If a car's near, break-in artist is on the job

The Baltimore Sun

Michael D. Sydnor Jr. is just one face of the alarming spate of car break-ins around downtown Baltimore.

He's 40 years old and until two years ago, he says, he lived rent-free with his girlfriend in an apartment on North Charles Street, though the address he provided authorities does not exist. He says he earned $11 per hour working in a stockroom at the Inner Harbor's Hyatt Regency, but when asked the address of his employer on a court form, he put down a question mark.

He's been arrested 101 times under the name Sydnor since 1994, but he sometimes uses the last name Thomas. He's been convicted more than 30 times for crimes that include dealing drugs and urinating in the street, and his public defender wrote in one recent court document that his "extremely long, steady addiction to drugs has fueled his criminal behavior."

In November 2007, a bystander saw him use a steel plumbing cap to break the driver's side window of a car parked in the Redwood Street garage and take an iPod, a Nintendo and an ash tray. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but was back on the street in time to be arrested again in January 2008 for being disorderly.

Again, a judge sentenced him to spend a year and a half in prison, perhaps after seeing a handwritten comment that a prosecutor scrawled in blue ink on a perfunctory document calling attention to his past transgressions. Still, Sydnor was back on the street in time to be arrested yet again, on Sunday, charged with breaking into two more cars in a downtown garage and stealing a Global Positioning System device.

He's in jail again awaiting trial.

In police parlance, the crime is a "larceny from auto," and in sheer numbers it dwarfs every other crime category in Baltimore but property damage, with more than 6,500 cases reported in the city last year. That is actually down from the more than 15,000 in 1996, when drug dealers were stealing cell phones by the thousands and reprogramming them with stolen numbers to avoid eavesdropping by police.

Now, the hot items are iPods, iPhones and GPS devices.

Thieves target the tens of thousands of cars parked in business districts and tourist areas. Police report that 74 vehicles were broken into in the first two weeks of this year downtown, at the Inner Harbor and in Federal Hill. The nicer the car, the nicer the stuff that might be inside. And nearly every break-in is accompanied by a broken window and a pile of shattered glass on the sidewalk.

Baltimore police make arrests and conduct undercover stings, even putting out "bait cars" with enticing electronic devices clearly visible on seat cushions, hoping to attract a criminal. One person can be responsible for hundreds of break-ins, so a single arrest can make an impact, even if it is short-lived and the suspect never gets charged with all of the crimes.

Tom Yeager, a retired city police major and vice president of the Downtown Partnership's Clean and Safe Program, says that every time car break-ins spike, he searches his list of longtime suspects and finds that at least one of them just got out of jail.

He calls car break-ins "our No. 1 big crime downtown."

His advice includes the obvious: Don't leave your GPS on the front seat. (Handicapped tags, which allow the possessor to park free in the city, also are hot items, but can't be concealed.)

It includes the less than obvious: Leaving your cigarette lighter out of its socket shows you own an electronic device and is an invitation to break in.

And removing the plastic arm that holds GPS or satellite radio devices and are suction-cupped to your windshield leaves a ring when you take it off - and yes, that is an invitation to break in and hunt around.

"When you leave your car, leave it empty," Yeager says. "There shouldn't be anything in your car but dust."

The Downtown Partnership tracks car break-ins and sends representatives to court with letters describing their impact - how "piles of broken glass" serve as grim reminders about crime, how victims tell friends who tell their friends and then more and more people choose to spend their weekends anywhere but Baltimore, about costs to insurance companies and the time wasted replacing lost items and making repairs, about the aggravation.

Nanci Gosnell found out the hard way when she brought two carloads of Cub Scouts from Bethesda to the National Aquarium this past weekend and got back to the garage and found two vehicles broken into and an iPod and a GPS missing from one. She called police, but the officer went to the wrong garage and she left believing the city to be both unsafe and unforgiving.

Gosnell's vehicle was broken into Friday night or early Saturday on South Street. The next day, just a few blocks away at a garage at 218 N. Charles St., a security guard for the Downtown Partnership saw a man emerge from a storage shed. He slowly steered the man to an armed guard who held him for police.

A man visiting from Rockville approached the officer and reported that his Honda Accord parked on Level D had been broken into and a Garmin GPS Navigator worth $325 had been taken. Court documents show that the officer searched the man who had been detained and found the device in his pocket.

Police then discovered that a Nissan Sentra also had been broken into, its glove box ransacked but nothing taken. Police charged the man they had arrested in those two break-ins.

His name: Michael D. Sydnor Jr.


Read Peter's Baltimore Crime Beat blog at baltimoresun.com/crime

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