Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Searching for a Ghost

Professional burglars seldom make mistakes, such as leaving finger prints behind. So police detectives looking for them need to rely on predictable patterns of operation, sleuthing out informants, or recovering stolen property after it has been sold. Property recovery tends to be the most fruitful avenue because the stolen items can sometimes be traced back to the seller, who often is also the thief. 

Early in 1977, my assigned area was being hit hard with major home burglaries and I was stumped. Because of information supplied to me by the Richmond, Va., City Police, I believed the perpetrator was probably Bernard Welch, but had nothing that definitely tied him to the Washington, D.C., area. I assumed he must be working alone, because I couldn’t locate an informant who would rat him out. Also, the items he was stealing simply were not turning up in the District, at least not that I could find. I checked the usual legitimate places, including area pawn shops, auction galleries, and antique stores – all  with negative results. That left only “fences,” the people who knowingly bought stolen property.

Fences typically operate in the in the shadows of the criminal world. Discovering who they are is only part of the equation, proving that someone actually bought stolen goods is a more difficult issue. I knew the Ghost Burglar was pilfering gold, silver, antiques and Oriental rugs. I had also heard about  a man who owned an Oriental rug shop in Bethesda, MD.  It was said that this guy was a fence who bought hot Oriental rugs, antiques, silver and jewelry. That made me suspicious he might be a connection to the Ghost Burglar.

But I needed to find some point of law to use as leverage. If I could find that the rug shop owner was doing something wrong, I might be able to persuade him to give up the Ghost Burglar if he was one of the shop owner’s clients. With permission of the detective lieutenant, I requested $40 from police undercover funds for a small sting operation, hardly enough to do what I wanted. Still, it allowed me to go to an antique dealer I trusted and purchase a few pieces of old silver that looked like they could have been stolen from a residence. I bought six matching Russian silver dessert forks made in the late 1800s at wholesale, using the undercover money.

Then I sought help from Detective Dave Morton, who worked undercover. Because of his worn clothes, easy smile and laid back manner, he was the last person anyone would suspect of being a cop. Dave agreed to help me with my scheme. He went to the Oriental rug store to make contact with the shop owner. 

At first, the shop owner was wary of the shabbily dressed stranger, but he reluctantly agreed to look at the “goods” Dave had to offer. This was a time when the price of silver was rising because the Hunt Brothers of Texas were manipulating the international silver market. Thanks to Dave’s appearance and his own greed, the shop owner offered to purchase the Russian forks for less than I had paid for them. He also invited Dave to come back if he ever had more stuff like that to sell.

This outcome was encouraging, so I secured additional undercover funds to purchase more Russian silverware. After that, Detective Morton wore a concealed “wire” (recording device) when he visited the shop. After two more visits to the Oriental rug shop, the owner started bragging to Dave about some of the other items he had purchased from “walk-ins” to his shop. He displayed a pump shotgun, saying it had been stolen from a police cruiser and pointed out other items he had bought cheaply. The merchant even vaguely hinted at drugs being smuggled in rolled Oriental carpets imported from the Middle East.

Detective Morton and I researched reports for a stolen “police” shotgun. We had the make and model, but Dave was not able to copy the serial number without breaking cover. If we could locate a similar weapon taken from a police cruiser, that might be enough to get a search warrant and arrest the shop owner or receiving stolen property. This kind of outcome could give me the leverage needed to encourage this merchant to talk about his “walk in” clients. My hope was that one of those clients would turn out to be the mysterious Ghost Burglar. Unfortunately, no Washington area police department had reported a missing shotgun, so that door closed.   

Eventually, Dave and I determined that the rug man was a braggart who did not operate on a scale an active thief like the Ghost burglar would use. He appeared to be an opportunistic, small-time buyer of whatever property walked into his shop. He might suspect that the property was stolen, then offer to pay a low price and ask no questions. But none of this was against the law, so Dave and I decided to discontinue the investigation.

The Montgomery County Police Department lost a few dollars on my scheme, but did gain some worthwhile knowledge about the suspicious business practices of one of its local merchants. From this experience, I realized that, with the huge amount of property being stolen by the Ghost Burglar, it was unlikely he could unload it in the Washington area without the police noticing. The goods he was stealing had to be going out of state.

Thanks to the Richmond police, I had the name of Bernard Welch.  But I couldn’t connect him to the rash of burglaries in the District.  I was still chasing a ghost.
                                                                                                                     — James King


  1. I confirmed that the carpet man was a braggadocio who completed not work on a scale an animated hoodlum like the Ghost thief might utilization. He had all the earmarks of being an astute, little time purchaser of whatever property strolled into his shop oriental rugs persian . Anyhow none of this was illegal, so Dave and I chose to suspend the examination.

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