and the assumption, well-known in police circles, that most burglaries are committed in the burglar’s own neighborhood, I go around questioning every kid I see on whether he knows anyone with a rep for breaking and entering. After about three million blanks, I come to two kids dribbling a basketball who answer my questions and say, “Yeah, this kid Thomas is always breaking into people’s houses.”
“Where does Thomas live?”
“Over that way somewheres.”
I dutifully go over “that way somewheres” and it is there that I have my first bit of luck. It is garbage collection day, and though it is late in the day the garbage men have not cleared these blocks–because there is labor trouble and there has been a strike on for several weeks.
I START walking around blocks looking into people’s garbage, which raises some number of eyebrows, because this is a respectable neighborhood and not at all the sort of place where one sees this kind of action with any frequency.
Eventually I see somebody’s garbage and in that garbage is stuff that has been taken from my house. I give forth an “Aha!” but silently, and walk away. I go back to my house and call the detective division.
“Hello, this is Robert Schwabach. My house was burgled recently and I believe I have located the burglar.”
“Was this burglary reported?”
“Twice. At least.”
“WHAT MAKES you think you’ve located the burglar?”
“I found some of my stuff in his garbage.”
“How do you know it was your stuff?”
“I recognized it.”
“Okay, stay at your home. We’ll send a car around.”
Some time later –about 20 minutes– a squad car pulls up and a uniformed policeman gets out and says, “you had a burglary at your house?”
“Yes. I had a burglary at my house. And I’ve tracked down the burglar.”
“WAS THIS burglary reported?”
Yes, this burglary was reported.”
“When was it reported?”
“Two days ago. And now I’ve found the burglar.”
“I don’t know about that. I was just sent over to take an additional informatin report.” He calls in on the police radio and there is much static and squawking and finally he comes out again.
“We have no report that this burglary was reported.”
“Believe me,” I plead, “it was reported. Four policeman went through the house with fingerprint powder. They took pictures. It was reported. Could we just go and arrest the burglar?”
“WELL, IF this burglary was reported, it’s been turned over to the detective division now. I’m with the patrol division.”
“I know it was turned over to the detective division. That’s why I called the detective division. I’ve found their burglar. Now let’s go and and arrest him.”
“I’ll have to go back and notify the detective division,” he says.
“But I’ve aleady notified the…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.”
Time, as they used to say in the silent screen, passes. About 20 minutes. The squad car returns and a few minutes later an unmarked car from the detective bureau pulls up. A detective gets out.
“YOU’VE HAD a burglary at this house?”
I sit down on the steps. My wife comes out and she looks at us. There is a long and, for the police, awkward pause.
“Yes, I’ve had a burglary at this house. A block from here I have located some of the things that were stolen — in someone else’s garage. In the house lives a kid that other kids in the neighborhood tell me has a reputation for stealing things from other people’s houses.
“I know it is not evidence of the sort that would stand up in court but I believe there is some grounds for suspecting that the burglar is from that house.”
“Why would he throw stuff in the garbage?”
“Why would he throw the stuff in the garbage?”
“Why don’t we go over and ask him?”
“WE CAN’T just go into somebody’s house like that. You have to have a warrant.”
“How long does it take to get a warrant?”
“Not long, a couple of hours maybe.”
“Then let’s get a warrant.”
“Well, maybe we don’t need a warrant.”
“You think they’ll let us in for the asking?” his partner asks.
“You never know until you’ve tried. It’s worth a try.”
We all walk over to the suspect’s house. We all go up to the door and the detective knocks. A woman answers.
“GOOD EVENING madam. We are police officers investigating a burglary of this man’s house and he has told us that he believes some of the stolen property may be located on the premises.
“We would like to conduct a brief search, but first I must tell you that we have no warrant to cnoduct a search and you may refuse to permit us to enter your house. You also have the right to seek counsel and legal advice before answering.
“IF YOU do not wish us to enter we will post patrolmen outside of the house to take note of anyone entering or leaving and will return in approximately one hour with a search warrant.”
She looks a little longer. “Come in,” she says.
From the locating of the burglar to signing the arrest warrant took nine hours. Once they got the bit in their teeth the police seemed fully capable, but before that time I was left with the distinct impression that I was imposing on them, and furthermore, creating a lot of unnecessary fuss by locating my own burglar.
And to this day I’m not sure if they’ve located the original report of the burglary.
Footnote: As it later turned out, our ten-year-old burglar and his teenage brothers admitted to 31 burglaries in the Wilmington-Delaware area. My investigation and their subsequent arrests cleared up almost half of Wilmington’s unsolved burglary cases.
Whether because of temperament, intelligence or personality, journalists tend to much better detectives than detectives.
Most Burglaries Follow Patterns
By Bob Schwabach
BURGLARIES, especially juvenile burglaries, follow peculiar patterns.
Dr. Marvin Wolfgang, professor of sociology and law at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that the distance traveled is relatively short– no more than six blocks from the burglar’s home.
Wolfggang says that a few years ago in a study at the University’s Center for Studies of Criminology and Criminal Law, it was found that 80 percent of the offenses against property, the usual police term for burglaries and car thefts, were committed within five blocks of a transportation intersect. Wolfgang defines a transportation intersect as a point where two or more modes of transportation come together for a transfer of passengers, like the subway and a bus line for example.
Unfortunately this is also a kind of residential zone may people find convenient to live in.
Crime in the suburbs, he notes, is rising much faster than crime in the cities. Suburban residents attribute this crime to people coming in from the city solely to commit burglary, and while there are no available figures on this, Wolfgang believes that if a deep study were done to draw the statistics they would probably prove the suburbanites correct.