Monday, March 19, 2012

The Prince of Thieves?

It has been estimated that Bernard Welch, the Ghost Burglar, stole about $100 milliion worth of goods over his career.  Because of that almost unimaginable amount, some have labeled Welch "The Prince of Thieves."

Could that be true? Possibly, depending on your personal definition of prince and accepting the context it is used in here. Of course combining the royal title of Prince with the morality of crime might also be considered an oxymoron. But  for our discussion, we'll say that a prince is the most successful individual in a particular enterprise, such as crime.

Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post.

December 1980 - Loot taken from the Bernard Welch home in Great Falls, Va.  The stolen goods, including fur coats in the background, were on display at the Fairfax County Police Headquarters, where victims of Welch's burglaries could identify their property. 

Putting morality aside for the moment, it would be helpful to define the parameters of success in the world of crime. In the criminal world, success is measured only by the quantity of money stolen. The amount of misery, injury, and violence created in the pursuit of a criminal career are considered collateral damage and are ignored, at least by the perpetrators. Although perhaps difficult for the law-abiding reader to accept, for the purposes of this discussion, we shall also agree to ignore murder, rape, assault, drug dependence, and other negative aspects of a life of crime.
Some might argue that modern drug lords or Mob bosses like Al Capone and his ilk were more successful criminals than Welch. But let’s remember that organized crime leaders have many other people in their organizations. After achieving leadership, those guys do not dirty their hands with the day-to-day criminal enterprises of their operations. They are the masterminds, organizers, and directors of the people working for them. In contrast, Bernard Welch made his haul completely by himself. None of it was earned by partners or henchman, nor was any of it divvied out to such associates. He kept every penny for himself. It looks like we have to pare down the definition a little more. Let’s limit our discussion to one-man operations.
Over the years, I have read scores of books and articles about criminals. Nowhere do I remember any individual criminal carrying off $100 million in loot. During happy hour at the local watering hole, where a panel of knowledgeable commentators comprised of old cops, retired teachers, construction workers, and the occasional barfly meet, I have often had this question posed to me: What about Bernie Madoff? He swindled folks out of $18 billion. Indeed he did, but there is a catch to that. People came to Madoff’s Wall Street investment company and gave him the money. The operative word here is company. Madoff did not work alone; he had employees working for him. Just because his employees had MBAs instead of guns does not change the dynamic of organized crime. 
Another thing to remember is that Madoff’s take was in 2010 dollars. Welch’s haul was estimated in 1980 dollars. A Google search reveals that $100 million in 1980 is equal to $300–$500 million in 2010.
Taking into account the amount he stole and the fact that he worked alone, Bernard Welch was probably the most successful individual hard-core criminal in American history. Ignoring the qualities of nobility, kindness, and generosity usually associated with a prince and only employing our limited definition of the word, could Bernard Welch be called “The Prince of Thieves”? 
 - James King


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