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Word was out among the civically active around Dupont Circle: Wayne Bridgeforth is back on the streets.
When Bridgeforth, 50, was at large in 2005, Mary Ann McGrail lost bank statements; now she watches the catch bin beneath her mailbox. Lex Rieffel lost a mail-order jacket and a pair of pants; now she won’t have packages left at the door. One of Rob Halligan’s parcels was ripped open; now there’s a lock on his mailbox.
These three live in a wealthy neighborhood where this petty criminal has been scavenging for years. They have to take countermeasures because Bridgeforth doesn’t banish easily. Court documents show that in February 2002 cops saw him at 17th and Corcoran Streets NW. They knew that weary face; they knew he had a five-block stay-away order for the area. But when the cops told him he didn’t belong, Bridgeforth said he’d spent all day at the Frank D. Reeves Center, seven blocks away at 14th and U Streets. “Fuck that judge,” he told the officers. “I live around here, and I can stand here if I want.”
That mind-set may well explain one of Bridgeforth’s latest escapades. On Jan. 10, police say they caught him with three mail-order parcels, a packing slip, and a large nickel-plated candlestick. At the time, Halligan was speaking at an ANC meeting about the damage caused by career thieves.
Lt. Scott Dignan beamed over the arrest. “I know he’s been an issue to this community for some time,” he says.
For his allegedly sticky fingers, Bridgeforth caught a second-degree theft charge. He was released on his own recognizance on Jan. 11, subject to another Dupont-area stay-away order. That’s his seventh since 2002. He has a charge sheet of at least 31 D.C. criminal cases.
In a black watch cap and a long gray parka, he walks the area, scanning porches and mailboxes. When he sees something he wants, he grabs it—and most of the grabbing takes place in the several-block radius around the Safeway on 17th Street NW.
Bridgeforth’s interest in other people’s mailboxes dates back to 1984, when he was convicted of obstructing the mail and possessing stolen mail. He seeks a variety of treasures, including bicycles (’96, ’02), a clarinet (’02), drill bits (’03), and a chain saw (’03).
“From everything I hear about this guy, it just sounds like he’s not quite right in the head,” says McGrail. If Bridgeforth meant to steal her identity along with her bank statements, though, he didn’t have the patience or the savvy to do it. McGrail received no mysterious charges or credit card bills. On learning that he’s been around again, she says, “I certainly will watch my mailbox real closely.”
The neighbors know that Bridgeforth is never away for long. After all, he hasn’t served more than five years of a single prison term.
The activists fixate on an incident in 2005, when the thief got picked up for violating conditions of release. He was given a plea bargain on one count of second-degree theft—for stealing mail—and one count of contempt, which led to a 220-day prison sentence. Halligan wrote an e-mail to the U.S. Attorney’s office, demanding to know why Bridgeforth wasn’t charged in federal court for stealing mail.
“This one fell through the cracks and I blame the US Attorney’s office,” Halligan wrote. “I’ve personally witnessed this guy: steal mail out of a mailbox, break into a garage to steal a chain saw, and break into a car in broad daylight.” Kenneth Wainstein, then U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, replied that misdemeanor charges were “the best way to bring this case to a quick and just resolution.”
Channing Phillips, a spokesperson for the local U.S. Attorney’s office, says that mail theft in the District usually is charged under city law. Federal mail theft carries a prison sentence of up to five years, while D.C. mail theft is punishable with up to 10 years. But a defendant has to steal more than $250 in value to risk those 10 years, and Bridgeforth’s ambitions have always been smaller.
His mug shot shows a slightly frowning man with a big brow, scant hair, gray stubble, and creases along his cheeks and under his eyes. Court papers describe him as usually broke, unemployed, using crack, and without a regular address. He claimed to work for a flower vendor for more than eight years; once, when the police booked him for violating a stay-away order, he said he was waiting for “the flower guy.”
The court couldn’t confirm that he peddled blossoms any more than it was able to reach his probation officer or to find him at the last two addresses he gave. One of those addresses is a refurbished town house near LeDroit Park where a well-dressed young man answers the door. Hardly the digs of a man whose last listed income was $240 per month.
Occasionally Bridgeforth turns violent. He once was charged with making threats of bodily harm and another time was convicted of simple assault. In 1996, he shoved a woman away from her bike near Dupont Circle, punched her in the face, grabbed the bike, and fled. The cops saw him running—not riding—with the woman in hot pursuit. Then he fell.
Bridgeforth also can exhibit a self-defeating honesty. Officer Manuel Rodriguez, in 2002, saw him hiding a white object in brown paper and stuffing it in his pocket. Rodriguez asked what he had. According to records, Bridgeforth replied, “It’s crack. You got me, Rodriguez.” “What kind of crack?” the officer pursued. “Crack cocaine. You got me.” He got arrested.
“He’s polite, you know,” says Lt. Mike Smith. “He’s not arrogant or anything like that, not towards me. Maybe toward some of the other officers.” Bridgeforth is so familiar to officers, Smith says, that he was brought up in a discussion of how to explain stay-away orders in a training video. “Citizens call over him all the time,” Smith says. “It’s been a while since I’ve actually encountered [him], but I remember them well because we get so many complaints coming in.”
The familiarity is ongoing: Police caught Bridgeforth again last Saturday with a Graco Pack ’N Play and a Playtex Diaper Genie, says Denise Backus, spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Because these baby items were sent by U.S. Mail, he is under investigation for federal mail theft. He was arraigned on Monday in D.C. court on charges of first-degree theft and contempt. They didn’t let him out on bond this time.
In the visiting hall at the D.C. Jail on Tuesday, Bridgeforth declined an interview. He asked a reporter several times if the latest charges are the only new ones. “Why would I do a story and incriminate myself?” he said.