Encounters with Burglars
In my time as a locksmith I came to know a few things about burglars and happened to accidentally meet a couple of them while doing my job. I worked mostly for property management companies who would hand me the keys and dispatch me to make repairs or change locks while tenants were at work during the day - prime time for burglars.
What I Learned About Burglars
Generally speaking, burglars are not the sharpest tools in the shed. They risk their freedom and perhaps their lives for the few dollars rendered from the sale of the household goods they steal. Often they are drug addicts who will trade the goods they steal directly with their drug source. They are not, as a rule, rational thinkers.
Therefore one cannot depend solely upon reason as a tool to repel burglars. For example, although it is true that if your door has more security hardware on it than your neighbor’s, a burglar may decide to break into your neighbor’s door because it looks easier, it is almost as likely that the burglar will decide to break into your door because a door that has more hardware on it – in their mysteriously functioning brain - must be protecting something valuable. In the end, one can only make their doors and windows as difficult to break into as possible and hope for the best. Perhaps if it is difficult enough, the burglar might give up and try somewhere else.
As a locksmith I worked mainly in urban areas where the majority of burglary incidents I serviced occurred in multi-unit dwellings. There I observed different methods of operation. For example, most burglars opted to hit one or two units, probably to better their chances of getting in and out undetected. Some would opt for basement units while others preferred the top floor. A property manager suggested the the burglars chose these locations so that they could hear the front door if someone entered the building and so have a chance to escape.
A few burglars would hit every unit in a building. Obviously the burglar could maximize their potential thievery that way, but it certainly exposed them to much more risk. And, obviously, it made much more work for me. Burglary repairs are not the greatest source of business for a locksmith because a) the customer has often lost their faith in locks and b) as a victim is somewhat paranoid, suspecting everyone - including the locksmith - of ill will toward them.
In the area I did most of my work most of the doors were old wood doors in wood frames, so the repairs often included door and frame replacement. This got me more into the field of carpentry than I wanted to be, but my customers had a need and so I felt I should fill it. One can get a locksmith at six o’clock in the evening much more readily than one can get a finish carpenter. My work was not stellar, but my doors swung right, my locks worked well and the finished work came out well enough for my customer. I did the best I could.
According to the police, burglars like to do their work between ten o’clock in the morning and two o’clock in the afternoon because in that timeframe most people tend to be away from home. Burglars will often “case” a building, observing for a day or two the comings and goings of the inhabitants to determine the optimum time to find the building empty. Often, before entering a building, burglars ring all the buzzers to see if anyone answers, thereby determining if anyone is home. If someone answered, the burglar could opt to leave - the safest choice for all concerned.
Although a building may have a perfectly functional intercom system at the front door, it was often the case that tenants would choose not to communicate, but instead “buzz them in” without checking who it was they were buzzing in. A burglar who is particularly hungry for their drug money, for example, might take the opportunity to enter the building thus without work or force and listen at apartment doors to find out who was home. Having found out which unit is occupied, the burglar can choose another unit some distance away from the occupied one. If they their motives are more sinister, the occupied unit might be just what they are looking for.
Encounters with Burglars
“Hero” with a Hammer
My first direct encounter with a burglar at work was in a five story apartment building with no elevator. I went to the front door and found it open, with fresh pry-marks in the wooden frame and wood fragments on the floor at the foot of jamb. I was a young man full of testosterone but not much sense, so I fetched my sixteen-ounce framing hammer from the truck and began to climb the stairs to investigate.
Down the stairs came a shaky, emaciated young man, clutching the rail as he came. I brandished my hammer. He said, shakily, “Don’t, please,” as we passed each other. Someone else might have impeded his escape, but I had enough sense not to want to find out if he had a weapon of own, and I had only his presence as a clue that he might be a burglar.
As it turned out he had started to work on someone’s door but my entrance had interrupted him and he had failed to get in. Therefore I was a big hero because I had accidentally prevented a burglary in progress.
Some Fast Talk
Once I was called to a burglary scene where the tenant had come home to find a burglar there. The tenant was a man in his late twenties, about six feet tall, perhaps two hundred pounds, with powerful arms and shoulders. He related that he came home to find the wooden door frame shattered and a piece of his luggage on the sitting room floor, filled with his possessions.
A man came out of the bedroom and said, “I’m with the police. There’s been a burglary here. This bag is evidence and I’m taking it to the station. Detectives will be by later to take your statement.”
Well, only that last sentence was true. The burglar was able to get out not only unharmed, but with all his booty. Detectives did come by later, and the burly resident had to explain how the burglar had fooled him. Still, there might have easily been a worse outcome.
Face to Face
A burglar had broken into three units in a building of perhaps eight units, and all three doors needed replacing. As usual, I learned of the incident when the tenants arrived home from work to find their broken doors on the floor. I made temporary repairs and took measurements that night and in the morning went to the lumberyard to buy new doors.
The building was very old and the door frames were not straight, so replacing the doors was a difficult job that took hours. I was getting ready to install the locks on the third floor unit when I heard the noise of someone pulling, pushing and banging on the front door. There was a “pop” and I knew someone had used force to get in.
This was in the days before mobile phones, so I found the tenant’s phone near the door I was working on. I was relieved to hear a dial tone when I picked it up, and, not knowing what to expect, I pressed “9” and then “1” and then waited. With my free hand I picked up my hammer.
Footsteps proceeded up the stairs, and soon a face rounded the corner. The man was in his thirties and wore a black leather coat. He had a big screwdriver in his hand. I pressed “1”. An officer picked up the phone.
“I am reporting a burglary in progress at 55 Fifth Street,” I said.
Then, in one of the stranger moments of my life, the burglar and the police officer simultaneously said, “What?”
I continued to look the burglar in the eye as I said, “There is a burglary in progress at 55 Fifth Street, and I’m looking at the burglar right now!”
As the officer told me that help was on the way, the burglar said, more or less, “I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about,” as he retreated back down the stairs. I remain grateful that he had not been armed.
In a couple of minutes someone rang all the buzzers in the building. I answered the intercom and there were the police. They were too late to catch the burglar, but they took my statement in which I described the burglar in detail. I hope it helped them eventually track him down.
I fondly remember many aspects of being a locksmith, but I have no wish to encounter a burglar again. In general, I think that the world as a whole would be better off without burglars. But since the reality is that we have them, it is a good thing that we have locksmiths to help keep them out and police officers to catch them.
© 2014 Tom Rubenoff