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Intruder Shatters a Home's Aura of Safety

'There he is, standing in my living room' -- the 'Spider-Man burglar.' A personal view of a startling encounter.

November 09, 2003|Seth Sutel | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Coming home to my apartment, I turn on the light and there he is, standing in my living room.

The burglar and I freeze, sizing each other up. His arms are loaded, as if he's been on a shopping spree: My laptop computer, which he has tucked into its case; a bag of mine, which he has packed with some of my clothes; a digital camera.

He's wearing my favorite T-shirt, which fits him perfectly. I picture him rummaging through my closet and feel an urge to rip the shirt off his chest.

But I notice that he's also holding a flashlight that had been in the same backpack where I keep a locking-blade hunting knife.

My mind is racing. Gotta call the cops -- his eyes are so bugged out -- how'd he get in here? -- had to be the fire escape -- he got the window open -- must have been unlocked.

"Don't move!" he's saying now, his face all lit up and looking like someone is jolting him with electricity. "There's a guy in the next room. He's got a gun. He'll shoot if you come near me!"

I wait a beat. No other guy is appearing, but I'm staying where I am, close enough to the front door in case I need to run out.

"I mean it, man, he's crazy," the guy is saying. "He's high on crack and he'll shoot you."

"Put my stuff down," I say.

My face starts to feel hot, and my fists are clenching, although I figure I can't risk going after him.

He puts down the laptop and the bag, but holds on to the camera. I remember that I've already downloaded the pictures from it.

"Put that down too," I say, pointing to the camera. He seems disappointed to be giving up his loot, but at the same time, there's an odd look on his face, like he's drinking in everything about this moment. Like he's getting high from being caught.

He starts to back away toward the bedroom, saying he's going to put the camera back where he found it. I dash out and bang on some neighbors' doors, hoping that I can get them to call the police. It's after midnight on a Friday. No one's answering.

When I get back, just moments later, he's gone.

*

The police come quickly, look over the apartment and pepper me with questions. How tall was he? How old? How much do you think he weighed? Any visible scars? What was his hair like?

Then they start talking about how this fit "the pattern."

My intruder, they say, might well be the same guy responsible for more than a dozen burglaries over the last two weeks, all in this neighborhood. The press has dubbed him the "Spider-Man burglar" for his ability to sneak up fire escapes and drain pipes.

"Spider-Man" is clearly embarrassing the police. He's striking nearly every night, sometimes a few times in the same night. Since he is frequently caught in the act, the police figure that it's only a matter of time before he hurts or kills someone.

More police are showing up in my apartment, in apparently increasing seniority. Plainclothes guys come. A helicopter and a sniffing dog team have been dispatched, they say.

What a change. It hasn't been a week since I'd been back in my apartment, having just returned from Ann Arbor, Mich., a quiet, leafy college town where they laugh at newcomers for locking their doors. Now I've been robbed by a guy who's the target of an NYPD manhunt.

Since I am one of only a few people to get a really good look at "Spidey," I'm suddenly a star witness. The police have big plans for me -- looking at mug shots, working with a sketch artist, riding around the neighborhood in an unmarked car.

I agree to do what I can, and the police leave. Finally, I can sleep. But I can't get those bugged-out eyes out of my mind.

*

My local police station has a computer system set up for showing mug shots to witnesses, but it's hopelessly slow and prone to locking up. Not exactly the state-of-the-art crime labs you see on TV.

I settle down in front of the screen with a cup of coffee and start to scroll. It's the morning after the break-in, and I'm still groggy. The fingerprint-dusting people arrived early that day to do their work, having been tied up the night before with a multiple homicide.

An acid feeling that started in my stomach the night before is getting worse. I'm looking through mug shots of guys selected for "abnormal" eyes.

I flip through picture after picture of hardened criminals who see the world through eyes that are mangled, crossed, skewed, bugged-out or discolored. I wonder who these people are and what they did.

*

Next is the sketch artist. It's a few days later, and I'm downtown at police headquarters.

I've always been fascinated by this process: How do you make an image emerge on paper from another person's memory?

It can work, I know. One of the first stories I covered for my college newspaper was about a woman who was raped, and someone turned the guy in after recognizing him from a police sketch that we published.

For the artist and me, the process takes about two hours. I pick out pictures from mug shots of guys who have eyes similar to those of my intruder, then ears, then mouth, then skin tone.

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