Get our free newsletter
When police stopped Manuel Walton and Wanda Jefferson in a downtown parking garage last January and asked what they were doing carrying a backpack full of tools, a cassette recorder, and a car vacuum, Walton replied, “We’re just down here. I have no time to break into any vehicles.”
Walton had offered a similarly incriminating account six months earlier, when he was asked by an officer where he had gotten the Samsonite briefcase he was carrying along the 2300 block of N Street NW. “I just found the briefcase right here,” he said. In fact, police had seen Walton extract the briefcase from a 1987 Isuzu Trooper while Jefferson attempted to shield his mischief with an umbrella.
Walton and Jefferson are two reasons why car break-ins are the most-reported crime in town. Last year, 11,399 of these “smash-and-grab” incidents were reported, a slight increase over 1993 levels. And first-quarter statistics for 1995 reflect an upswing that hardly comes as news to the District’s car owners. In particular, the Second and Third Districts, which encompass most of the well-to-do Northwest neighborhoods that offer the most enticing smash-and-grab booty, report jumps in the past three months of 16 percent (from 653 to 760) and 20 percent (from 420 to 505), respectively, over corresponding 1994 levels.
According to Sgt. Charles Manning, a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) investigator who formerly supervised a tactical force assigned to curb break-ins, repeat offenders account for 75 percent of all reported smash-and-grabs. Jefferson, a 20-year-old high school dropout currently cooling her heels in Lorton, boasts that she broke into cars “every day” for over three years.
“On average, I can go downtown and come out with five- to six-hundred dollars of merchandise,” she says, adding that she has swiped valuables from double-parked cars while their owners popped into a bank or grocery store. “I get watches, jewelry, bracelets, gold, TVs, VCRs—you name it. And clothes, yeah clothes,” she continues in an indulgent tone. “I get hundred-dollar pairs of shoes, three- and four-hundred-dollar dress suits, and 90 percent of the time they’re my size. I never have to buy clothes.”
Jefferson boasts that she can break into a car in five seconds. Walton, her 39-year-old mentor and best friend, can do it in two or three seconds, she says. But the proficiency of thieves like Jefferson and Walton is only one of many factors that make the task of stopping break-ins virtually impossible. Police are also battling a criminal justice system that breeds recidivism; the tendency of both residents and visitors to leave valuables in their cars; a thriving underground market for stolen goods; and the substance-abuse problems of the perpetrators. With little hope that any of these conditions will be eliminated or improved, District residents appear condemned to live with a petty, pesky crime that has made broken car windows as much a part of the city’s streetscape as overflowing trash canisters and espresso signs.
No one knows the ins and outs of the battle against break-in specialists better than Scott Brown, Doug Osborne, and Marlin Gainey, three officers in the Third District’s plainclothes unit, who were assigned in 1993 to stop the mounting smash-and-grab problem in Adams Morgan and surrounding areas. On the dimly lit streets and alleys that invite break-ins, the officers employ two tested methods of spotting their targets: surveillance from rooftops or bushes, and posing as benighted vagrants, oblivious to the world around them.
“Sometimes we’ll sit on a bench and put our radios in a brown bag,” notes Osborne. “People think we’re drinking a beer or wine.” Gainey notes that citizens have sometimes called headquarters to report them as suspicious persons. “We creep in bushes, we creep in back yards, we creep everywhere,” he adds.
From their clandestine vantage points, the officers can glimpse the trademark behavior of smash-and-grab perpetrators. “They have a special way of walking,” says Gainey. “They look in every window, and sometimes they walk back and forth, circling around because they don’t think anyone is watching them.” Once they decide on a car, according to Osborne, they often lean casually against the back door for several minutes, waiting for potential witnesses to move along. Then they unsheathe a simple, blunt instrument—typically a screwdriver—that is placed against a window and then driven deftly through with a quick blow.
Last year, the break-in unit racked up 337 arrests, 90 for smash-and-grab offenses. The balance consists of robberies, burglaries, and public nuisance (usually panhandling) crimes that the officers stumbled upon while looking for break-ins, according to Joseph Griffith, the Third District captain who supervises the unit. Griffith credits the force, which he calls his “greatest asset,” with reducing reported smash-and-grab incidents in his area of jurisdiction from 1,323 in 1992 to 935 in 1994.
But smash-and-grab arrests often do not lead to prosecutions, much less convictions—a situation that leaves the tactical force running on a crime prevention treadmill, tracking down the same habitual offenders month after month. Jefferson’s criminal record provides a telling example of how much police work is sometimes necessary to put a break-in specialist behind bars.
From November 1992 through May 1994, Jefferson was arrested 16 times for misdemeanor car break-ins and related offenses, and once for an auto theft felony charge. For five of these arrests, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to pursue charges against Jefferson, opting to “no paper” the cases (meaning that the intake unit at the prosecutor’s office finds insufficient evidence to document, or “paper,” the offense). In eight other cases, charges against Jefferson were either dismissed by the court or simply abandoned by the prosecutors.
In the remaining three cases, Jefferson received jail sentences that were either suspended or drastically commuted. In September 1993, for example, Jefferson was sentenced to a 30-day prison term for a textbook ransacking of a 1990 Mitsubishi Galant parked near the intersection of 19th and R Streets NW. She smashed the car’s right rear window, stole the dashboard radio, and scattered the owner’s belongings about the car. Although offenses of this sort are often no-papered, this one was different; a local resident witnessed the crime and corralled Jefferson long enough for police to make the scene, giving downtown prosecutors an eyewitness to the offense.
According to records compiled by the District’s Pretrial Services Agency, however, the court released Jefferson from custody the day after it issued the sentence. The records do not state a reason for the release, though a likely explanation is that she had recently had a baby, whose support she cited in explaining why she had broken into the car in the first place.
Several months earlier, in May 1993, Jefferson had received a prison sentence of 20 to 60 months for a felony auto heist that she pulled off on Jan. 20, inauguration day. By her account, she took a “loaded” luxury van with Illinois tags on a joy ride around downtown, selling off its valuable contents as she went. “I love RVs and vans,” she says. “They’re promising me a TV and a VCR, at least.”
Her mistake was parking the van near the Washington Hilton, an inauguration hot spot buzzing with police protection. “When I got out, I saw some FBI agents spot me,” she recalls. “So they see a young black woman in a van with Illinois tags and they say, “I don’t think so.’ ” She returned later and dropped the keys behind her when she saw the van surrounded by police, but it was too late—they recognized her. “They said, “Jefferson, put up your hands and face the fence,’ and I just said, “Good grief.’ ”
The judge in this case commuted Jefferson’s jail sentence to a couple of months plus two years’ probation. In mid-August she was arrested again, this time for a shoplifting offense that was not prosecuted.
Jefferson’s five-page rap sheet concludes with a July 1994 smash-and-grab offense that ended her remarkable run of near-impunity from penalties meted out by the criminal justice system. A Third District patrol found Jefferson rummaging through a 1988 Jeep Cherokee with Iowa tags parked in back of the Carlyle Suites Hotel. When asked what she was doing in the vehicle, which had a broken rear vent window, Jefferson replied, “This is my cousin’s.”
The officers didn’t believe the claim, and put Jefferson in their squad car for processing, at which time, according to the police report, she “became loud and uncontrollable. [She] then deliberately kicked the left rear door window out of [the squad car].” Jefferson claims that the police report omits a critical detail—namely, that one of the officers cold-cocked her before stuffing her into the squad car, sparking her fit of rage. The arrest was the sixth for Jefferson in 1994, and the 13th since she was placed on probation for auto theft.
Last December, Jefferson was sentenced to 18 to 45 months for the July offense and violating the terms of her probation. But she is confident that she will be released from prison this August and placed in a downtown halfway house. Furthermore, she is quick to note that the bulk of her current sentence stems from the auto theft incident and not from the smash-and-grab charges, which she says are “not really a problem….I’ve caught a lot of charges over the past three years, and I’ve done two or three months, tops.”
Jefferson is serving her sentence at the minimum-security compound in Lorton, which she likens to a “summer camp.” “We eat real good,” she says. “We get french toast and pancakes, fried fish, baked fish, fried chicken, barbecued chicken, lasagna, spaghetti, salad with everything in it—eggs, cheese, onions, carrots, raisins, green peppers, and stuff like that.”
Still, Scott Brown of the Third District’s tactical force cites Jefferson’s sentence as evidence that the courts will eventually catch up with repeat offenders. Until that happens, however, the officers go head-to-head with chronic smash-and-grabbers every night. “It is frustrating to pick up the same person for the same offense over and over,” admits Capt. Griffith.
The shortcomings of the judicial system are only one of many related circumstances that prevent the police from keeping chronic smash-and-grab perpetrators off the streets. First, there is the nature of the crime itself, which is difficult to prosecute. “You have to have some type of eyewitness or person who saw someone take something out of the car,” says Erik Christian, an Assistant U.S. Attorney and supervisor of the prosecutors who handle nearly all of the smash-and-grab cases. (Even though the 28 prosecutors under Christian’s watch process about 20,000 misdemeanor cases per year, Christian vows that not a single case is no-papered on account of excessive caseload.)
Successful prosecution often hinges on testimony by the smash-and-grab victim, which is critical to establishing a link between the reported break-in and property found in the defendant’s possession. For a variety of reasons, the victim often doesn’t make it to court.
“I must admit that at first I felt personally violated,” says Monica Nakamura, a Cleveland Park resident whose Honda Civic has suffered two break-ins. “But then I realized that this level of petty crime is a part of my urban life that I am willing to live with. There’s a level of neighborliness to this.” Despite her ambivalence, Nakamura promised police and prosecutors that she would testify against one of the “neighbors” who plundered her car last May. However, she received her court summons days after the trial had concluded.
“It took eight days for the summons to travel the three miles to my house,” Nakamura notes.
Absent Nakamura’s testimony, the case was dismissed. The court released the defendant, a homeless, 41-year-old crack addict with 40 arrests in the District since 1981, mostly on break-in, burglary, and drug-possession offenses. Police have nicknamed him “Antman” for his inclination to pick up large items—often stolen—and load them onto his back. Last summer they spotted him carrying a complete drum set.
Hard-core smash-and-grabbers like Antman have learned how to minimize the likelihood that they will be convicted. Their No. 1 strategy is to target cars bearing tags from faraway states, on the proven theory that out-of-state victims of petty crimes will not return to help prosecute petty thieves. Nakamura’s Honda was equipped with Massachusetts tags when Antman broke into it.
It’s a rule of thumb, Jefferson says, that out-of-town vehicles generally yield greater returns than local ones. “This is a message to people not to leave anything in their cars that they want to keep,” she says. “Like people from the middle of Kansas [who] come to D.C.—they leave everything in there. I went to the Vietnam wall once, hit three cars, and came back with a bag full of camcorders and cameras.”
Another enemy of police efforts to clear the streets of smash-and-grabbers is the District’s bail law, which allows judges to lock up defendants awaiting trial only if they pose a threat to the safety of the community or are considered likely to flee from prosecution. Given these strictures, the court seldom finds justification for incarcerating break-in defendants.
“Defendants can actually point to their criminal past—as long as they’ve shown up in court—to improve their chances of getting released pending trial,” says Kevin Ohlson, special counsel to U.S. Attorney Eric Holder. Arrest records for the city’s chronic break-in offenders are chock-full of offenses that take place while the defendant is awaiting trial on previous charges; Nakamura’s experience with Antman is but one example.
Ohlson characterizes such bureaucratic snafus as symptomatic of larger ills in the criminal justice system. “You have to find that point on the scale,” he says, “where the chance that [lawbreakers] are going to get caught, and the penalty imposed, outweigh any benefit from the criminal conduct.”
But as Jefferson’s experience demonstrates, breaking into cars can be lucrative. In D.C., stolen items are easily converted into cash. “Ninety percent of my customers are stores,” says Jefferson, adding that she can progress from break-in to cash-in within minutes. “All kinds of stores: clothes stores, food stores, it doesn’t matter.”
MPD officers active in tracking the break-in problem confirm that the city’s underground market for stolen goods is every bit as active as Jefferson’s account implies. “I would say that in some neighborhoods, half of the nonchain stores trade in stolen goods,” says one officer who asked not to be identified.
Moreover, Jefferson reports a high level of interest in her wares from casual passers-by. “Say you’re working overtime to buy a nice new $400 TV with a built-in VCR,” she hypothesizes. “And I come along with the same thing and say, “65-70 bucks.’ How are you going to turn that down?”
Pawn shops are a distant third choice for Jefferson, who says that one such establishment tried to lowball her on a few gold coins that she acquired in “the usual way.” “They said a hundred-fifty, and I said, “You can keep your hundred-fifty,’ ” she remembers. “Gold was trading at $375 an ounce that day.”
Jefferson concedes that on many occasions she practiced her trade purely for sport, and not out of necessity. In that sense, her profile differs markedly from that of other chronic perpetrators, most of whom suffer from substance dependencies that fuel their lust for fungible stolen property. For example, Jefferson’s partner Walton attributes his history of smash-and-grab arrests to his habit of “going around, getting high [on cocaine], and going crazy.” Walton declines to discuss the particulars of his criminal past for fear of “backsliding” into his old ways. “I don’t want to go back to the left side, ’cause once you turn left you gotta turn right again,” he explains.
Rushing to justify his reticence, Walton offers another reason: “If I break down and talk [about what I did], then I’m messing up the prospects for someone else who considers this a career.” He then explains how a reporter in the early ’80s foiled the racket of a “super thief” by exposing his patented modus operandi.
Other chronic break-in offenders are similarly tight-lipped about their records—although not necessarily for the same reasons. “I just have to watch out at every corner, who’s with me and who’s after me,” says John Cedar, an HIV-positive heroin addict. Police know Cedar as a specialist in filching saws and other power tools from downtown construction sites while disguised as a construction worker.
A court appeal from Cedar’s lawyer in an April 1994 smash-and-grab case stated his predicament bluntly: “He knows he needs the drug AZT, for instance, but he cannot afford it. With his addiction to heroin bearing down on him as well, this is a dilemma which leaves Mr. Cedar with no recourse. He feels compelled to take property without right.” The list of items in Cedar’s possession at the time of his arrest completes this picture of desperation: a portable radio; a screwdriver; pliers; a container with $11 in coins; a container with two needles; syringes; and “seven ziplock [sic] bags with residue.”
Jeff Grobar, a 36-year-old cocaine addict, refused to speak at all about his 30 arrests—mostly for break-in and drug offenses—in the District. A visit to his Mount Pleasant home netted only a tirade from Grobar’s father, who appeared at the door in a striped bathrobe. “Why do you think my son’s life is so interesting?” he screamed. “He’s never committed a violent crime in his life. Why don’t you write about all the animals out there killing children?”
This perspective is shared by smash-and-grabbers themselves, who go to pains to distinguish their crimes from those of murderers, rapists, and other violent offenders. Walton, furthermore, argues that he and other chronic break-in culprits target people who can afford to take a hit. “For example,” he says, searching for an analogy, “if you have $105 in your cookie jar, and I take $5, you’re not going to notice it. We’re not lunching or anything.” (Walton defines “lunching” as a random act of violence or vandalism that brings the perpetrator no material gain whatsoever. “Like, I’d never throw a brick through your window, or something like that—that’s lunching,” he explains.)
Rationalizations aside, all the perps interviewed for this article professed a desire for a new life free of petty crime and routine brushes with the law. “No way,” says Jefferson when asked if she plans on returning to the streets to ply her trade. “This is no way to live,” she continues, referring to her confinement at Lorton. Later, however, she relents somewhat: “If push comes to shove and I need some money, I will.”
And no matter how sincere they may be about starting anew, career smash-and-grabbers realize they won’t be able to hide their past from certain acquaintances. “When I go back in society, I’m going to want to have a car,” admits Jefferson. “And the cops are probably going to be asking me, “Is this your car, Jefferson? Let me check if we have a warrant for you.’ ”
Note: The names of the perpetrators in this story have been changed.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michael Reidy.