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As vice president of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association (CSNA), Paul Williams boasts a meaty Rolodex of community connections. With a mere flip of the finger, he can raise the cops who patrol his streets, the folks who haul away his trash, or the neighbors who pitch in on neighborhood cleanups and keep an eye out for hoodlums. But sandwiched among Williams’ community contacts is an unlikely character: Williams’ burglar.
“I know his first, middle, and last name, where he lives, his telephone number,” says Williams. “I know more about my burglar than most people know about their family.”
As well he should: Since July 1995, the burglar, Williams says, has made at least 10 visits to his home at the crux of Vermont Avenue and 11th Street NW. Three times he’s broken in, turning Williams’ three-story Victorian house into his own plunder chest. On other occasions, Williams has found him fiddling with locks and throwing bricks through windows. By now the burglar feels comfortable in his adopted home: On one of his recent visits, while he collected a microwave oven, phones, tools, clocks, and compact discs, he helped himself to a beera cocky play that may finally bring down one of Shaw’s most prolific crooks.
On the night of July 18, 1995, Williams was awakened by the pounding of a fist on his front door. Groggy, he stumbled down the stairs, opened the door, and listened as a 3rd District cop told him he had been burglarized.
As Williams slept, a short black manaccording to an eyewitnesswas shoveling a mountain bike, power tools, and CDs out Williams’ front window. The man was apparently in no great hurry. “He must have made two or three trips,” says Williams. The burglar slinked away that night with over $6,000 in hot, fungible goods, including a veritable library of 350 classical-music CDs and Williams’ precious power drill.
The burglary marked Williams’ first brush with crime since he’d moved to Shaw, so he wasn’t about to freak out or tour cookie-cutter town houses in Germantown. But somehow the incident put Williams’ house on a local burglary hot list.
Two nights after the burglaryjust long enough for Williams to compute his lossessomeone threw a brick through one of his first-floor windows. The house’s security alarm scared off the would-be burglar. The alarm paid for itself again a couple of days later, when it foiled a burglar’s attempt to pry open another first-floor window.
If Williams didn’t feel like a hard-luck crime victim yet, he only had a few days to wait. As he walked home on July 28 from a meeting with a State Farm insurance agent to settle claims on his first burglary, Williams happened upon the aftermath of his second: Police cars were gathered outside his front door, and a neighbor was cutting a piece of plywood to nail onto his front door. The burglar had smashed the beveled glass in the door, set off the alarm, trampled a coffee table, and stolen $325 in CDs.
He also left one hell of a mess. According to Williams, the burglar left a pint of blood splattered in his home’s entry, where he had apparently cut himself on broken glass in a rush to get out of the house. The blood that drenched Williams’ house also stained his sidewalk, the street, and an alley between S and T Streets. The cops followed the red trail to a room in an abandoned house on T Street. Scrawled on the room’s door was a warning to the unwary: “John’s Room. Keep Out. Do Not Enter.” Inside the police found a handful of CDs bathed in blood but couldn’t find the perp.
Professional burglars usually leave nothing but empty jewelry boxes and messy living rooms in their wake. But in D.C., where burglars are often punished with a few harsh words from a judge before they’re set free, professionalism need not be part of the perpetrator’s skill set.
William’s burglar is no D.B. Cooper. When he allegedly broke into Vermont Street resident Gary Satherfield’s house on the night after Williams’ bloody break-in, he left behind a referral notice from D.C. General recommending orthopedic work on a cut arm. The slip identified the patient as John Chaplin.
Williams pounced on the slip as evidence of the identity of his frequent visitor and checked the name against criminal records at D.C. Superior Court. Sure enough, Chaplin had a serious criminal record including arrests for theft and burglary. The records listed his address as 803 T St. NW, just around the corner from Williams and Satherfield. But while the victim-turned-sleuth figured he had his man, D.C. police declined to act, saying the evidence was too thin to hold up in court.
Williams was out of luck, but after a short trip out of town on Memorial Day weekend this year, he came home to what looked like the remnants of a seamless burglary: The door was flung wide open, his CDs and tools were nowhere to be found, and none of his neighbors reported seeing anything amiss.
But the culprit had left behind a piece of evidence far more valuable than an eyewitness account or a hospital referral slip. On the kitchen stove Williams found a half-empty bottle of beer. “That was his big mistake,” says Williams. “Since a bottle of beer in a six-pack is never touched by human hands until it’s pulled out, the bottle was clean evidence.” Six weeks later, the lab tests confirmed it all: Chaplin had stopped in for a brew and, Williams suspects, later walked away with $2,000 in uninsured goods.
After the burglary, Williams hung a poster written in magic marker on the door of Chaplin’s T Street digs: “You will die from breaking into Vermont Avenue.”
With the fingerprint evidence in hand, the police arrested Chaplin in early August for burglary and destruction of property. The arrest raised the hopes of Williams and his neighbors that Chaplin would take an incarcerated hiatus from the streets of Shaw. But the court released him on his own recognizance until his Sept. 27 court date. Under the District’s bail law, defendants awaiting trial may be imprisoned only if they pose a physical threat to others or are likely to flee from justice.
The bail law was conceived to reserve scarce detention space for the city’s most violent criminals. But in practice it leaves beleaguered D.C. residents defenseless against a large class of kleptomaniacs who occasionally make an involuntary trip downtown to pay for their trespasses.
To wit: According to Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) 3rd District Sgt. Mario Patrizio, while out on his own recognizance, Chaplin in early October twice burglarized 941 T St.
And Williams says Chaplin has dropped in once or twice in recent weeks. The lights were on and the television was blaring at Williams’ house on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 1, when Williams heard a rustling noise at his back door. He thought it was a rat or just the wind, but when he went to check he saw through the door window a man who fit Chaplin’s description. The man, Williams says, retreated and politely shut the gate on his way out. Williams put on his shoes and ran the man down, shouting, “Stay out of my house!” He got within 10 feet, good enough to get a clean look at the man, who Williams says matches Chaplin’s mug shots. When the man pulled a knife, Williams returned home, regretting that he hadn’t taken along a bat or a fire poker. His frustration has simmered to the point where he’s ready to parse out a little street justice if he catches Chaplin again.
“I would kill him,” says Williams.
A few nights later, Williams arrived home to find that a brick had made its way through one of his back windows, setting off his alarm. And he’s unwilling to consider any suspects other than Chaplin. “Based on the pattern and method of entries, I know it’s him,” says Williams.
Whether or not he’s solely responsible for tormenting Williams, Chaplin has the standard résumé of a habitual urban thief. Since July 1994, Chaplin has been arrested 11 times for offenses ranging from drinking in public to burglary and simple assault. According to records from the Pretrial Services Agency, Chaplin has a history of substance abuse, the locomotive of a larcenous lifestyle.
Despite his extensive experience with the authorities, Chaplin hasn’t yet quite perfected the extemporaneous alibi. After police caught him on Dec. 29, 1995, on the roof of a house he had apparently attempted to enter illegally, Chaplin, according to police records, said that he was waiting on a friend to “go see his grandmother.” He later recanted, saying he was poised on the rooftop of a stranger’s home to meet his mother.
By late last week, Chaplin had piled up four arrest warrants at 3rd District headquarters: two for the break-ins at 941 T St. and two others for failing to show up for the Sept. 27 court appearance stemming from the break-in/swillfest at Williams’ house. On Thursday afternoon, Chaplin was arrested as he was walking into his T Street house.
When Patrizio announced the arrest at a meeting of CSNA that night, a collective sigh wafted through the room. “Oh, thank God,” cried one relieved resident.
“He was a one-man burglary spree,” said Patrizio. “He’s responsible for 99 percent of the burglary problems in the neighborhood. And the wild thing about this guy is that he was so blatant and brazen about burglary. It was unbelievable.”
Patrizio says he is working with the U.S. Attorney’s office to ensure that Chaplin is detained as he awaits trial. “There’s no way the guy should be out now,” he says. “I’d be amazed if they released him on his own
recognizance.” Prosecutors arguing for pretrial detention will no doubt play up evidence that Chaplin tried to stab a man who confronted him during one of the 941 T St. break-ins.
If Chaplin is convicted, there’s no telling what punishment the court will dish out. Although he has escaped prison sentences for various convictions in the past, he now faces a host of substantial charges, including assault with a deadly weapon, bail violations, burglary, and destruction of property. “I’d say he’ll get no less than five years,” says Patrizio. “But you never know. I think I’d have more luck picking lottery numbers.”
The happy talk of arrests and convictions, however, doesn’t much impress Williams, who has installed bars on all of his first- and second-story windows and puts the price tag for all the break-ins and security upgrades at $15,000. He’s even started hedging against another CD clear-out. Last time he went to replace his stolen CDs, he bought an extra copy of his favorite workout music, “The Bridge” by Ace of Base. He keeps it hidden away from his other CDs, just in case.