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The way Sylvester Thomasson remembers it, the first car he ever tried to break into belonged to his father.
Thomasson, then just 9 years old, was growing up in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Northeast D.C., struggling to entertain himself as the lone boy in a house with 11 girls. When putting rocks through the windows of neighborhood cars no longer got him his kicks, he went out back with a hanger and set to jimmying the door to his dad’s ride, just as he’d seen the older boys on the block do. He got busted.
“He gave me a whuppin’,” Thomasson, now 44, recalls of his father. “He said, ‘You break into my car, you’re gonna be breakin’ into other cars.’”
The old man was right.
Thomasson long ago traded in the hanger for a screwdriver, but not much else has changed since his early days as a champion of the leading crime in near-downtown neighborhoods: the smash-and-grab, or, in local criminal-justice parlance, the “theft from auto.” Last year, more than 7,300 drivers in the District returned to their cars to find their windows shattered or their door locks popped. More than 30 percent of last year’s break-ins took place in the police department’s 3rd District, most of them in tonier, gentrified neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan; if the car owner had left behind so much as a nickel in the ashtray, it was likely in the hands of an inveterate thief such as Thomasson.
“The only thing I ever pay for is a cooked meal,” he likes to say. Indeed, even his designer underwear, he insists, comes from the department-store shopping bags left in the back seats and trunks of autos on city streets.
Thomasson can’t put an exact number on his car break-ins, but he estimates that his average of five snatches per day puts him well over the 1,000-car mark for any given year. He says he’s been locked up more than a hundred times for breaking into cars over his 35-year career, and a criminal search under his name indicates he’s accumulated dozens upon dozens of raps for destruction of property and theft in the second degree, charges that indicate a smash-and-grab. A detective who debriefed Thomasson says he’s one of the most prolific thieves working cars in the 3rd District.
Thomasson, a jolly guy with salt-and-pepper hair, considers himself the éminence grise of Thomas Circle, by tradition a hotbed for smash-and-grabs. There, he says, he’s counseled three or four younger thieves when they were new to the trade. “These guys tend to be very territorial,” says 3rd District prosecutor Andrew Lopez, who considers thefts from auto something of a specialty. According to Lopez, the area to the north of Thomasson’s turf, near Dupont Circle, also “gets slammed” perennially with thefts. If there’s an elder statesman among the thieves in this neighborhood, cops and court documents indicate that it’s an acquaintance of Thomasson’s named Nathan Johnson.
Johnson is “his own crime wave,” says former cop Chris Ragavanis.
“A proven menace,” says community activist Rob Halligan.
“He’s ridiculous,” says police Inspector Diane Groomes.
Thomasson says he met Johnson on the streets of the 3rd District last summer. According to cops, each of the two has confessed to hundreds of auto break-ins during debriefings, offering the kind of astronomical numbers that would seem to put them in the same class. But when it comes to clean getaways, Johnson doesn’t seem to have learned much in at least five years in the racket.
Early in 2004, for example, Ragavanis and his partner, Wilfred Salas, who were working a smash-and-grab detail in plain clothes near U Street NW, nabbed Johnson busting a sedan window with a screwdriver and pulling a blue bag from the car. After they closed in on him, the cops discovered that, in this case, Johnson’s risk had tragically outweighed his reward: Inside the bag was a 5-pound box of pretzels.
The lockup was at least his ninth since the turn of the millennium—an outstanding number of smash-and-grab arrests, given that a cop typically needs to catch the thief in the act to make an arrest. But the crime is so low-stakes that the lockups are almost always brief. In fact, Johnson never served serious time on any of those nine arrests.
“They never held him,” says Ragavanis, echoing a common police complaint regarding smash-and-grab arrests. “They never did anything.”
Unlike the burglar, who’s looking at up to 15 years on a single break-in, the likes of Johnson will typically face misdemeanor theft and property-destruction charges after a smash-and-grab—that is, if the witness who’s out a few CDs even bothers to come to court. And since the department can’t afford to send a flock of crime techs to every burgled Nissan, the lack of forensic evidence makes it virtually impossible to tie a thief to other car break-ins. Lopez, the prosecutor, says he’s done what he can to boost the charges to felony level on theft-from-auto cases in the past year, but limited resources still dictate that a lot of perps, such as Johnson, walk through the revolving door.
According to court documents, after his January arrest, Johnson was back to jacking cars near Dupont by summertime. On Aug. 11, Halligan, a mere citizen who’d grown weary of Johnson’s thieving, decided to stake out the man himself after he noticed Johnson biking through an alley. Johnson broke into an Accord and made off with a haul even less substantial than the pretzels: an umbrella, emblazoned with the American Express logo. Halligan helped cops detain him a few blocks away. “I’m nothing but a garbage diver,” Johnson told cops. He was given a stay-away order and released the following day.
It was around this point,Thomasson says, he met Johnson and offered him some advice. “He wasn’t too sharp,” opines Thomasson. “He was sloppy. I kept telling him, ‘You gotta stick and move.’…But some guys stick and get stuck.” Ragavanis, however, believes that Johnson was reasonably slick with his trade. “He killed that area,” the ex-cop says. Johnson knew the tricks—doubling back to make sure you’re not being followed, pretending to read the paper when you’re really casing a car—but his outrageous volume of break-ins made him vulnerable.
Whereas Johnson’s arrest numbers started to increase in 2004, the frequency of Thomasson’s run-ins with law enforcement has been dropping over the years, as he himself likes to point out. For one thing, Thomasson enjoys a substantial turf advantage. While Johnson plies his screwdriver in a residential ’hood, Thomasson’s traffic circle straddles the line between high-end row houses and downtown high-rises—which means more out-of-town drivers and fewer vigilant citizens like Halligan.
And from the top of the steps at National City Christian Church at Thomas Circle, Thomasson says, he watches every move a driver makes when she parks her car, whether it’s slipping a wallet into the glove compartment or putting a laptop in the trunk. Thomas Circle is such fertile ground for car break-ins that about three years ago, according to Lt. Mike Smith, who heads up the neighborhood patrols, his cops were finding stolen electronics and clothing stashed inside a behemoth tree that stood on the church’s grounds. (The police department has banned at least 31 people from the church grounds since 2002; 11 of them have raps for theft, burglary, or unlawful entry.)
Thomasson has also cultivated a nuanced discipline: He hits only cars with faraway plates, beyond Maryland and Virginia, because drivers who live out of the area are infinitely less likely to show up for court in case of an arrest; he prefers to pop locks, rather than conspicuously break windows; and he adheres to a strict two-minute clock he sets for himself on every break-in. But most of all, he relies on “a vibe I get” when police or gung-ho residents are nearby.
For their part, cops rely on something slightly less uncanny: the court-issued “stay-away” order, which bars the recipient from a particular five-block radius within the city. The proverbial slap on the wrist for a smash-and-grab offense, the stay-away order allows cops to arrest the perp next time he steps foot inside the designated area. Since 2000, Johnson has tallied at least 10 stay-aways, creating a mass of blackout zones for himself that could severely limit his available bus lines. And yet less than a week after his Aug. 11 arrest, Johnson was locked up for hanging out on U Street, where he’d been banned the previous week. This time he couldn’t play dumb; on his person he had a map of the stay-away area and a “wanted”-style poster of himself.
“He likes to talk a big game, saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know, I didn’t know,’” says Andrew Zabavsky, an Adams Morgan cop who’s had his share of run-ins with Johnson. “But he’s got the stay-away order right on him. It’s like, ‘Where you at right now? You’re right inside the map. It’s highlighted.’”
After the Aug. 17 arrest, Johnson was again released in one day. This time the court, in an apparent effort to consolidate Johnson’s slew of overlapping barring notices, ordered him to stay away from the District of Columbia in its entirety, except when he’s visiting his lawyer.
But the District sang too loud a siren song for Johnson, and six days later cops caught him in the same neighborhood. Again, he apparently had with him a copy of his own stay-away order—a detail that the prosecutor was happy to point out to the court in a motion to detain Johnson last fall. But it seems Johnson wasn’t held long; he was arrested yet again on Nov. 10 for allegedly stealing a car. The case never made it past the grand jury.
Last month, Johnson was sentenced to five months in jail on smash-and-grab charges, with the recommendation that he undergo drug treatment. Thomasson also makes his bed in jail these days, serving his own five-month stint for yanking the stereo out of the dashboard of a Volkswagen.
When he gets out this summer, Thomasson will gladly lend his counsel on thieving to Johnson again. Thomasson suggests he doesn’t want to go back to a life of smash-and-grabs, but he admits he’s said as much before.
“I go out hustlin’ right when I get released,” he says. “I don’t fear it.”CP