A trail of missing blooms leads to the seedy underside of the flower trade.

In Cardozo-Shaw, the newest class of crime victim is the daffodil.

It was a Friday morning in April, around 11:30, and Shawn Steffy was working at home. Through his upstairs window, he saw a stranger coming in through the front gate of his yard. The man had gardening shears in one hand and a cardboard box full of fresh flowers in the other. Steffy paused to watch.

Suddenly, the stranger started snipping, cutting Steffy’s daffodils and adding them to his collection. Steffy tore down the stairs and flung open his front door. The intruder started to run. He jumped a fence, clutching his multicolored booty. Steffy was right behind him.

Steffy caught up and grabbed the stranger, later identified as 55-year-old James Fleming, described by police as a petty thief who occasionally goes by the name Cowboy. Steffy subdued Fleming and asked a nearby worker to call the police. With the help of his dog, Gaia, and a neighbor, Steffy held Fleming until three squad cars arrived five minutes later. The police arrested Fleming and charged him with second-degree theft, though he was not prosecuted.

“He had four dozen flowers already picked,” says Steffy, “and he said that he was stealing them for [local florist] the Rose Garden so that he could get paid.”

Since the beginning of spring, Steffy knew, gardens in his neighborhood had been plundered. Tulips would bud, bloom, and vanish, leaving freshly sheared stems standing in their wake.

But Fleming’s alleged words suggested an explanation, pointing neighborhood suspicions to the Rose Garden, a dilapidated flower shop on the 1300 block of U Street with a dusty storefront and darkened interior. When Lt. Diane Grooms took Fleming to the Rose Garden after his arrest, employees denied knowing him. But Fleming was adamant. “He kept repeating that he worked for them,” says Grooms. “He was doing a very professional job on those flowers.”

It is impossible to check Fleming’s story with the Rose Garden’s ownership, because the business apparently isn’t owned by anyone. Its last known owner, John Robinson, died in January after a long illness, and residents assumed that his store would die with him. But despite the lack of an owner and a lease, the store’s old employees—”a thin lady, a heavy man, and two cowboys,” according to neighbor Ron Renchard—simply kept showing up for work.

“We’re not supposed to have a tenant there,” says landlord Farid Srour, who runs FS Peoples Realty. “The old owner was sick, and he was delinquent all the time. We requested eviction, and, after he died, the court awarded us back our property. I don’t know the people who are there now. The place is supposed to be locked.” Srour says he plans to barricade the building.

“After the owner died,” Renchard says, “I thought [the employees] were going to close up the store. Everything was going downhill. They even approached me for a thousand-dollar investment—and said that they could double my money by the end of the week. They were unclear on how that would happen, and I didn’t go for it.”

Despite having no phone or refrigeration, the Rose Garden still opens to the public at odd and unpredictable hours. The storefront features only remnants of a display, now teeming with flies. But floral waste is left in front of the building, prompting complaints from local residents. Neighbors have watched, mystified, as the back yard has periodically filled with and been cleared of abandoned furniture and automobiles.

“I just got a $1,500 citation from the District of Columbia for all the trash that piles up there,” says Viola Foronda, Srour’s property manager. “I’ve probably got $5,000 worth of citations. We get fined for harboring rats, for all this trash—and the city won’t do anything to get these people out. We don’t have a contract with them, so they won’t evict them. This is our property, but we don’t seem to have any rights.”

Fleming’s bounty, Renchard speculates, may have been earmarked for two Metro-station flower carts that the Rose Garden allegedly supplies: one at the Navy Memorial Center and another at Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street NW.

It’s impossible to trace the purloined flowers, of course. However, neighbors are convinced that the Cardozo harvest is a commercial operation. A few days before Steffy’s incident, Cardozo-Shaw resident Lou Nayman had a run-in of his own.

“I was walking my dog, and there’s this guy bending over [near one of the neighborhood tree boxes],” says Nayman. “As he’s getting up, I see he’s got about 40 blooms. I told him he shouldn’t be doing that and decided to stand there with my dog so he couldn’t pick any more. He had a bunch of newspaper pages and started making little bouquets and wrapping them up.”

And if customers are getting pilfered blossoms, they may end up disappointed. “If you are selling flowers from peoples’ yards to make money,” says Hosein Mohammadi of Northwest florist Citiflowers, “it doesn’t work well. We get our flowers from a wholesaler in Holland, and they last maybe 10 days. Flowers that come from someone’s yard will only last for a day or two.”

But most consumers would be hard-pressed to tell the difference—which raises the specter of neighborhood residents coming home with beautiful, freshly cut floral bouquets that they can place on their window ledges, right above their violated gardens.

“It’s not drive-by shootings,” says Nayman, “but it’s one of those issues that determines the quality of life in the neighborhood.” CP