Proving guilt in burglaries a challenge


When Eddie Goff Jr. plunged through a closed window and into the waiting arms of detectives in July, it looked like a great catch.

Police linked the 38-year- old Overlea resident to about 40 burglaries in Baltimore County and Howard County and eventually slammed him with more than 100 burglary-related charges.

But last month, Goff was convicted of burglarizing three homes. All but two of the other cases against him were dropped for lack of evidence.

Prosecutors and police say Goff's case highlights the challenge of solving burglaries - a crime that by its nature leaves few clues and no witnesses.

"We usually start with nothing," said Sgt. Kenneth R. Francisco, head of the property crimes unit in Howard County. "We take whatever we can get, and we start to look for patterns."

Burglaries in Howard County and other suburban Maryland areas have been up sharply in recent years, and the proportion of those cases solved is the lowest for any major crime, according to the FBI.

Baltimore County and Howard County detectives had identified Goff as a suspect in many area burglaries last summer when they tracked him on the morning of July 25 to a home in Reisterstown. Goff later admitted he was attempting to rob that residence, according to a statement of charges.

The charging document describes the morning detectives made their catch:

Goff broke a front ground-floor window - a move detectives say is typical for him - and climbed through it.

Moments later, a detective peered into the broken window and yelled: "Eddie, come on out. It's the Baltimore County police."

Goff then jumped headfirst through a closed window in the master bedroom, and police immediately handcuffed him.

After his arrest, Goff told detectives he was sure they had strong evidence against him, but he quickly added that he "would only make things worse" if he gave them any more information.

With each arrest comes greater savvy for how the system works, Francisco said.

"The first time, they spill their guts. They want to tell you every single thing they did," he said. "By the second and third time, they know confessing is not such a good idea."

Still, police tried to squeeze any information they could from Goff, as they always do when they arrest a burglary suspect.

Although Goff did not make an explicit confession, he did describe in detail how he selected homes to burglarize and what he liked to steal, according to a statement of charges.

Goff said he tried to choose residences where he was sure no one was home during the day. He said he skipped houses that had burglar alarm signs or evidence of dangerous dogs.

His method of operation matched the evidence from numerous daytime burglaries in Baltimore County and Howard County, police said, although they would not give specifics from their interviews with Goff.

After the interviews, police told many homeowners they had caught a suspect, and Baltimore County and Howard County police announced that Goff's arrest meant they could close dozens of unsolved burglaries.

"Even though the person may not be prosecuted specifically for their burglary, they take solace in knowing he'll be in jail for a very long time," said Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Mickey Norman, a prosecutor for 19 years.

Most times, that is all owners get. Rarely are stolen items returned. Not one of the more than 2,000 items police say Goff stole in June and July has been returned.

Goff told police he sold the valuable jewelry to drug dealers on the streets of Baltimore and trashed the pieces he considered to be junk jewelry.

Stolen jewelry and other items identified in Goff's charging documents amounted to more than $86,000. Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure ordered Goff to pay $17,500 in restitution to a single family, the Kunkels, whose home in Ellicott City was burglarized while a 15-year-old girl was home. Prosecutors know it is unlikely the victims will ever see the money.

Goff stole heirloom jewelry from the Kunkels that had been passed down for generations, Virginia Kunkel said.

"It was very hard to hear that pieces that had been so lovingly taken care of may have wound up in a Dumpster somewhere," Kunkel said.

In the end, the Kunkels were so traumatized by the burglary that they moved to another Ellicott City neighborhood.

While the Kunkels have the satisfaction of knowing the man who burglarized their home has been convicted, some of Goff's other possible victims are less sure.

When police arrest someone on suspicion of a string of burglaries, the state's attorney's office often chooses one or two of the strongest cases to pursue, a practice prosecutors say keeps weak cases out of the courtroom.

Knowing this - and knowing how difficult burglaries are to solve - police heap charges on people they suspect to be serial burglars, an FBI crime statistics analyst says. Rarely, prosecutors say, do even half of the charges stick.

But the charges alone allow police to report burglary cases as "cleared" to the FBI, which requires only an arrest - not a court conviction - for a burglary to be considered solved, according to the FBI's definition of clearance.

Even with that low threshold, the national clearance rate for burglaries was 13.4 percent in 2000, the last year for which complete FBI data is available. Motor vehicle theft had the second-lowest rate, with 14.1 percent solved by arrest; larceny-theft had the third-lowest rate, with 18.2 percent solved by arrest, according to FBI data.

Howard's closure rate for burglaries has been about 32 percent in recent years, Francisco said, and Baltimore County's rate was about 23.1 percent in 2000, a police spokesman said.

The FBI says all crime clearance statistics are "impossible to verify" and acknowledges that police departments can easily skew their rates.

Carlos Davis, program analyst for the FBI's uniform crime reports, said he knows some departments inflate their burglary clearance rates.

"Essentially, they dump unsolvable burglaries on one individual," Davis said. "They victimize the offender to clear their books."

Because police departments voluntarily submit crime data, Davis said, "it is out of our control" to discern who is being truthful.

Baltimore County police refused to detail how many burglary cases they reported as cleared through Goff's arrest.

Howard County police said they were able to clear 19 cases they tied to Goff.

Court documents and police news releases that followed Goff's July 25 arrest tally 39 June and July residential burglaries that police attributed to Goff.

"We might know he's responsible for more burglaries, but we could only prove three," said Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer B. Rains, who prosecuted the Goff case.

Rains is recommending a 30-year sentence with all but 20 years suspended. Sentencing in Baltimore County is scheduled May 24. Leasure sentenced Goff last month to 15 years with all but eight suspended, to be served consecutively with the Baltimore County sentence.

Sun staff writer Lisa Goldberg contributed to this article.

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