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THE CASE OF THE HUNGRY BURGLAR : Or, a Tale of Felony Food Criticism

February 21, 1988|KAREN STABINER | Karen Stabiner, a Santa Monica writer, is writing a book about the 1947 Overell murder case.

THE HUNGRY BURGLAR is now part of our lives.

Although my husband and I wish it were not so, we were his intended victims in the middle of a recent night. Had we all behaved the way we were supposed to, he would have gotten away. But I woke up (even though the Hungry Burglar was wearing soundless sneakers, warmly referred to in some circles as "felony shoes") and woke Larry, who got out of bed and came upon the intruder, who had made the fatal tactical error of having a snack in our kitchen, instead of taking the food to go. He overstayed his welcome--and, in an indefensible if unprosecutable aside, he insulted my cooking. He will suffer very real consequences having to do with an enforced stay in unpleasant surroundings. Larry will probably have a few more bad dreams about the incident. And I will be plagued, forever, by the question: What exactly was wrong with the Italian potato torta ?

AT 18-AND-CHANGE, Greta the cat tends to wander the house at night, musing loudly on the state of the universe, so when I am awakened by noises at 1:40 one morning, I dismiss them as cat sounds. She makes her usual journey through the kitchen, into the living room, and then into my office--and though her footsteps sound a bit heavier than usual, I blame my overactive imagination, which tends to rev particularly high in the dead of night. We live in an unremarkable older section of Santa Monica. It is Greta. I instruct myself to go back to sleep.

But the noise persists: It sounds as if Greta is doing a soft-shoe on top of the papers on my desk. I decide to give in to my childish fear and wake Larry. I'll apologize; I'll say that I know I am being crazy, that it is just the cat, but would he please go out there with me and turn on all the lights? Then I'll feel better and be able to sleep.

So I reach behind myself for his shoulder, and my hand lands (the gasp comes right here) on Greta's slumbering head.

I have never been more frightened in my life.

I nudge Larry and--ever the optimist--suggest that either there is another animal in the house, or we have an intruder. Clearly sharing my hope for a wayward cat, Larry gets out of bed, grabs the big flashlight that stands next to his nightstand, and marches into the living room.

His fantasy of a rogue feline lasts about five seconds, until he sees the light at the back of the house, coming from the open refrigerator. Then, just as his brain starts to form the question, "What kind of animal could open a refrigerator door? A possum?" he realizes that the refrigerator door has grown a set of human legs. He yells. "Get the hell out of here!"

When Larry yells, I hit the little red alarm button on the wall next to the bed, and a siren (which sounds too much like a car alarm to alarm anyone) splits the air. And then I have a vision. I see Bette Midler in the party scene in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" shrieking, "Call 911! Call 911!" The security company is supposed to call the police, but the extra precaution can't hurt and might help; ask any man who wears both a belt and suspenders. So I call 911.

A woman's voice answers.

"There's someone in our house," I say.

"Are you in your house?" she asks.


That gets her attention.

Meanwhile, the Hungry Burglar has stepped from behind the refrigerator door, in medias brew, and, without bothering to finish his beer, decides to call it a night. Maybe he thinks Larry's flashlight is a gun. Maybe he thinks anybody brash enough to confront him will keep coming. He runs outside, kicks down our wooden gate and takes off.

The 911 lady keeps me on the line while she talks to the police. I call out to Larry to make sure that he is all right; he calls back that the burglar is running up the alley; I peek out the bedroom window and tell Ms. 911 that I see a man running up the alley; and she tells me that an officer will be at our house at any moment.

At which point the doorbell rings. Neither of us is what you might call dressed for company, so we throw on our clothes and allow Officer D. Thomas, who is reassuringly well-groomed for 2 in the morning, into our house. He feeds Larry's description of the intruder into his two-way radio to other cops in the neighborhood. Are we interested in a guy in a ski jacket? No. Our visitor wore a camouflage jacket. While we wait, we take a tour of the house to try to figure out what happened.

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