The only place Daniel Cortes ever enjoyed working was inside a copy shop.
Most of the other clerks found it tedious, being tethered to a copy machine for hours at a time. But Cortes loved creating a rhythm with the copier. He prided himself on the fact that he could always work through the paper-clipped pages of a legal brief faster than any other clerk in the office.
During the mid-’90s, Cortes hustled for a dozen different copy shops in D.C., mostly along downtown’s K Street corridor. With rap beats in his head, the 34-year-old says, he learned to work the copier “like a DJ” working the turntables.
And just as Cortes mastered his own trade, he also picked up on the habits and responsibilities of other workers in downtown buildings.
He learned, for instance, about the ways of security guards. Cortes found that most guards, paid low wages for menial work, rarely make rounds or even leave the front desk at all during their shifts. And a lot of the more self-conscious guards, usually immigrants with a poor grasp of English, avoid confronting visitors lest they prompt an awkward exchange. Most guards, he noticed, get off work by 7 p.m.
Even when a lobby was locked down, Cortes watched the revolving cast of employees who came and went with key cards throughout the night, from lawyers burning midnight oil to copy clerks toiling through the graveyard shift. He saw small cliques adopt their own informal but reliable routines in each building: Cleaning crew exits at 10 p.m., copy crew takes its outdoor smoke break at 1:30 a.m., morning guard doesn’t arrive until sunrise.
Cortes was absorbing the culture of these buildings, too. They afford a more eclectic atmosphere than most people would assume—hallways where professionals in custom suits pass handymen in janitorial uniforms. You’ll never look too out of place, no matter your dress. With dozens of companies and high turnover rates, virtually everyone’s a stranger anyway. And strangers always speak more through body language than through chitchat. A cursory nod to the guard, a confident shuffle toward a closing elevator—these gestures tell people you belong.
In his better years, when he managed to control a cocaine habit that dated back to his teens, Cortes didn’t dwell on such minutiae as he bounced from one copy job to the next. He was often juggling a full-time position with additional temp jobs, working overtime just to limit his too-frequent stays at city shelters.
But in the late ’90s, when his crack expenditures mushroomed to nearly $1,000 per day, Cortes mined his education in office life to develop a method of burglary that made building security look ridiculous. Part actor and part security specialist, Cortes had free rein in entire buildings and sometimes hit multiple addresses in a single night, even during dayslong crack binges when he dropped to nearly two-thirds his normal body weight.
After 1999, when the addiction that spawned his burglary career also undid it, Cortes would go on to help police close out more than 50 of his own break-ins—each with his signature MO, most committed in the fall of that year alone—a number that both investigators and Cortes himself believe reflects just a fraction of the real tally.
Cortes went to work in D.C. copy shops not long after he started smoking crack. He’d learned the copy-and-courier trade in his native New York City as a teen, and it was the only job that had ever paid him decently and instilled in him a sense of self-respect. Even though he couldn’t shake the crack habit, he felt good about himself, dressing up in decent shirts and slacks to work downtown. He liked the idea of duplicating important documents for big-shot attorneys and lobbyists.
“You’re around these lawyers who make big bucks and ride around in Town Cars,” says Cortes. “They’ve got that respectable look—the fresh starched shirt, the cuff links. And here I am working with them. I loved it.”
Cortes worked for eight to 10 bucks an hour, usually on the graveyard shift at such places as ImageNet and Balmar. The job was more sophisticated than just dropping a pile of papers onto a copier. Lawyers paid hundreds of dollars for small piles of documents to be duplicated and quickly assembled according to their particular requests—double-sided here, single-sided there; this page marked with a tab, those pages stapled. The work was fast-paced and detail-oriented. In short, it would appeal to the manic disposition of a cokehead.
As his habit grew to the point where full-time work couldn’t sustain it, Cortes would occasionally dip into the office cash box for however many loose 20s he could find. But eventually, petty theft wouldn’t suffice.
Early one morning in 1995, when he was working an overnight shift at the Techrite copy shop on I Street NW, Cortes stepped off the elevator on the wrong floor. He’d intended to head outside and walk the streets for his lunch break, but he found himself on a floor above the lobby, in a hallway lined with office suites.
“I started looking around at the offices,” recalls Cortes. “I realized, Damn, if I could just get in there, there’s gotta be something. That way, when I get off, I can buy some crack.”
He managed to jimmy one of the doors open with a letter opener, but he got spooked by the alarm and took off. Later that morning, Cortes brooded over new ways to get inside. He thought about the odd jobs he’d worked putting up drywall. The brittle plaster boards always caved easily. “I knew there was just drywall, a piece of insulation, and then more drywall,” he says.
The following night, he went back to the same suite after the offices had emptied. Standing in the hallway, he raised his leg and plunged his foot through a wall. He tore out a man-sized hole in the drywall and shimmied his 5-foot-10 frame between the studs. He roamed the office freely.
The drywall break-in went off so well that Cortes kept the concept in his “back pocket” for years, he says, until his crack use started to escalate. By 1998, he’d started breaking through office walls downtown on a regular basis to steal petty cash and laptops, mostly from law firms. By the following year, he was a full-blown crack addict who required multiple burglaries a week—sometimes a night—just to sustain his habit.
During one binge, Cortes walked into the lobby of an office building near 14th and G Streets NW, where he’d once applied for a temp job in the copy shop, not much more than a block from the White House. When a security guard directed him to a visitors log, Cortes signed in under a company name he chose at random from the day’s previous entries. The guard then escorted him to the elevator and disabled the after-hours security lock.
When Cortes stepped off on the third floor, he knew from the chatter that he wasn’t alone yet. He took a seat in a far corner of the hallway and waited. Sometimes, on nights like this one, he sat in a hallway or stairwell for hours, taking a nap or fiddling with his crack pipe, until he felt certain he was the only one left in the building. If anyone questioned him on this particular night, he was prepared to play his trusty “homeless routine,” a gambit that usually resulted in nothing more than sympathetic banishment from the building. But no one would confront him this time; the security guards made no rounds.
After midnight, Cortes knocked on every door on the floor. Receiving no answer, he knew he owned the building.
After breaking through the wall, Cortes found nothing in the first suite. Wary of venturing back out into the hallway, he kicked through another wall and climbed into an adjoining office. He says he rounded up two laptops and kicked through yet another wall. In the third office he grabbed another laptop, a small but top-of-the-line stereo, and a large jar filled to the brim with silver change. “That’s maybe 50 rocks right there,” Cortes remembers thinking. He rifled through a desk and found a security card to the building’s front door.
Once he stepped outside, he swiped the security card through the sensor. It worked. He hailed a cab and loaded up his spoils, change jar and all, and headed to a crack house in Ledroit Park.
Near 5th and T Streets NW, he entrusted the laptops to a fellow crackhead and traded the stereo to a dealer for about 20 rocks, he recalls. He started smoking them one after another. When all the rocks were gone, Cortes took his security card and hailed a cab back to the office.
Hitting a new floor, he picked up a television and some stamp rolls—one of the best items, in terms of value-to-size ratio, that office thieves come across. He again hawked most of it for crack, smoked steadily for about an hour, and hailed another cab back to 14th and G. And so it went throughout the night, he says: about four round trips, about eight burgled suites, and just as many holes in the wall.
The Ledroit Park dealer couldn’t even handle all the merchandise that Cortes was dumping on him. “‘I ain’t a fucking pawn shop,’” he remembers the dealer saying. Cortes made his final lift around 5 a.m., he says, stopping only because he knew a security guard would arrive shortly for the morning shift. He stacked about 10 laptops in the house of a fellow user.
The all-night hustle yielded a large enough score that Cortes would do nothing but smoke crack in the coming days. “I wouldn’t sleep, and I’d hardly eat,” he recalls. In his ephemeral wealth, he doled out the occasional free rock to his smoking companions; in turn, they doted on him, encouraging him to nibble at the cheesesteak he hadn’t touched in a day or to drink some water at the very least. They didn’t want their benefactor to drop on them. “They knew I needed it,” he says. “They’d bug me to eat.”
He smoked away all his profits—several thousand dollars’ worth—in less than a week. Then he crashed hard. When he awoke, he cleaned himself up, dressed himself respectably, and headed downtown to break into more offices.
Cortes’ acquisitions usually evaporated within a matter of hours. Even when he was grossing a few grand a week, he was perpetually broke.
“I was full-blown. As soon as I got whatever I got, I’d find my connection or peddle it right on the street,” he says. “With crack—with me, anyway—I’d smoke and then I’m ready to smoke more. It makes you crazy. You don’t care who’s out there or who sees what. Your objective is to get the next rock.”
Propelled by that urgency, addict-burglars usually pull quick smash-and-grabs and slough off their newfound electronics on mom-and-pop fences, drug dealers, or other users. They prefer not to dawdle in the houses or offices they hit.
Unless, of course, they can afford to. Part of the brilliance of Cortes’ method was the way he lorded over a building after the last stragglers left for the evening. In the ideal break-in, he’d start at the very top floor and work his way down through a building, creating a doorway into each new suite. With all their busted drywall, the offices he ravaged sometimes looked like bakeries at night’s end, their floors coated with a fine white dust. According to an affidavit, the damage Cortes perpetrated in the building at 1025 Connecticut Ave. one night tallied more than $60,000. “The office was trashed,” recalls an employee at the law office of Barr & Camens, on the seventh floor. “It took [workers] a while to cut all the new drywall and put it in.” A prosecutor would later allege that Cortes kicked through the walls of roughly 10 different suites in the building.
Mess aside, Cortes’ drywall demolition meant he never had to worry about tripping door alarms. And without the fear of police responding to an alarm, there was no clock to work by; he was bound mostly by what he could carry. He required only enough self-restraint to pack up and leave when he realized he’d set off the rare motion detector—a discipline he wouldn’t betray until his addiction swelled far beyond his control.
If he brought along a hammer, Cortes could work for hours at peeling a safe. He even felt comfortable enough to check refrigerators for food or liquor left behind after office parties. Sometimes he’d munch on a reheated piece of pizza as he searched leisurely for the petty-cash box. He considered an untouched cheesesteak the ultimate find.
Cortes, like any office burglar, did face the prospect of running into people while carrying out a move. And like the best of them, he could disarm people with his good looks and warm personality. He has a linebacker’s shoulders, but they’re offset by his goateed baby face and persistent smile. He chats effortlessly, even among strangers, with the residual accent of his New York City upbringing.
“He’s charming, and he has a sense of humor,” says Bruce R. Hegyi, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Cortes. “He’s even self-effacing sometimes. He’s not afraid to kid you. And he was a good-looking kid, too.”
Cortes was as much con man as thief. When a building was locked down after hours, he’d speak through the lobby-door security phone with an operator who was working off-site. He would offer up a fake name and play himself off as a harried copy clerk who needed to get into the building for his shift. The operator would check with someone in the copy shop, who, in turn, would greenlight Cortes. With all the turnover and temp workers, who can keep track of every clerk’s name?
Once inside, he’d show his face in the shop just in case they were expecting him. Then he’d pretend there was some sort of mix-up, that he was supposed to be at the copy shop up the block. “My bad,” he’d say. He’d even ask for a job application before he left, just for flourish, and then make his way to the top floor and begin his real work.
If a wary operator refused to buzz him in, Cortes could always exploit common courtesy at the front door. He’d smoke a cigarette outside, as if he were on a break, and wait for a legitimate employee to show up. Then Cortes would flick his butt onto the sidewalk and reach into his pocket, as if for a key card. But the stranger would already have hers out.
“I’d have to put on a performance,” he says. “The body language—people read that. And it’s so easy, like reaching for a card you don’t even possess.” It didn’t hurt to look white, either, says the Puerto Rican Cortes. (In fact, he generally found it easier to waltz past an office security guard than to buy crack from an unfamiliar dealer in Southeast.) And if he came across a stylish overcoat hanging from the back of a lawyer’s door, he’d wear it as he walked out of the building and maybe bid farewell to a guard. Sometimes he even brought along nonprescription eyeglasses to “look a little GQ-ish,” like the lawyers.
The random 24-hour guard rarely haggled him, even when he left the building with boxes of electronics or as many as 15 laptops. “The average person would just think, Oh, he lost his job,” says Cortes.
On the rare occasion he took along a partner, Cortes always laid down the same ground rules: I keep everything I find, and I keep half of what you find. If he expected a take too large for one man, he’d bring along a flunky from the shelter or a smoking buddy.
One morning, Cortes and an assistant broke into a K Street office building. Cortes rummaged through the boss’s office in a travel agency. “This Arab dude,” he recalls. “He had a picture of him and his Ferrari.” He found a safe, as he often did, but he’d forgotten to bring along a hammer. It was too heavy for even the two of them to carry, so Cortes loaded it onto a handtruck he found in the office.
His partner put a desktop computer on top of the safe, and, at around 4 a.m., the two of them took turns wheeling their teetering haul down the sidewalk past McPherson Square, through Chinatown, and all the way to the basement of the CCNV shelter on D Street NW. Their jaunt was about a mile and a half long. Cortes’ audacity on this particular morning still amazes Hegyi. “They rolled a safe right down the street,” the prosecutor marvels.
A maintenance worker in the shelter provided them with a hammer. When they finally peeled the safe, they found no cash. There was nothing inside but plane tickets—blank vouchers, with no assigned passengers, that travel agents kept in safes in the pre-9/11 world. Cortes thumbed through the stubs and thought of all the exotic places he’d like to see. Florida. The Bahamas. Bermuda. Though the tickets weren’t valid, Cortes daydreamed about leaving D.C.
“Shit,” he remembers thinking. “I always wanted to see the world.” His partner, more a realist than a romantic, scoffed at the idea. They’d get busted at the airport, he insisted. Besides, Cortes was broke. Where was a junkie going to fly to?
Later that night, Cortes’ partner walked outside and tossed the tickets in the dumpster.
Unlike other crackheads on the street and in the shelter, Cortes never had to resort to car break-ins, muggings, street hustles, or back-alley prostitution. The burglaries were such a bottomless well that the other addicts, whom Cortes only rarely took into his confidence, were convinced he was genuinely rich.
“They’d see me broke one minute. Then the next minute I’d be back with money,” he says. “They thought I was going to the bank and taking out money when I needed it.”
Cortes could smoke away two weeks’ worth of copy-shop pay in a single day, but only rarely did he have to pay that much for his drugs. Most other addicts, scrounging for their $20 or $40 each day, had to purchase their crack literally rock by rock, in the drug’s most expensive form. But the burglaries enabled Cortes to buy in bulk. He remembers a time he traded about four laptops for a quarter-ounce and an eightball—more than 200 hits, about a $900 value—and smoked it all in a day. He wasn’t just smoking more crack; he was smoking more crack per dollar.
“Say you got three laptops,” explains Cortes. “Part of you is saying, Hey, this’ll get you some crack. But another part’s telling you, Man, these three laptops ain’t shit. You’re gonna need more crack than this’ll get you. You’re so caught up in it, it doesn’t even matter.”
Once he’d exhausted every office building he’d ever worked in or walked through—having hit many of them multiple times—he started taking daytime strolls through the city in search of new prospects. He’d go into lobbies during business hours to check out the security and ready himself with a company name he might need to drop when confronted. But with his drug use escalating, he got more brazen and his work got sloppier. He started making high-risk entries into buildings he knew nothing about.
On Oct. 4, 1999, at the tail end of a binge, Cortes decided to take a gamble on the office building at 999 E St. NW, which he says had always piqued his curiosity. In his better days he’d spent a few nights at the club next door, the now-defunct Ritz, and he knew he could get into a second-floor suite by climbing a dumpster, scaling the club wall, and crawling across the roof that covered the alley between the two buildings. Strung out at nearly 3 a.m., he felt impervious to the clear risks all around him: a bouncer watching a line of clubbers that snaked out of the Ritz and, worse, the FBI building directly across the street.
Once atop the alley roof, he pulled a hammer from the backpack that would hold his cash and laptops. With music pouring out of the club and into the street, he plunged the hammer through a window. He ducked down as the crash echoed through the alley, then he went to work pulling glass shards from the frame.
When he climbed inside the building, he found himself inside a stockroom. He spotted a solid green light on a small box beside the hallway door. He took just a couple of steps, and the light turned to a flashing red. He knew that he’d tripped a silent alarm. A few months before, he would’ve turned back.
“I was desperate,” says Cortes. “I thought, Just lemme rush in here. It was that feeling of invincibility.”
Finding the door locked from the outside, Cortes went through the wall and into an adjacent office. Rifling through a desk, he found a pile of business cards marked with name of the building’s primary tenant: the Federal Elections Commission. He’d broken into a fed building, and he knew he wouldn’t find anything valuable. “But the addiction had me where I’m not going to leave empty-handed,” he says. “I would’ve had to find a new building and gotten in, just to get that next rock.”
Walking from one office to the next, he halted at the sound of a police radio. A cop turned the corner and the two of them stood just feet apart, Cortes’ hand on the hammer, the cop’s on his holster.
“‘I’ve got this hammer—no gun—and I’m just gonna put it down,’” Cortes remembers saying.
Later, in a brief report, the Federal Protective Service officer would depict a cooperative and desperate perp, resigned to the end of what was a long and inherently unsatisfying run: “Defendant Cortes was advised of his Constitutional rights, which he voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waved. [He] stated he broke into the building in order to steal money, if he could find money. If he could not find any money, defendant Cortes stated he intended to steal whatever he could find.”
Once the initial despair passed, Cortes was relieved that he could finally sleep. He woke up in a jail cell.
“Fine,” he remembers thinking. “This is where it was headed.”
Sitting in the D.C. Jail awaiting his court date, Cortes spent a lot of hours pondering his hole-in-the-wall method of burglary. He felt sure it would betray him now.
“I felt like things were closing in on me,” says Cortes. “With this signature shit, I knew it was just a matter of time before they put it together—the drywall thing, like I’m some fucking mouse.”
After weighing his legal options in his cell for a couple of months, Cortes says, he sat down with his lawyer, Paul Signet, and told him there were more break-ins than just the FEC. To his client’s relief, Signet told Cortes that he could use those unsolved burglaries to his own advantage. Even though Cortes would be copping to a huge spree, investigators usually just want to close cases, he said. Cortes ultimately chose to come clean—a wise decision, given that a D.C. cop was apparently figuring things out on his own.
Hegyi, the prosecutor, says he was contacted by Detective David Swinson not long after Cortes was locked up. Swinson had been working break-ins and fencing ops for about a year at that point; later he’d be considered one of the top burglary detectives in the region, breaking the case on Gregory Scarborough, aka “the Second-Story Man,” a heroin addict who scaled walls to breach second-story windows in a highly publicized burglary spree through Adams Morgan and Logan Circle in 2003. Swinson closed more than 100 burglary cases during 2003 alone, earning himself Officer of the Year honors.
Back in late 1999, Swinson had heard that Hegyi had picked up a case where a burglar broke through some drywall downtown. According to Hegyi, Swinson said he’d seen a rash of break-ins with that rare MO in his own district, not far from the FEC building. With Cortes in jail, Swinson managed to tie him conclusively to an additional burglary and secured a separate arrest warrant for the new charge. (As a matter of police-department policy, Swinson was forbidden to acknowledge any involvement in Cortes’ case for this story.) Hegyi let Cortes know that they’d collate his fingerprints with those lifted from other burglary scenes that looked similar.
In early 2000, Cortes sat down with Hegyi and Swinson for the first of three sessions at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The arrangement was simple: If he would lay out, as best he could, the buildings he had broken into, the methods he had used to get inside, and the property he had taken in each burglary, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would consider not prosecuting Cortes on the confessed break-ins. His hands shackled to his waist, the ever-genial Cortes made the unusual gesture of trying to shake the prosecutor’s hand when he entered the room. To Hegyi, the perp seemed almost too eager to chat.
“I remember sizing him up as a con artist,” Hegyi says of that first encounter. “I’m looking at this guy, thinking, He’s trying to impress me somehow. I’m used to the thug thing, and with those guys it’s like peeling layers off an onion. But here’s this guy who wants to put everything on the table in the first meeting.”
Cortes prefaced his confessional by explaining his addiction. Then he told the story of every break-in he could remember, differentiating them by their respective copy shops and surrounding clubs and restaurants. For Cortes, the talks were cathartic. “I never tried to leave anything out,” he says. “I just wanted to seal everything.”
He estimated robbing at least 17 buildings and more offices than he could effectively tally. Originally the prosecutor thought the numbers were just too high. But, according to Hegyi, when Swinson went back and combed through his files, just about every building Cortes had laid claim to or pointed out during a subsequent ride-along checked out as a previous burglary. And Cortes’ story accrued even more credibility when crime techs matched his fingerprints to those in a number of other burglary cases—not a small investigative feat, given how difficult it is to obtain decent prints from offices where dozens of people might work. “It’s like looking at a bowl of spaghetti,” says Hegyi.
As his overall story started to gel, Cortes’ hosts grew increasingly gracious. “They started offering me stuff,” he says. “Like a steak-and-cheese. Snickers bar. A soda.”
Cortes sometimes offered absurdly detailed accounts, peppering them with bits of color about an office’s interior or his exchanges with building employees. “He had an extraordinary memory,” recalls Hegyi. “He’d say, ‘Oh, I remember that one. I went to the sixth floor, to this architect’s room, and I went through the wall, and there was a law office. I took a camcorder, a laptop, and this really cool crystal weight.’ And sure enough, that’s what was missing…. It was awesome.”
In the end, according to both Cortes and Hegyi, they closed out more than 50 burglaries in about 30 different downtown buildings. He’d hit some buildings three or four times. Signet suggested that Cortes become a security consultant. “He’s got a hell of a lot of talent,” the attorney still maintains. “He could show them where all their holes are.”
Cortes pleaded guilty to the FEC break-in, and the other burglaries he helped close were placed under seal. Hegyi says he warmed to the defendant during the course of their talks. He was impressed by the fact that Cortes had actually managed employees in a few of the copy shops where he’d worked. “He’s not the kind of guy you usually bump into in this job,” the prosecutor says. “Most guys are going nowhere in a hurry. But with Daniel, you think, This guy’s got some promise. Let’s not throw him away.”
The judge saw some promise, too. In July 2000, the Honorable Harold L. Cushenberry suspended Cortes’ one- to three-year sentence and placed him on probation. After paying a fine and completing drug treatment, Cortes would walk free. A similar sentence imposed three years later on Scarborough, the second-story burglar, would prompt a public outcry and some scathing editorials in the Washington Post. But a sentence such as Cortes’, however forgiving, isn’t unusual for a nonviolent, cooperative burglar in the District. Through the deal he worked out, all but one of his break-ins wouldn’t be used against him in court. And Signet had made it clear that his client’s crimes stemmed from a long-standing addiction.
“It’s very difficult to predict, with any degree of certainty, what will reach [an addict] and create a change in behavior,” Judge Cushenberry says today. “It’s almost never the sanction of jail.”
According to court documents, in the fall of 2000, Cortes successfully completed his 30-day stint at the Harbor Light drug-treatment center in Northeast. Cortes actually asked to stay at the halfway house longer than was required. He told Hegyi and Signet that he just wasn’t ready to go back out on the street and face a potential relapse. “Part of me said, OK, get me the fuck out of here,” he remembers. “But the other part of me said, No, you need more time.” The city, however, would cover only 30 days of treatment and no aftercare.
In October 2000, Cortes packed his things at Harbor Light and headed off in search of a shelter.
Cortes stayed clean for more than a year before relapsing.
He’d endured eight months in the D.C. jail without a single rock, even opting to sell off an eightball he’d scored inside rather than smoke it himself. And still later, he’d managed to resist the Eckington dealers during his stint at the Emery Shelter after drug treatment. When he finally caved, he was living in a transitional house in Columbia Heights.
“I told the dude at the desk that I just relapsed,” says Cortes. “He was an ex-addict. He didn’t believe me [at first]. They thought I was in good shape.”
The staff put him out the same night, and Cortes returned to his primary home during bouts with crack: the shelter on D Street NW. He was hustling two copy jobs at the time and started to supplement his paychecks with a burglary every few days. He worked hard at hiding his crack habit from people. Though he wasn’t full-blown, he was smoking off and on. He was spending money on a girl, too.
Deboraé Harrison came to the shelter after she and her family were evicted from their Suitland, Md., apartment. She wound up in D.C. only because the Maryland refuges were full for the winter. Fifteen years old at the time and attending high school in Germantown, Md., Harrison wasn’t used to the squalor of a big-city shelter. She looked so out of place that one shelter dweller even insisted she must be in some kind of witness-protection program.
The well-dressed Cortes seemed an equally unlikely candidate for the shelter—which is partly what drew him and Harrison together. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know he lived there,” says Harrison. “He didn’t think I lived there, either.”
Cortes rarely hung out with women who weren’t familiar with poverty and addiction, and he was charmed by Harrison’s naivete. “She was so oblivious to the street shit and the games,” he says. “I just found that adorable.” Cortes, who was then 30, chose to ignore the age discrepancy and the law. Harrison, for her part, says she always considered herself mature for her age.
After a brief courtship and consummation, Harrison essentially ran away from her family and the shelter. Cortes put her up in a succession of D.C. motels. But his crack purchases and motel bills were outpacing his copy-shop paychecks. He started to commit more burglaries, and he wasn’t exactly bringing his A game. In fact, Cortes’ break-ins from this period, as he depicts them, show neither the care nor the discipline of jobs he’d pulled under crack spells in earlier years.
On Feb. 3, 2001, for example, Cortes was hanging out at Archibald’s, a nudie bar near McPherson Square, with an acquaintance from the shelter nicknamed Six-Pack. Once they’d emptied their wallets on drinks and strippers, Cortes escorted Six-Pack to an office building on Connecticut Avenue.
Upstairs, they broke through a wall and filled a briefcase with a few laptops and a few hundred dollars in petty cash. Cortes rummaged through the office fridge and helped himself to a soda and a cheesesteak that he dressed with pepper—an indulgence he’d later regret—and the two walked out of the building half-drunk, their shoulders caked in drywall. “I looked like a construction worker,” recalls Cortes. Back at Archibald’s, he kept one of the laptops open in front of him at the bar, as if he were some K Street hot shot.
He would allow his professionalism to slide even further. About a month later, on Feb. 16, 2001, Cortes broke through the drywall on the eighth floor of the National Press Building, on 14th Street NW. It was around midnight, according to a police report, but the building was still alive with late-working media types. “There were reporters everywhere,” recalls Cortes. “Usually, that’s not how I’d go.” When he turned back to make his escape, computer scanner in hand, Cortes could see a pair of legs through the modest hole he’d made in the wall. It was a security guard who’d been summoned by a reporter working next door, says Cortes. There was no scuffle. Cortes “begg[ed] for forgiveness,” according to the report.
He was locked up on destruction of property and attempted burglary. And along with the fresh charges, Cortes would have to face a probation violation; he’d failed his routine drug test twice in the last two months, according to court documents. He felt certain he’d be going to prison for a long time.
After being released from jail, Cortes called Hegyi shortly before a hearing on his probation status. He wanted to justify to someone in authority what he was about to do.
“I got dirty urines,” Cortes said of the failed urinalysis. “I think I gotta run.”
Hegyi reminded Cortes that he was a U.S. attorney. He urged him not to flee. “I said, ‘Don’t, Daniel. Don’t do that. Let’s call Paul [Signet], and I’ll meet you down at court,’” recalls Hegyi.
Cortes had started to cry into the phone. “Just let me leave D.C. forever,” he remembers thinking. “Like the Wild West. Never show your face in this town again.”
Hegyi called Signet, but Cortes never showed up for his hearing. He’d left for New York City, and so had Harrison.
Over the course of about two years in New York, Cortes carved out the decent life he’d never established in the District. He took a job with his old copying service and moved up to management within three months. He was making $12 an hour in honest work, and he’d given up burglaries. With Harrison’s encouragement, he gradually weaned himself off crack, too. The pair had a baby girl, Jasmine, and they all lived together in their own Manhattan apartment. “There was no stopping me,” says Cortes. “I was getting to where I had to be.”
In fact, he was so confident in the new life he’d created that he decided to buy a car and apply for a driver’s license with the state of New York. On May 15, 2003, not long after he’d submitted his forms to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Cortes opened his apartment door to the pounding of the New York City Police Department. They showed him a picture of Harrison—who was considered missing and exploited at the time—and told him they had a warrant for his arrest. Cortes submitted quietly.
Harrison went home to her family, and a shackled Cortes took a con-air flight back to D.C. to face the charges he’d fled. In their first meeting together, prosecutor Kimya Jones surprised Cortes with news that a D.C. detective had linked him retroactively to an additional downtown burglary from 2001.
It was the drunken smash-and-grab he’d done with Six-Pack the night they’d hung out at Archibald’s. According to court documents, a crime tech had lifted one of Cortes’ prints off the pepper shaker he’d used to garnish his cheesesteak. They’d issued a warrant while he was in New York. “I still can’t figure out what made them think to dust a pepper shaker,” says Cortes.
In January 2004, after pleading guilty to two new burglary counts, Cortes received what amounted to a five- to seven-year sentence that he’s now serving in a federally contracted prison in North Carolina. He’s been clean for over two years and sees no broken drywall in his future. Too much time lost to drugs and thieving, he says. “Those years are gone, and you don’t get them back.”
But even if Cortes’ burglary days are over, it looks as though his method will live on. As recently as two months ago, a thief broke through drywall to burglarize at least two downtown offices in D.C. According to a couple of cops new to burglary detail, David Swinson schooled them in the case of Daniel Cortes, drywall-smasher extraordinaire, and suggested they find out whether he was out of prison yet. Cortes was locked up at the time, and the burglaries are still under investigation.
When Cortes learns that someone’s been borrowing his MO, he initially seems unsure of how to take it. But, gradually, his silence gives way to a slow, deliberate laugh. Maybe he’s amused by the thought of another hopeless addict, doomed to fashioning his own doors downtown ad infinitum. Or maybe he just gets a kick out of the idea of having a legacy.
His chuckle tapers off. “I really shouldn’t laugh,” he finally says. “That’s somebody’s property that gets destroyed.”CP