He was messing with the wrong guy.
When 80-year-old Thomas Ward, a former city councilman and retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge, heard someone hollering "Police! Police!" while he took a walk the other day near his home in Bolton Hill, he didn't flinch.
Glancing across the street, Ward said, he saw a man trying to get out of a fenced yard behind a house on West Lafayette Avenue.
"I know the people in that house," the judge said. "It wasn't his."
As the man - about 6 feet tall and burly, and much younger than Ward - began clambering over the 8-foot fence, Ward recalls running up to him and saying, "Come on, baby, you're all mine."
In Ward's recounting of the incident, which took place Friday afternoon, he was hoping the man would stay in the yard until the police got there. Instead, the man, who police believe had burglarized that house and at least two others, possibly with an accomplice, climbed the fence and dropped to the sidewalk next to the judge.
"He was a pretty good-sized guy," said Ward, who is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds. Only a year ago, he was battling Guillain-Barre syndrome, a debilitating disease of the nervous system.
"I went to grab him, but he slipped out of my grasp. He got past me and started across the street. I was hot behind him and grabbed his collar with both hands, and I jerked him backward."
But the suspect wasn't giving up.
"We struggled across the street," Ward said. "I'm trying to get him down. He's having trouble swinging his arms because I've twisted his coat in a firm grip. This coat was the secret to my success. I finally got him face down. I tried to bang his head down to knock him out, but his defense was adequate to keep me from doing that."
Ward kept twisting the coat, which he described as too small for the man wearing it. It turned out to belong to the wife of a man across the street, who later told police her house had been burglarized. As the coat got tighter, the man cried out.
"You're choking me!" he said, according to Ward. "I can't breathe!"
The judge, who thought the man might be suffering from asthma, loosened his grip a bit, he said, but he kept his knee jammed into the man's back. A young man walked by - he looked like a student, the judge said - but offered no help. Another man arrived and asked Ward to let the suspect go.
"I figured he might have been a lookout," Ward recalled. "I told him, 'You'd better get away from here before you get into trouble.'" After another warning from Ward, the second man left.
Ward, an Army paratrooper during World War II and, later, a boxer while at Georgetown University under the GI Bill of Rights, is not the retreating kind.
"You simply react to what you see," Ward said. "I don't get excited too easily. I was indignant."
Police officers arrived a few minutes later and arrested the man, identified as Paul McClaine Jones, 40. A police report says officers found a screwdriver in his jacket pocket.
In addition, it appears the judge underplayed his role: he didn't mention it in an interview, but the officer said in his report that Jones "took a swing at the judge with a clenched right fist."
Police said they found two credit cards, as well as keys to a BMW. The items, including the brown leather jacket that police said Jones wore, belong to Harold F. Abeles and his wife, who told officers their first-floor window had been broken and the items taken, police said.
Jones, who is on probation after having pleaded guilty last year in a car theft case, was charged with 18 counts in connection with Friday's events, including second-degree assault, burglary, theft and malicious destruction of property. He was being held without bail at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Ward's 43-year-old son, Patrick Ward, said his father has never been one to avoid a challenge. "It would have been more surprising if he stepped back" and let the man go, said the younger Ward, one of four siblings, all raised in Baltimore. He said his father's doctors told him last fall that, while he struggled with Guillain-Barre, he would not be walking unassisted for at least six months.
"Of course, he was walking by Christmas," said Patrick Ward, whose parents are active in Baltimore's Irish-American community and helped found the Irish Shrine and Railroad Workers Memorial on Lemon Street.
A circuit judge for 15 years before retiring in 1997, Ward still handles cases from the bench several times a year as a substitute. In July 2005, Ward presided over the trial of two Mexican immigrants accused of killing three young relatives.
He was dealing with motions in another judge's chambers when interviewed by The Sun, for which he worked as a reporter in the early 1950s. His late brother, Paul W. Ward, also worked at The Sun and won a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper in 1948 for a series of articles from the Soviet Union.
The judge's wife, Joyce Ward, said she was amazed that her husband had brought down the man, especially given his illness last year, which, she said, "leaves some people crippled." But he is in great shape, she said, and has a disciplined exercise regimen that includes walking and daily sessions with his punching bag in the basement. At the couple's farm by the Cheat River in West Virginia, where they own a timber business, "He can usually out-walk or out-climb almost anyone," she said.
"He's 80 years old, but it didn't hinder him the other day," said Joyce Ward, who sent an e-mail to her children Saturday saying their father had "made a very heroic capture."
"I always worry when he does something like this, but it's Tom, and I wouldn't be able to stop him," she said by phone yesterday. "Tom does not turn his back on something, believe me."