Burglar with a Conscience

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


A few ways of looking at Burglar.

I. Background on the Suspect

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 planned to become successful in their chosen trade. Such was the dilemma faced by Lawrence, the thirty-something, neer-do-well who, try as he may, could not bring himself to hurt an older lady who lived alone and who reminded him so much of his own mother.

Lawrence could never quite find a real purpose in life. Neither good nor really bad, the fact he was never able to find a job that suited him and never willing to put in more than the minimum effort to get by, he began with petty crime as that seemed to best suited to his lifestyle.  While some who followed the same path may have suffered from a debilitating and ongoing life challenge, Lawrence suffered from a lack of motivation.

From Lawrence’s point of view, if you could steal a meal, record, or tape, or some needed household supplies, why pay for it? Not ‘gonna’ hurt anyone is it?  How it all began, who knows, but over the years for many who travelled the same path, their lives often spiralled downward. Sometimes it was drugs, and when this was the case, the need often escalated into more brazen, and often dangerous, crimes. The outcome was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shoplifting, to this point his most regular extracurricular from of employment, was seldom profitable enough to pay the rent. It was easy to steal stuff but when the street market value might be as little as ten cents on the dollar, it was tough to raise enough. It took a lot of stealing to make a buck and getting caught meant a trip to the police station, court dates and either fines or jail followed by probation.

With a list of petty crime convictions to his credit, he needed a more regular income. Then one evening over a toke, a friend suggested he try his hand at breaking and entering into private homes. It was easy to see that, for his friend anyway, it provided a much better payday. While Lawrence had concerns about getting into this line of work, he decided to give it a try.

2. The Crime

Now, on his sixth trip and as many break-ins in Saanich and Oak Bay, he was searching for his seventh. His foray into this new line of work actually provided a more regular source of saleable items than did shoplifting. One of his bigger challenges was not having a car so he usually travelled to distant parts of the area by bus as a taxi, even if he could afford it, did not seem like a good idea.

On this day, after getting off the bus near the Estevan Shopping Centre. he sauntered towards Beach Drive. Even though he had broken in six other homes over the past two weeks, that familiar pit in his stomach began to grow. He was just as nervous now as he was on that first trip and didn’t know if he could keep up the pace.  The only thing that kept him going was knowing that he would likely walk away with a pretty good haul.

Reaching Beach Drive near the Esplanade, he headed north towards Uplands Park, scanning houses while looking for those which suggested no one was home and that provided a bit of concealment from the prying eyes of neighbours. It was not difficult in North Oak Bay, as many of the lots were big and the homes well established with plenty of trees and shrubs.

Although he had not come close to being caught while in someone’s home, he was still apprehensive about the prospect and was not sure how he would react if confronted by the 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. For daytime burglars, this was the normal routine.  Strangely, for Lawrence at least, he was not averse to washing a few windows or pulling some weeks in order to pick up a little extra cash. As it was a nice day, that might even help to settle his stomach.

However, after waiting for a time and ringing again, it seemed there was no one to put him to work as he had become pretty good a spotting unoccupied houses. A full mailbox, newspapers, parcels or flyers by the front door or on the porch, drapes pulled during the day or open and no lights on when getting dark. Not seeing a car in the driveway was not a reliable sign as many homeowners in these larger properties parked in their garage. There were dozens of smaller hints that every experienced burglar would soon learn. If the door was locked there might even be a key under the mat or in the mailbox.  The one thing that might be a deterrence was an alarm system but for an experienced burglar that was not necessarily the case.  Lawrence, on the other hand, was an amateur and an alarm would cause him to leave.burglar with pry bar

Photo from Web: Burglar prepares to pry window with his favourite tool, “Mr Crowbar”. Locked houses, even those 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 the kitchen, smashed the glass with a small pry bar he carried in his ample backpack, unlocked the hasp, pushed the window open and climbed in…

3. The Victim

The homeowner, Flora Johnson (a fictitious name), was now in her mid-eighties. She had been widowed 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 for events or 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 home one day 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 small 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.  She left and went next door to phone 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 daytime burglary was similar to half dozen others that had taken place over the past couple of weeks, but as of yet no leads had been developed in Saanich or Oak, and the files reassigned to the Detective Office.

4. The Police close in

Three days after this latest burglary, Detective-Sergeant Fowler and Detective McNeill attended the residence after 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 wondered if there was might be a ‘reward’ for returning them.

The woman was skeptical about the call as the story of the theft had appeared in the Oak Bay Star and other papers. It had also been mentioned briefly on the TV news. Photos of one of the paintings had also been widely circulated. She told the man to call her back later as she had company and did not want to discuss the matter while they were present. The man agreed and on hanging up she immediately phoned the police.

When Fowler and McNeill arrived, a tape recorder was attached to her phone and Mrs Johnson was coached 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.  This woman was an amazingly quick study and we had no doubt she would ask the questions no matter which way the call went.

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 slightest hint of the police being present 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 nice. 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.  Mrs Johnson arranged with a friend to bring her the money after telling them what was happening.  The woman was amazing and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the change of pace in her life.  She would certainly have some stories to tell if all went well.

In preparation for the next day, Fowler enlisted the aid of the CLEU (Co-ordinated Law Enforcement) whose office was nearby on Cadboro Bay Road in the Willo-o-way shopping centre. They agreed to provide two or three unmarked units to cover the area in order to watch for the arrival of the suspect. The detectives had no idea how the suspect might be travelling, whether he might have accomplices or whether he might be dangerous. His voice on the tape suggested he was younger, was nervous and yet sounded as if he was really concerned about the victim getting her paintings back. He did not sound the least bit dangerous on the phone.

The next morning, and well before the exchange was to take place, Fowler and McNeill entered the house to make sure Mrs Johnson was prepared and to go over the last minute instructions. For the detectives, the safety of the woman was their first order of business and then, if all was going well, to affect an arrest if the paintings were turned over.

If an immediate arrest was the best path, a few alternatives were considered – if there were no paintings but sufficient evidence of a shakedown, the suspect would be arrested. Alternatively, if it appeared the suspect had stashed the paintings at another location, and depending on how the conversation went, he might be allowed 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. The suspect was carrying a large bag that could well be the paintings. He also 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 and waiting in a car on some side street.

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. Sgt. Fowler and I maintained a listening post just around the corner and had our weapons at ready. We were also recording the event for ‘posterity’.  (Note: No, Mrs Johnson did not have a Munch, I just borrowed a copy from the Web and I’ll return it someday)

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.

5. The Arrest

When the suspect took possession of the money, Fowler and McNeill entered the room and with their guns pointed at the man, stepped between him and Mrs Johnson and ordered him to put up his hands in the air. The scene was almost comical as when the man lifted his arms high he was holding about half of the $100 bills in each hand. The look of shock on his face will long be etched in my mind. We handcuffed, 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 had used one pawn shop in particular, a Fort Street business where the owner was known to be 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 the Tillicum Mall where he pointed out numerous items that had been stolen over the past weeks and months.  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 almost entirely with stolen property he had picked up a garage sales.

The detectives boxed up everything, arranged for a truck to pick it up and returned the lot to the police storage locker where it remained until after the court case was concluded. Lawrence opted to plead guilty to all charges so the officers had little contact with him after the original investigation.  All identifiable property was returned to various owners but the property which Lawrence said 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 Sergeant Pittam and McNeill had a run-in with the owner of the Fort Street shop after several major silverware burglaries in North Oak Bay as well as parts of Esquimalt. 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, McNeill was reading the Times Colonist Want Ads while looking for farm supplies as he and his wife Lynn had a small farm in West Saanich off Interurban Road). In the paper, he when came across an interesting item at a farm sale they could put to good use. The couple popped over and, low and behold, the young man who greeted us was no other than Lawrence.

The McNeill’s chatted 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 seemed to be doing well.  Whether Lawrence was able to continue following the straight and narrow is not known.

Note: Fictitious names were used for both the victim and the suspect.


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  • Harold McNeill

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Rick,
    Great to hear from you and trust all is going well. Our family members are all doing well but it must be pretty tough for a lot of people. I had once heard you were going to do some writing but never heard anything further. I would be most interested, but do you think the OB News have archives back to that time. Any link or information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Did you keep copies? Regards, Harold

  • Rick Gonder

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Harold
    About 22 years ago I spent several weeks going through the OBPD archives. I wrote several stories that were published in the OB News. Feel free to use if they are of value to what you are doing.
    Keep this up, I’m enjoying it and it brings back memories.

  • Harold McNeill

    April 12, 2020 |

    Hi Susan,

    Glad you had a chance to read. I decided to update these stories by proofreading as there were several grammatical errors in many. Hopefully, many of those glaring errors have been removed.

    Many of the stories carry a considerable amount of social comment regarding the way the criminal justice system is selectively applied. Next up involves a young woman from near Cold Lake, Alberta, who was abducted by an older male from Edmonton. Her story is the story of hundreds of young men and woman who have found themselves alone and without help when being prayed upon unscrupulous predators.

    Cheers, Harold

  • Susan

    April 8, 2020 |

    Great read, Harold!…and really not surprising, sad as that may sound.
    Keep the stories coming, it is fascinating to hear them.
    Love from us out here in the “sticks”, and stay safe from this unknown predator called Covid.

  • Harold McNeill

    February 17, 2020 |

    Update:  Times Colonist, February 16, 2020, articles by Louise Dickson, She got her gun back, then she killed herself,” and,  Mounties decision to return gun to PTSD victim haunts her brother. 

    Summary: I don’t know how many read the above articles, but they contained the tragic details about young woman, Krista Carle’, who took her own life after suffering for years with PTSD. While tragedies such as this play out across Canada every week, the reason this story resonates so profoundly is that the final, tragic, conclusion took place here in Victoria. Continued in the article.

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    February 15, 2020 |

    Testing the comments section after changes made. Updated: February 10, 2020

    Further to the update below (February 1, 2020), I note that since the government announced a “No-Fault” insurance plan for BC, Robert Mulligan is taking a slightly different tack, suggesting that no-fault will only increase the problems by taking away the right of an injured party to sue.

    I’ve copied just one sentence from Mulligan’s longer discussion, “And I think people don’t like the idea that somebody who’s, for example, was drunk and ran into you and you become a quadriplegic is going to be treated exactly the same way you would in terms of getting benefits (go to minute 00:15:26 to see his full comment)

    Statements like this appear to be simple fear-mongering. As was the case in the past, people who commit criminal offences, as well as other forms of negligence while driving, may well lose their insurance coverage and in all likelihood would be sued by ICBC to recover costs of the claim. (Link here to Mulligan’s full conversation on CFAX radio)

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