Chris Hebdon knew how to hunt down lurking threats like global warming and military drones. It took him a while to catch on to the parking-lot prowler right outside his window.
He eventually succeeded. Police credit him with helping them to put an alleged serial thief behind bars, where the suspect remains today.
“He was key,” top downtown cop Sgt. Tammi Means said of Hebdon.
Her cops have wrestled with a rash of car break-ins in the Trumbull-State Street area. The recent arrest may offer some relief.
While the cops praised Hebdon for acting the way they hope more citizens would in helping fight crime, Hebdon was kicking himself. This was the second time he’d seen the alleged burglar at work. In his opinion, he blew it the first time.
The experience led him to revisit some of his assumptions—about cops, and about potential crooks.
That first time, Hebdon, a 26-year-old Yale anthropology doctoral student, was reading in his first-floor Trumbull Street apartment, an hour before sundown on Sunday Feb. 22. Hebdon’s a busy guy: In addition to studying and teaching, he organized a conference at Yale Law School last weekend called “Thinking About Drone Warfare.” He moved to New Haven last August; two weeks later somebody smashed his parked car’s window.
He grew up partly in Mexico, where he learned to distrust police after getting picked up and being taken on one too many rides that ended at ATMs. The cops were looking for bribes.
On the other hand, he spent much of his formative years in Valley Center, California (population 9,277). That experience, combined with his anthropological training, led him not to leap to conclusions when he saw a man in a black jacket poking around the cars parked in the interior-block lot right outside the tall window by which Hebdon sat that February afternoon.
“I’m from a small town. Everybody looks into everybody’s cars. I didn’t know how big cities work. For all I knew, he could be a resident,” Hebdon recalled.
The man was black. Hebdon is white. With an anthropologist’s bent toward “cultural relativism,” he sought to avoid making assumptions.
The man kept poking around. Hebdon kept watching. The man looked into windows of surrounding buildings (though not Hebdon’s, at a far end of the lot). The man spent a while peering into a particular black Mercedes.
“At that point, I had a concept that he was up to no good,” Hebdon recalled. “It probably occurred to me that there was a chance he was wanting to break in.”
Hebdon watched the man enter the side of a building, attached to Caseus restaurant. “I thought, ‘Oh, he went to his apartment.’ Totally did not occur to me to call the police.”
Ten or 15 minutes later, the man reemerged in the lot holding a white plastic bag. He walked to a silver Toyota Camry (pictured) parked in a corner by the back entrance to a Whitney Avenue tutoring storefront. Hebdon said he watched the man “super fast” break the back right window. Then the man snagged a laptop computer “with all its cords,” making no attempt to hide it.
The man ducked between two buildings, out of Hebdon’s sight.
“By now my alarm bells went off,” Hebdon said. He called the police—the main police number. Not 911. “I thought that was only for big, big emergencies.” OK, the dispatcher told him. “We’ll take the information. Where is he going?”
Suddenly Hebdon realized the man might be armed. He wanted to do something. He walked to his front porch—and saw the man emerge from an alley. The thief had apparently stopped in a stairwell to conceal his purloined laptop, Hebdon thought. The man was obviously hiding something as he walked. His iPhone 5 in hand, Hebdon followed from a distance and took photos of the man.
As the man disappeared down Whitney, Hebdon received a return call from an officer. But Hebdon had lost track of the thief.
Another officer happened to be sitting in a patrol car in a lot across Trumbull Street. Hebdon told him his story. He had gotten several good looks at the man’s face. He had the photos, but they weren’t close up. The officer didn’t ask for the photos, he said. The officer drove away looking for the man, to no avail.
Hebdon learned he should have called 911. “I felt stupid. I felt I let the guy with the Camry down.” In subsequent weeks, he kept an eye out his window.
In March, Hebdon headed to Mexico to do research on the effects of a cap-and-trade carbon-offset legislation aimed at combating global warming (a joint effort with California). He returned home to find that someone had removed a screen from one of his apartment windows in an apparent attempt to break in.
“Luckily, I had locked it like hell,” he said. He had this feeling that “somebody is fishing in this spot. And he’s willing to come in to get my stuff.”
Fast forward to last week, Wednesday, an hour or so before sunset. Hebdon was sitting by his tall window again, reading a Mexican history book. He saw the burglar return, wearing the same black jacket. He saw the man start peering into cars.
This time, he called 911 right away, gave a description.
Hebdon poured himself a cup of black tea, then took his cup outside to his front porch and pretended he was checking his email on his iPhone. His plan was surreptitiously to take more pictures.
But the suspect was gone.
Meanwhile, a call went out on the police radio. Officer Dan Hartnett, who works the downtown area, was getting into his car at the police station. He heard the report—and raced to the scene.
“I knew that we’d been getting hit hard over there with car break-ins in that area,” Hartnett recalled. “We wanted to grab this guy.”
Based on Hebdon’s description, Hartnett spotted the suspect strolling down Trumbull toward Lincoln Street. Once the suspect spotted Hartnett, he ran onto a front porch and threw a screwdriver into the bushes, according to Hartnett.
Hartnett noticed a “for rent” sign by the porch where the man stood. “There’s a good chance this guy doesn’t live here,” Hartnett figured. He and other officers stopped the man and questioned him.
Meanwhile, Hebdon received a phone call. Could he meet an officer at the corner of Trumbull and Lincoln?
Hebdon went to meet him, and put up the hood of his sweatshirt in order to stay somewhat incognito.
It turned out the police weren’t planning to put him in the man’s sights. Officer Paul Kenney had Hebdon stand behind a bush. The alleged burglar was inside a cop car. Officers had had him step outside the car; then Hebdon was asked if he recognized the man.
He did. He was certain. That was the guy.
The police arrested the man, charged him with criminal trespass, attempt to commit burglary, and possession of burglary tools. He has yet to enter a plea, according to the state judicial database. He remains incarcerated on a $5,000 bond. He also has separate trespass, assault, breach of peace, larceny, credit-card theft, and possession of burglary tools charges pending against him from arrests in December, February, and March.
Hebdon was “stunned” by the speed with which the police responded to his call, and their professionalism on the job. He noted how none of the officers revealed any information about the case or in any way steered him before he made his identification of the suspect.
That would have never happened in Mexico, he said. He called the “display of effectiveness and prowess” his own “minor parallel to the way the police responded to the Boston [marathon] incident.”
Told of Hebdon’s self-doubts, Hartnett said that the civilian should feel proud instead. The police need to more people to do what Hebdon did in order to stem crimes like burglary.
“He did all the work,” Hartnett insisted. “he guided us to him [and made the identification]. The public is really our eyes and ears out there. Hopefully a lot more people will keep an eye.
Plus, thanks to Hebdon’s account, the police have an arrest warrant affidavit in the works to charge the man in the February theft of the black laptop. Hebdon’s photos (like this one) were taken from too far away to be of much use, according to Hartnett, but his eyewitness story helps a lot.
Since the February theft, owners of two separate buildings have installed video surveillance cameras in the lot. The police hope to find useful footage for this most recent incident, as well as for future cases. They hope most of all to have live eyes like Hedbon’s at the ready.