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When jurors started deliberating the fate of Calvin Richardson in late March, they couldn’t help but feel sympathy for his predicament. Richardson, a homeless man, had a sad life story to tell and an even sadder one of how he ended up a defendant in D.C. Superior Court.

Richardson had been snagged by the D.C. police’s Bait Car Program. The program, fueled by about $350,000 in federal grant money and insurance-company donations, represents the latest trend in anti-auto-theft gambits. Last July, police began planting cars outfitted with tracking devices, audio and video recorders, and mechanisms deployed to control the cars’ speed and engine in the city’s worst auto-theft spots. The scheme aimed to provide a proactive approach to the blight of joy riders and car strippers.

By giving would-be perps bait cars to steal, the logic went, cops save taxpayers a lot of grief and insurance companies a lot of dough. The police simply have to wait for someone to try to drive away in one of their cars.

In Richardson’s case, it was a green 2002 Chrysler sedan in the early-morning hours of Aug. 1.

At the time of his arrest, detectives thought they had another slam-dunk case to add to a pile of them. According to Lt. Brian McAllister, who spearheaded the program, which was halted in the fall for car upgrades before resuming in December 2004, police have netted a total of 15 arrests. Like all the other potential thieves, Richardson was caught on videotape driving a car that wasn’t his. McAllister says everyone else caught in a bait car took a plea deal when faced with the video evidence.

But Richardson didn’t. In taking his chances before a jury, he became the department’s first test drive in Superior Court.

By all accounts, the Bait Car Program stalled out in the jury room. It took jurors a few hours to acquit Richardson of a felony auto-theft charge on March 24. They found him guilty of the lesser offense of unauthorized use of a vehicle and a charge stemming from missed court appearances.

The premise of the program had the unintended consequences of invoking sympathy for Richardson. “I think that the police department should not be in the business of inviting people to commit a crime,” says juror Suanne Buggy. “It’s outrageous that the auto-theft unit is spending valuable resources on a program that is basically catching individuals who are in the wrong place and the wrong time.”

According to jurors in Richardson’s case, the high-tech program didn’t snare a hardened perp but set up a homeless man. “We all felt that his case was a bad-luck story,” says juror Lance Brenner. “We felt sorry for him. We didn’t see him as a car thief.”

Richardson doesn’t see himself as a car thief, either. The way he tells it, as he walked through the parking lot of the Circle Seven Express on the 1200 block of Mount Olivet Road NE, he spotted the sedan idling unattended. A window was left open just a crack. “It was unusual. Nobody leaves their car running, keys in it and it not be attended,” Richardson explains. “Especially around that store and that area. It kind of bothered me.”

Richardson had slipped back into a crack habit and split with his wife four months earlier. He was a long way from his five kids and Gaithersburg home. He had found a spot at a New York Avenue shelter and drifted into a routine of odd jobs, installing windows and hauling trash. There was nothing unusual about Richardson’s day—morning work in Trinidad, smoking crack, and then killing a few hours at the Circle Seven, where he had arranged with one of the store managers to sweep up the place in exchange for coffee and cigarettes. The only irregularity was the green Chrysler idling in the parking lot.

Richardson says he went into the store and started asking customers about the car. There were only four people in the store, all teenagers. None of the kids claimed ownership. He says he then went back outside, got in the sedan, and started looking for a registration. He turned the car off and tried to open the glove box with the key. When that didn’t work, he says, he rooted around the console. Still, he couldn’t find any registration or paper that provided the sedan owner’s name.

Richardson says he went back inside the Circle Seven and this time asked the owner for help. She hadn’t noticed the car’s owner. They both figured it might have been stolen. “They got scared and left it here,” he says he thought. He says the store owner told him to move the car. At this point, Richardson had started thinking the car could be his windfall: There could be reward money for him, maybe 20, 50 bucks. He thought he should take the car to the nearest police station.

Richardson says he walked two blocks up West Virginia Avenue and flagged down a friend. He told him about the car, the possible reward money, and the keys in his hands. And he told him he needed directions to the 5th District police station on Bladensburg Road. The friend decided to go along for the ride, and the two soon pulled out of the Circle Seven’s lot.

Richardson turned onto Mount Olivet. He made it down to the end of the next block. Then the Chrysler’s engine shut down.

“What’s going on?” Richardson asked. Within seconds, he and his friend were surrounded by D.C. cops. Two of them, he says, had their guns pointed at him. There wasn’t time to tell his story. The cops, he says, made that clear.

The police didn’t need Richardson’s story, especially when they had the incident on video. “I watched the video tape, and it’s clear that he was guilty,” explains Lt. McAllister, who was part of the arrest team that night. “We put a pack of cigarettes on the dashboard, and he stole them. He didn’t have that great of a story.”

Richardson denies taking the cigarettes. “They were Marlboro Lights. I don’t smoke Marlboro Lights,” Richardson says. “He’s lying. Regardless of whether I smoke crack, I’m still kinda choosy on what kind of cigarettes I smoke.”

Richardson and his defense attorney, Nathan I. Silver, say prosecutors wanted him to plead guilty to the theft, a felony that could carry up to 10 years in prison. Richardson refused. “I didn’t steal the car,” he says. “I didn’t want to get charged for something I didn’t do.”

But at trial, Richardson couldn’t corroborate his innocence. None of the Circle Seven employees would testify, and the friend had disappeared. It came down to his testimony vs. the cops and their videotape.

Only the videotape appeared to exonerate Richardson. It showed him getting in and out of the sedan and looking for the registration. It took some 40 minutes for Richardson to finally drive away. Not the MO of a car thief, Buggy reasons.

Because the audio failed, jurors couldn’t hear Richardson and his friend. More important, the video has an abrupt ending—Richardson never drove the car far enough to prove or disprove his story. “The car was shut off before it went 25 miles per hour,” Buggy says.

“I believed him,” Buggy concludes. “I personally believed. His testimony I felt was supported by the videotape.”

McAllister admits that the trial has caused him to go back and tinker with his program. In the future, he’ll have registration documents and phone numbers in the bait cars so defendants can’t argue that they thought the car was already stolen. And, he says, the program was not explained well enough to the jury. “I could see by the verdict that some of the people may have had an issue with entrapment,” he says. “This case is nowhere near entrapment.”

Of the bait program, Richardson says it could be successful if done right. “I think they acted too hastily,” he says. “They didn’t exactly know where I was going with the vehicle….They should have at least seen where I was going.”CP