Credit: Kyle T. Webster

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As Christine climbed the stairs to her third-floor apartment in Cleveland Park on the afternoon of July 10, she passed a man in a Red Sox T-shirt. A longtime Boston fan herself, she offered an enthusiastic “Hey!” The man mumbled something back. It was about 1 p.m., and Christine had just returned home after working on lesson plans for her first-grade and kindergarten classes at a D.C. prep school.

When she got to her landing, she saw that the louvered outer door to her apartment had been pried back, though the solid inner door remained intact. Chips of paint and wooden debris littered the floor beneath her and her neighbor’s apartments. She screamed a few obscenities and spun around.

“I just dropped my bag and ran after him,” says Christine, who asked that her last name not be used.

Out on the street, Christine set her sights on the red shirt. The man was moving a little awkwardly, his arms laden with bags and a giant jar of coins from the neighbor. (He didn’t get anything from Christine.) She called 911 as she ran. The burglar got to his car first, a light-blue Mercedes, and began tossing his booty in the window. Christine ran to her banged up ’97 Volvo, parked nearby, revved it up and pulled up at a diagonal, boxing her suspect in.

She didn’t contemplate the grave potential of her cops-and-robbers gambit until she sat with her foot jammed on the brake, holding the wheel as the man’s luxury sedan repeatedly hurtled forward into her car. Bracing herself against the pummeling, she thought, I wonder if he has a gun?

Those thoughts didn’t last long. The driver freed himself, pulled away, and screeched up 30th Street NW. Christine took her foot off the brake and slammed it right back down on the gas.

Christine didn’t stop to think that the fleeing man had stolen anything more than her neighbor’s jewelry, laptop, and spare change. But her impulse to chase may have helped uncover the identity of a serial break-in artist who had stymied police in three jurisdictions since January. Dwayne Fairmont Earl, a 47-year-old career criminal, is now suspected in dozens of burglaries just this year, most in tony high-rise apartments in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.

When Earl broke free, he pulled a U-turn at a dead end on 30th Street, turned onto Porter Street, then Connecticut Avenue, and continued to speed through Woodley Park’s rolling residential avenues. He swerved into the wrong lane to cut past other cars, pushing his speedometer to 70 miles per hour. Christine kept up. As she drove, she relayed information to a 911 operator. She read back the Mercedes’ tag numbers and gave a description of the car and her location. The operator, she says, never advised her to pull over and abandon her pursuit.

The chase continued along Cathedral Avenue and onto Rock Creek Parkway. Hitting traffic near P Street NW, Earl drove the wrong way up an exit, and Christine finally gave up. She pulled over at 24th and M, where she flagged down a Secret Service officer, who called for backup.

“I looked at my car and it all sort of hit me,” she says. “That’s when I started to cry.”

Christine can’t quite find an explanation for why she risked her life to catch a thief.

“I keep thinking that it was the injustice,” she says. “I’m a lawyer’s daughter, and I’ve been ripped off before. I just felt like I really needed to defend my territory.”

“She crazy!” says Dana Johnson, a letter carrier who watched the car-ramming stage of the incident and also copied down Earl’s license-plate number. Johnson worries about the young women who move to Cleveland Park thinking they’ll be safe. “Just ’cause you uptown don’t mean it skip you,” he says.

Stupid or not, Christine’s ill-advised drive to protect her property cracked a frustrating case. Police in D.C., Arlington County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., all had separate investigations into a prolific apartment burglar who’d gotten away with thousands of dollars in jewelry, cash, and electronics. No one knew his name until Christine read the Mercedes license plate to D.C. police. The plates were registered to Earl, who had listed the address of a halfway house on Park Road in Mount Pleasant.

D.C. police arrested Earl in the early morning of July 19 on the hotel-lined 1600 block of New York Avenue NE. Earl faces charges of assault with a dangerous weapon in D.C. and was extradited on July 24 to Montgomery County, Md., where he’s sitting in jail awaiting indictment on 25 counts of burglary and theft. He can expect more of the same from Arlington County police, who believe he is responsible for as many as 30 burglaries in apartment buildings since the beginning of the year.

The alleged spree is not exactly out of character. Earl’s police record stretches back to 1979, at least, when he was charged with marijuana possession in the District. He’s been arrested on charges of burglary and theft more than a dozen times in the years since, and most recently left federal custody this January after serving nearly 10 years on a 1998 D.C. burglary conviction.

A few days after the chase, several officers and the 2nd District commander paid Christine a visit. “They all did tell me never to do that again,” she says. But they also seemed a little impressed. The officer who had been investigating the rash of apartment burglaries told her he felt “jealousy and relief.”

“He said he had mixed feelings about a civilian catching him because he’d been chasing him for four months,” Christine says. “I’m actually pretty proud of myself, although lives are more important than stuff, so I don’t think I would do it again. I feel like I kicked ass, but it was dangerous.”