|By Robert Kyle
HUNTINGTOWN, Md. — A peaceful Easter evening in Huntingtown was jarred by gun fire when a 63-year-old home owner responded to loud banging on his front door around 10:30 p.m. According to a local newspaper report, the homeowner, armed with a .380 caliber semi-automatic handgun, opened fire in self defense as a pair of intruders came at him with baseball bats.
Emptying that gun, the resident grabbed his Glock 9mm and continued shooting as the pair fled to their car parked in his driveway. The man’s wife frantically called 911.
When police arrived they found one suspect dead in the driveway. They traced the car, which had been shot several times, to a town about 25 miles to the south. They charged the deceased’s man’s girlfriend with armed robbery.
The mystery of why burglars would travel such a distance to break into a specific house became apparent when the girlfriend told police the dead man had recently worked in the house for a local exterminating company. He had seen something he wanted and was determined to get it that night. It was not property but prescription drugs.
Further investigation revealed the dead man, age 38, had a 20-year criminal record. No charges were filed against the homeowner, a retired policeman.
This incident was another in a nationwide plague of property thefts by trusted workmen who often have free access to the interior of homes. These crimes raise the issue of whether valuable personal property in plain sight is safe from workers whose criminal history is unknown or who have substance abuse or other problems that drive them to steal.
Items most often targeted are vintage jewelry, watches, rings, sterling silver, coins and firearms. News reports from around the country show that unscrupulous contractors and handymen have been helping themselves to valuables when no one’s looking.
In August 2012 a women writing on Angie’s List asked for help. “Had a contractor in my house for three days and discovered several pieces of jewelry gone two hours after they left. Filed a police report, but investigation is inconclusive. I can’t prove it, and (the contractors) deny it. Insurance is denying the claim.”
A paid membership on Angie’s List provides user-based reviews of service providers in specific regions. Contractors get A to F letter grades. Not all companies are reviewed, leaving consumers on their own to chose the right men for the job.
Crime data shows consumers have hired the wrong men on numerous occasions.
The Burlington County Times in Pennsylvania reported in February 2012 a 26-year-old handyman “is accused of stealing between $3,000 to $4,000 worth of antiques and collectibles, and then selling several of the items to collectors in the city or to a Camden business.”
An elderly woman in West Jefferson, Tenn., discovered last summer that her 32-year-old caretaker, who lives on the property, stole “$27,000 worth of jewelry and multiple antique firearms,” according to The Ashe Mountain Times. Most of the jewelry was family heirlooms which the thief melted down. Jewelry with precious stones was found at a pawn shop.
A handyman and his girlfriend were arrested in early 2011 when the man robbed his employer, the historic Colgate Mansion in Sharon, Conn., of statues, copper gutters and antiques. He gave the antiques to his girlfriend to sell to a shop in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
In March, a 32-year-old man from Franklin, N.H. was charged almost two years later with stealing $1,500 in jewelry from a home when he was installing hardwood floors in May 2011. Pawn shop transaction reports from where he sold the jewelry led police to their suspect.
Also in March, a 26-year-old Flagler County, Fla. contractor was charged with grand larceny and seven counts of dealing in stolen property when he pawned jewelry and two handguns he had stolen from a home he was hired to remodel. The woman who hired him was unaware of his outstanding warrant for possession of a controlled substance.
A 58-year old woman house cleaner in Newburyport, Mass. was charged in March with stealing silver and jewelry from homes she cleaned and three rings from a paraplegic woman for whom she worked as a personal assistant.
In March again – apparently an unlucky month for thieves – a 43-year-old house painter in Palm Coast, Fla. was arrested for stealing jewelry from an 83-year-old homeowner. In addition to felony theft he also faces charges of false representation as a licensed or certified contractor.
In January 2011, The Stamford Advocate newspaper reported, “An air conditioning sub-contractor with eight pending criminal cases involving thefts from homes he was working on turned himself into police Tuesday after learning of an arrest warrant charging him with stealing $16,000 worth of jewelry from a Westport (Conn.) home.”
The pieces were later found in a pawn shop.
A collection of antique guns was stolen in Portland, Ore. in May 2012 – not by the handyman – but his 30-year-old son who had been in the home and knew the location of the guns. Their owner, a Vietnam War veteran, had inherited the collection from his late father. Police arrested the thief after they set up a sting posing as gun buyers.
In November 2011, a Pittsburgh television station reported a 29-year-old employee working for an established heating and air-conditioning company in Washington County, Pa. “targeted elderly customers and ransacked their stuff.” A 92-year-old woman said her 68-year-old engagement ring and a cocktail ring with 19 diamonds were missing after the contractor left. He had asked to use the bathroom.
A neighbor also had jewelry taken when “he asked go upstairs to check the thermostat,” she said. Some of the items were later found in a pawn shop. The contractor and accomplice, his girlfriend, were arrested. The reporter said the victims “want to warn others of every age to watch out when a stranger comes into your home.”
A family-owned general contracting and construction company in Greenville, N.C. made the local news in October 2012 when one of its owners, age 39, was charged by police with stealing “a large container of coins valued at $1,000, a sapphire band valued at $3,000 and a diamond ring valued at $15,000,” according to The Daily Reflector. The contractor had previous arrests for cocaine possession, bad checks and driving under a revoked license.
About $6,600 worth of jewelry was taken from a home in Hillsdale, N.J. in January 2012. Police arrested a 44-year-old a contractor hired to renovate a bathroom. He had sold the items to a local gold buyer who provided police with other jewelry that linked the contractor to a theft at another residence.
The Deseret News in Salt Late City, Utah reported in October 2011, “A man hired to help remodel a woman’s house was found passed out in the homeowner’s bedroom … Investigators determined the man had taken prescription medication found in the home, became intoxicated and passed out.” The pockets of the 20-year-old contained $600 worth of the woman’s jewelry.
Handymen aren’t the only concern. A 36-year-old woman pet sitter in Batavia, N.Y. was charged in November for “stealing antiques from a residence and selling them to a collectibles store,” according to the local newspaper. A 44-year-old woman pet sitter in Tacoma, Wash. stole from more than 20 homes during a two-year period. The Associated Press reported she “took everything from rolls of coins to sentimental keepsakes, including family heirlooms such as antique rings and anniversary crystals.”