Cops of the Week

by Melissa Bailey | October 5, 2006 8:30 AM |

These members of the police burglary unit staked out Westville streets in undercover cars, then nabbed a skinny “cat burglar” who they say had broken into up to 15 homes. Here’s how they did it.

“We were getting hurt up in the Westville area for a couple of months,” recalled Det. Sgt. Kevin Costin (at right in picture), who supervises the 10-member robbery/burglary unit. Homes throughout Westville — Roger, Cleveland and Forest Roads, Central Avenue, Chapel Street — were getting broken into throughout July and August. The cat burglar — so called because he slipped into houses when people were still home — struck between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 a.m.

During one break-in on Forest Road, a resident came face to face with the thief. The intruder ran away, but now cops had a description: A small, thin, dark-skinned man wearing a blue backpack.

Police say the burglar had used that backpack to steal jewelry, digital cameras and laptops. Some items were recovered at the M & M Pawn Shop on George and Howe streets. Others have never been found.

Around the beginning of September, the burglary unit launched a stakeout. That meant getting up early to cruise Westville streets for signs of the skinny thief.

“To sit in a car that early in the morning drives you crazy,” said Det. Hilda Kilpatrick (pictured at right). Kilpatrick, whose melodic speech hints at her North Carolinan roots, worked a city desk job for 13 years before deciding to become a cop. Now she’s a grandmother, 21-year veteran of the department, and a sharp-nosed senior detective.

During the stakeout, Kilpatrick and company would dress in plain clothes and go out in undercover cars. She’d watch each car that slowed down to see if anyone got out. If they did, she’d ask them if they knew anything about any prowling men.

After staking out Westville streets for about two weeks, Det. Brett Runlett (a former Cop of the Week himself) spotted a man who fit the description.

“It was about 7 o’clock, 7:30. Brett said, ‘I see this guy walking,’” recalled Kilpatrick. “He was walking and he pretended he was talking on the cell phone.” Neighbors had reported a suspicious man pacing in that area with a cell phone before.

Kilpatrick and Runlett approached the man. They asked him what he was doing. He said he didn’t speak English. “Then we looked, and he had a screwdriver sticking out of his pocket.”

Noting the burglary tool, they asked him to open his backpack. Inside, they found an envelope of blank checks, recalled Kilpatrick. “He said, ‘This not mine! This not mine!’”

Kilpatrick told him, “Of course it’s not yours!” His bookbag was packed with other loot, including collectable coins. They ‘cuffed him. He tried to run, but was caught.

Detectives tracked the blank checks to an address on the 100-block of Central Avenue. A man there confirmed his home had been burglarized. Fingerprints on the windows — and inside six other burglarized homes — matched those of the suspect, a 32 year-old man from Pennsylvania. The man already had an arrest warrant out of New York.

Kilpatrick said the cat burglar had used a trick she’d never seen before to break into vinyl windows. Since vinyl is more pliable than wood, he was able to pry open window frames with the tip of a screwdriver: “He just knew how to pop them out.” Only 5 foot 4 inches tall and rail thin, he had the perfect physique for the job.

“He was a pretty good burglar, a professional,” said Costin, adding the investigation is still under way, and the man may be responsible for up to 15 burglaries.

Members of the robbery/burglary squad — Detectives Daryl Breland, Pasquale Marino, Victor Herrera, and Michael Hunter, and Officers Jeffrey Fletcher and Manuella Vensel (at left in the top photo) — all worked together on the bust.

They’re confident they hooked a big fish, but their work is far from over. Tuesday, for instance, a house on Alston Avenue — right near where their captured cat burglar had been working — was burglarized in the middle of the day.

To read past “Cop of the Week” features, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(To suggest an officer to be featured, click here.)

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