The young man who pounded at the door on Saturday afternoon said he was with the gas company. He said there was a gas leak down the road, and that he had to come in and check the faucets. My parents’ neighbor, Jack, a widower in his eighties, let the man in.
He was wearing some kind of badge around his neck, but it was turned toward his body so Jack couldn’t see it. The man wore a yellow work vest with blue khakis, and came up the driveway in an unmarked sedan.
He said he was going to have to run two different faucets in the house for thirty minutes for a special dye test. He told Jack to turn on the kitchen faucet and watch it, to see if any green dye appeared in the stream. The man said he’d go into the master bathroom, and watch the faucet there. No dye appeared in the water, and after they’d watched for half an hour, the man left, claiming that he was on his way to the house next door.
I visited my parents at their home in Maryland this weekend, and Mom heard the story because she just happened to bring a homemade dinner over for Jack late that afternoon. She asked if the workman had showed any kind of badge or ID, or if he had a marked company vehicle.
No, he had none of those things. Grimly, Mom told Jack to check all the rooms of his house.
He called a little while later. I picked up the phone, and he said that while he had been watching the kitchen faucet, the man had gone through his bedroom. The bureau drawers gaped open and the thief had taken a pillow-case off the bed as a bag for the stolen goods.
Jack’s wife’s wedding and engagement rings, which he had kept after her burial, were gone.
We told him to call the police and walked over to the house to wait with him.
The thief was crafty. He left Jack’s wallet in the kitchen and his late wife’s silver spoons hanging in the dining room, and hit the areas that were out of sight in the daytime. Then Jack realized that his front door, usually closed and locked, was ajar. We surmised that the thief had snuck to the door, dropped the bag of jewelry on the seldom-used front porch, and then exited the house the way he’d come, through the side door at the driveway. Then he collected the stolen goods and drove away.
The policeman who showed up didn’t seem concerned. He said there was probably no way to recover the stolen rings, and that he could try dusting the faucets, drawers and handles for fingerprints, “but it’d be hard.”
“People watch CSI on TV but that’s fake,” he said, explaining that finger-printing is extremely difficult to do. He claimed that even if he could lift a print, it would take over a year for the system to find a match, if it was there.
I thought back to a breaking-and-entering robbery at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey several years ago. The police dusted down almost everything in the rooms the thieves had ransacked.
The policeman at Jack’s waited until he’d been there for half an hour before getting out his paperwork and asking for a description of the thief, his clothes and his car.
Maybe that’s the gold standard in police work these days. If it is, that’s all the more reason to protect yourself as well as you can. However, it’s important to recognize that though our neighbor made a mistake when he let the thief in, it was not his fault that someone robbed him.
The thief was bold, clever and careful. He had probably watched the house enough to know the habits of the vulnerable person who lived there alone. He gained entry by telling Jack that he was in danger, and he had a plan to distract Jack, muffle the sounds of the search, hit rooms that would not be noticed until evening, carry the stuff out without the victim knowing, and get away cleanly.
And that’s why I’m writing this. You may know perfectly well that if someone shows up uninvited or unannounced, with no ID or company vehicle, claiming there is work to be done in your house, you should never let them in. But do you know a vulnerable person, perhaps an elderly parent, grandparent or neighbor, who might not question the person who bangs on the door? Maybe if you share this story, you can help prevent a crime.
Meanwhile, if there is a hell, I hope people who prey on the elderly are headed there.