Burglar with a Conscience

Written by Harold McNeill on November 17th, 2011. Posted in Police Notebook


A few ways of looking at at Burglar

Some people are not cut out to become successful criminals whether they be Bank Robbers or Wall Street traders. Why? Perhaps because a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong overwhelms them when doing the things that must be done if they are to become successful in their chosen trade. Such was the dilemma faced by Lawrence, the thirty something, near-do-well in this case for, try as he may, he could not bring himself to hurt an old lady who lived alone and who reminded him so much of his own mother.

Lawrence was one of those men who could be aged from 15 to 60, who could never quite find a real purpose life. Neither good, nor really bad, the fact they were never able to find a job with which suited them and never willing to put in more than the minimum effort to get by, they often began with petty crime as that seemed to best suit their lifestyle. The logic – if you could steal a box of cookies, a record or tape, hire a taxi or eat a meal and then skip, well, why pay for it. Not ‘gonna’ hurt anyone is it?  How it all begin, who knows, but over the years their lives often spiralled downward, first into soft drugs, then, perhaps hard drugs, petty crimes that might have, at one time at least, escalated as their needs became greater. It was not long before they held an arms length of petty crime convictions. The outcome was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While Lawrence was not new to crime, his ventures to this point in his life had been restricted to shoplifting and petty thefts at those times when he had no regular work. With no job prospects, he was hurting for cash to buy his groceries and pay the overdue rent on his tiny Victoria West apartment. Neither was shoplifting very profitable. It was easy to steal stuff but market value on the street might sometimes be as little as ten cents on the dollar. It took a lot of stealing to make a buck and getting caught mean a trip to the police station, court dates and either fines or jail followed by probation. Then one evening over a toke, a friend suggested he might try his had at breaking into private homes as they often provided a much better payday. While Lawrence had concerns about getting into this line of work, he decided to give it a try.”

Now, on his sixth trip and as many break-ins, he was searching for his seventh as he got off the bus near the Estevan Shopping Centre. As he walked towards Beach Drive that familiar pit in his stomach began to grow. He was just as nervous now as he was on his first trip a couple of weeks back.  The only thing that kept him going was knowing that he would likely walk away with a pretty good haul.

After reach Beach Drive he headed north towards Uplands Park, scanning houses while looking for those giving the appearance of being unoccupied and which provided a bit of concealment from the prying eyes of neighbours. It was not difficult in North Oak Bay, as the lots were big, the homes well established with plenty of trees and shrubs. Although he had not come close to being caught while in someones home, he was still apprehensive about the prospect and was not sure how he would react if confronted by a homeowner or police. He guessed he would run but, then again, his stomach was so upset who knows what might happen.

At that moment he was shaken from his reverie when he spotted a good possible nestled into Uplands Park a few properties south of Cattle Point. He walked to the front door and rang the bell with the plan that if someone answered, he would either ask for directions or inquire if the homeowner needed any work done around the house or garden. Actually, he was not adverse to washing a few windows or raking some leaves to pick up a little extra cash and it was a nice day. It might even help to settle his stomach.

But, it was unlikely he would be put to work, as he had become pretty good a spotting unoccupied houses – mail still in the box, newspapers or flyers on the porch, drapes pulled during day or open and no lights on when getting dark, no car in the driveway or garage or any of a dozen other small hints that even an inexperienced burglar would soon learn.burglar with pry bar

Photo from Web: Burglar prepares to pry window with his favourite tool, “Mr. Crowbar”. Locked houses, even with alarms, provided little defence against a burglar. The guy in this photo was obviously not concerned that window in the neighbouring house looked directly onto his job site.

When no one answered, Lawrence moved around the house looking for an easy point of entry. Finding everything locked, he selected a well hidden, low window that provided easy access to kitchen, smashed the glass with a small pry bar he carried in his backpack, unlocked the hasp, pushed the window open and climbed in…

The homeowner, Mrs. Johnson, now in her mid-eighties, had been widowed just a few months earlier and was still coming to terms with the loss of her husband of sixty years. To fill the days she often drove to the Monterey Seniors Centre to play cards, have coffee and chat over the occasional lunch. Some days she did not return home until after 5:00 pm. and while she was never fearful of living along, she always took care to lock the doors and windows of her stylish single level home.

On returning today she sensed something was wrong the moment she entered the house. There was a blank spot on the hallway wall that was once filled by her late husband’s favourite oil painting. It only took a quick glance into the living room to note several other paintings were also missing including a few painted by her late husband. As the initial shock subsided, Mrs. Johnson remembered advice she had been given at a recent Neighbourhood Watch meeting – leave the house, get to a phone and call the police.

Within minutes two officers arrived, quickly determined the burglar was no longer in the house and began the investigation. The point of entry was noted and an identification officer called to dust for fingerprints and secure other physical evidence. After compiling a list of the stolen paintings the officers circulated it around the city in hopes that someone might phone in a tip.

The modus operandi (MO) of this burglary was similar to half dozen others that had taken place over past couple of weeks, but as of yet no leads had been developed and the files reassigned to the Detective Office.

Three days after this latest burglary, Detective-Sergeant Fowler and I attended the residence after the Mrs. Johnson reported receiving a phone call from a “nice young man” telling her he had her paintings and wanted to return them. There was a catch – the man wanted a ‘reward’ for returning them.

The woman was rightfully skeptical about the call as the story of the theft had appeared in several local papers and on TV. There had even been photo of one of the paintings. She told the man to call her back later as she had company and did not want to discuss the matter with them present. The man agreed and on hanging up she immediately phoned the police.

At her home a tape recorder was attached to her phone and we coached Mrs. Johnson as to the general arrangements. “Ask the man to describe each of the paintings and if it appeared they were hers, tell him to bring them to her house as it was hard for her to get around. Let him bring up the subject of the reward and when he did, ask him how much…” were just a few of the suggestions.

An hour later the phone rang, it was the suspect, so the discussion began. The woman was calm, collected and very astute with her questions and answers. She never gave the smallest hint of the police being involved and was able to lead the man along with considerable ease. The culprit described the paintings in detail and told the woman a $2500 reward would be in order. Naturally, the caller did not want a cheque and he agreed he would bring the paintings to her home the next morning at around 10:00 am.

In preparation for the next day, Garth and I enlisted the aid of the CLEU (Co-ordinated Law Enforcement Unit) whose office was nearby on Cadboro Bay Road. They agreed to provide two or three unmarked units to cover the area in order to watch for the arrival of the suspect. We had no idea how he might be travelling, whether he might have accomplices or whether he might be dangerous although he certainly did not sound the least bit dangerous on the phone. For that matter, he sounded almost apologetic for having taken the woman’s paintings.

The next morning well before the exchange was to take place, Garth and I entered the house and where we intended to remain in order to insure the safety of the woman and to affect an arrest if the paintings were turned over. We had planned for a few alternatives – if there were no paintings but sufficient evidence of a shakedown, we would arrest. Alternatively, if it appeared the suspect had stashed the paintings at another location, we might, depending on how the conversation went, allow him leave and the CLEU teams would keep him under surveillance.  In any event, no matter which route the man took, he was walking into a heap of trouble and was clearly headed for jail sooner or later.

Just before the appointed time, the surveillance team reported a lone male walking north on Beach Drive from Estevan Ave. He seemed a likely suspect as he was carrying a large package that could be the paintings, seemed nervous and was clearly out of place in this area of affluence. It was assumed he must have travelled to the area either by transit (getting off somewhere around Estevan Ave.) or, perhaps, had parked a car some distance away.  We still could not rule out others being involved.

stolen-paintingWhile Mrs. Johnson was nervous, she never once hesitated to meet with the suspect. The doorbell rang and on answering, the young man was polite and respectful of the older woman. He introduced himself and stated he had her paintings and it was clear the voice was the same as the caller of the previous day.  As pre-arranged, the woman invited the man into the living room where he displayed the paintings by carefully leaning them against a chesterfield and a few chairs. Garth and I maintained a listening post just around the corner and had our weapons at ready. We were also recording the event for ‘posterity’.

The young man apologized for the inconvenience he had caused the woman but made no statement suggesting he had been the burglar.  After the victim agreed all paintings were present, the man asked about the ‘reward’ at which point the woman presented him with twenty-five, crisp, one hundred dollar bills which she carefully counted for the benefit of the tape. This was one very cool lady.

When the suspect took possession of the money, Garth and I entered the room and with our guns pointed at him, stepped between him and Mrs. Johnson and ordered him to put up his hands in the air. The scene was almost comical as the man lifted his arms high while holding about half of the pile of $100 bills in each hand. The look of shock on his face will long be etched in my mind. We hand cuffed, searched and bundled him off to the police car while another officer remained with the victim to tidy up things at the scene and take photos of the pictures and the setting.

At the office, the suspect readily identified himself and it soon became clear he was not a hardened criminal. In fact he seemed genuinely remorseful for all the trouble he had caused. He carefully explained that he had run into some hard times after he had lost his job and could not seem to land another. He then explained how his bills were piling up and he started shoplifting to make ends meet and how he slowly graduated to the occasional break-in including this one in which he took the paintings.  Most of his ill gotten goods ended up at various pawn shops but he had used one in particular, a Fort Street shop, the owner of which was a shady character who never asked any questions and was more than willing to take property that was obviously stolen.1

Lawrence told us that a couple of days after the break-in he had read a news story about some of the missing paintings having been family treasures and how the owner was very upset about there having been stolen.  After thinking it over, he decided to return the paintings and to instead seek a ‘reward’.

After concluding our initial interview, Lawrence took us to his apartment near Tillicum Mall where he pointed out numerous items that had been stolen over the past several weeks.  Most were small items shoplifted from stores in various malls and of a type that would be difficult to identify (e.g. kitchen utensils, pots, pans, bowels, towels, linens, knickknacks, bathroom supplies, etc.). It was rather touching how he had comfortably outfitted his entire apartment entirely with stolen property.

Garth and I boxed up everything, arranged for a truck to pick it up and returned the lot to police storage locker where it remained until after the court case was concluded. Lawrence opted to plead guilty to all charges so Garth and I had little contact with him after the original investigation.  All recovered identifiable property was returned to various owners but the property which Lawrence told us had been sold at the Fort Street Pawn Shop was never recovered. For all the items that could not be identified, Lawrence signed a release and it was turned over to Goodwill Enterprises. The case then faded into history.2


(1) Several years later, Detective Constable Pittam and I had a run-in with the owner of the Fort Street shop after several major burglaries in Oak Bay. Much of the property in those high profile cases was never recovered but the case was particularly interesting in that it involved major criminal from the United States who periodically visited British Columbia for a little R&R and, of course, to pick up a little extra travel cash.  It was his Florida Penitentiary ID Card that eventually led to his downfall.

(2) Three years after the Beach Drive burglary, I was reading the Times Colonist Want Ads while looking for farm supplies (Lynn and I had a small farm in West Saanich off Interurban Road) when I came across and interesting item. Not far from our farm, was a farm sale that included a several items we could use. We popped over and, low and behold, the young man who greeted us was no other than Lawrence.

We had a long chat about his life since we had last met on Beach Drive and he told us that after spending several months in prison, he decided to make a clean break from a life of crime and was now learning the saddler trade. He harboured not an ounce of resentment as his life had been turned around and he was doing well.  Whether Lawrence was able to continue following the straight and narrow is not known.


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    September 18, 2019 |

    […] The Federal Conservatives and Seymour Riding Association complied but one day later those memes will be shared by every third party social media site and by thousands of supporters where the message will be taken as a statements of the fact.  Five years from now those memes will still be circulating. (Link here to background on the SNC Lavalin matter) […]

  • Harold McNeill

    August 21, 2019 |

    For those who followed the earlier post about the cost of ICBC Auto insurance coverage in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (linked in comments) here is another follow-up article.

    This article again confirms earlier assertions that public-private insurers such as that which ICBC provides, is among the best in Canada in terms of rates and coverage. A link is provided in the original story.

  • Harold McNeill

    August 16, 2019 |

    Many thanks for reviewing the article Elizabeth. There are so many areas of our society in which populism carries the day, although I think what is happening with the ICBC is that groups having a vested interest in private insurance would dearly love to dislodge ICBC from their preferred position. That being said, I think was a good move to have only portions of the insurance coverage in BC being held by ICBC and other portions being made available through private enterprise.

  • Elizabeth Mary McInnes, CAIB

    August 15, 2019 |

    It’s a breath of fresh air to see a resident of British Columbia look to review all the facts over believing what is reported in the news or just following along with the negative stigma of the masses. Your article truly showcases that with a little reform to ICBC’s provincial system – British Columbia could be a true leader for other provinces in Canada. Very well written article!

  • Harold McNeill

    August 13, 2019 |

    August 13, 2019. The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a private enterprise group not unlike the Fraser Institute, is again on the campaign trail. They state ICBC rates are the highest in Canada, but, thankfully, Global BC inserted a section indicating the Insurance Bureau cherry-picked the highest number in BC and the lowest numbers in AB, ON and other Eastern Provinces. If you take a few minutes to check reliable sources you will find BC rates, are the lowest in Canada.

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold