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Thieves' fancy has turned to outdoor furnishings Lawns of Baltimore stripped of decor in spate of thefts


They stole Ivory Cox's concrete decorative lions in March. Carol Ciuchta's 50-pound cement fruit basket was taken over the summer. Barbara Alfriend's hanging plants were taken in August. A dozen plastic chairs have been stolen from Dorsett Judd since 1992.

From Ednor Gardens and Mayfield to Bolton Hill and Federal Hill, residents all over Baltimore are waking up and finding their lawns stripped of wicker chairs, glass tables, concrete urns and flower pots.

The market is rich for pilfered lawn ornaments. Many culprits, police say, are drug abusers who trade stolen furniture for fistfuls of cash at secondhand shops scattered throughout the city.

"It affects a lot of people," said Officer Charles Steele, whose investigation ended a string of thefts in Northeast Baltimore this spring. "People are offended by that kind of crime. It violates a trust."

While violence gets most of the attention in the annals of Baltimore crime, it can be the more mundane thefts and break-ins that frighten residents into believing that the city is unsafe.

Theodore Hart, a 71-year-old Mayfield resident, lives behind a virtual fortress on Harford Road. Two months ago, a 5-foot section of his wrought-iron fence was stolen. The next day, the thieves came back and stole the rest.

"Just imagine the nerve it takes to do something like that," said Mr. Hart, who has lived in the city all his life. "We have friends who won't come and visit us anymore because we live in Baltimore. That's wrong. It shouldn't be this way."

One Mayfield resident, who was too scared to give her name, said the thefts make "you feel very violated. It's very close to your living quarters. The first time it hap-pened, it really undid me."

The notion that homeowners can keep lawn furniture out overnight, whether on the back porch or front, is no longer a certainty. Residents are chaining tables to their decks. Police urge them to put name tags on their bird baths.

"Now you bring in five plastic chairs and put them in your dining room," said Mrs. Judd, 53, who says a neighborhood patrol may be needed. "We have to hire one person to stay up and guard the $5 chairs."

Police say the thefts occur annually, but started earlier this year. First it was wrought-iron -- fences and heavy lounge chairs. Then came a wave of wicker furniture.

Police say they don't know exactly how much lawn furniture is stolen, because it is not tracked as a separate theft category, but they believe the numbers are going up. The parts of the city hardest hit are in the Northeast, Northwest and South.

Four months ago, police arrested six men who they say are responsible for hitting at least 35 homes in Northeast Baltimore -- including one owned by Circuit Judge John C. Themelis, whose backyard was stripped in May.

Taken were a round metal marble-topped table worth $120, four metal chairs with wooden seats worth $120, a wrought-iron chair worth $110 and two aluminum chairs worth $80. They were pawned at a secondhand furniture shop in Fells Point for a total of $150.

Police credit Mel's Antiques, in the 700 block of South Wolfe St., with filling out the required paperwork that helps investigators // track the resale of merchandise. In an attempt to track stolen items, the city requires that secondhand shops record items brought in for sale from the street and then send a copy of that record to police.

Police complain that many shops don't follow the law, allowing stolen items to move unchecked through several hands, eventually becoming untraceable.

"We have a good reputation," said a worker at Mel's, who declined to give her name, fearing retribution. "When you do what the law requires, you don't have anything to hide. My reputation means more to me than money."

Police reports show Mel's workers stopped buying furniture from the main suspect behind the thefts at the judge's house -- a man detectives describe as the leader of a loose-knit group of men linked to dozens of lawn furniture thefts in Mayfield and surrounding communities.

Northeast District Sgt. Rick Barger said the crime spree was more spur-of-the-moment than planned. "Whoever was able to get access to a truck, they would go out that day," he said.

Police reports show that one or two men usually stole the items, hid them in an alley and then hired another man with a truck or van to pick up the haul and deliver it for resale. Police said their motive was drugs.

Two of the suspects arrested in May have been found guilty. The alleged leader, Antonio Kearney, 27, of the 900 block of Montpelier St., is serving six months in jail.

One of the men he hired to haul the merchandise, including Judge Themelis' tables and chairs, received a six-month suspended sentence. He was identified as Bruce Kevin Washington, 30, of the 1700 block of Abbotston St.

The thick police file on the group includes a three-page hand-written confession by Mr. Washington, in which he describes how he started by selling aluminum cans for recycling and moved into crime. It didn't pay very well. For one haul to Mel's, Mr. Washington wrote, he got only $15.

"He had stuff in the alley when I picked it up," the statement says. "I figured it was stolen, yeah, I just didn't ask any questions and I didn't want to know. I guess I was just trying to make some money. I didn't know who the stuff belonged to. It wasn't my business."

But for many victims, even seemingly innocuous lawn ornaments can have sentimental value. Ivory Cox's concrete lions, which were pawned for $50, were Mother's Day gifts from her husband five years ago.

"Most mothers wanted flowers for Mother's Day," she said, "but I didn't."

Ms. Cox said she woke up one morning to find the heavy ornaments -- each weighed about 100 pounds -- missing from her front doorstep.

"I was stunned," she said. "I said, 'Oh my god, someone has stolen my lions.' " Later, someone returned to her house and stole two concrete benches decorated with frogs. "Every day I look out back to see if my birdbath is still there," Ms. Cox said.

There is good news for Ms. Cox. Police found the lions at Mel's but are still holding them as evidence.

But for Ms. Ciuchta, who lives in Mayfield, the thefts were horrifying. Her 10-year-old daughter watched as men stole a 50-pound concrete fruit basket in July.

"I was really angry," she said, "especially that they had the nerve to come up on the property in broad daylight."

Mrs. Alfriend, 57, who lives in Bolton Hill, even chased a suspect down the street this summer. "I saw this guy with two chairs on top of his head," she recalled. "I ran down the alley to see whose chairs they were and decided to chase the guy."

Police later arrested a man on Pennsylvania Avenue.

But a few weeks later, someone stole several plants from her porch.

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