A clue something was strange came during a Tuesday snowfall last month. A man was wandering the streets of Belair-Edison carrying a shovel, looking for walkways to clear.
At first, he seemed innocuous, a down-on-his-luck man trying to fill his pockets with a little bit of money, despite the fact that neighborhood houses were being burglarized at the rate of more than one a week.
But now, as the neighbors think back, the man was probably trying to learn which houses were empty without arousing suspicion.
That Jan. 27 was also the day that an intruder broke the kitchen window of John Egger's rowhouse, ripped the keypad to his alarm off the wall, threw it on the floor and stole a Gateway laptop computer, an Olympus camera, a safe, keys to a Toyota Tundra, assorted jewelry and a light blue pillow case stained with bleach.
The police officer who responded, Dawn M. Swords, wrote in her report that she found "distinct footprints in the snow that lead around the front" of two houses "and to the rear, then back to the front, and then east on Dudley Avenue." A neighbor saw a man with a shovel and a bag in Egger's backyard.
It was one of nine burglaries in Belair-Edison in six weeks, and Egger, who has lived in the community for three years, had the unusual and unfortunate experience to be hit twice. The first time was a week before Christmas, when an intruder opened his unlocked kitchen window and stole only a bread knife, which he used to cut a television cable.
Most of the break-ins occurred in the late morning and early afternoon. Egger said his girlfriend was home one afternoon and saw a man with missing teeth peeking in the front window. She yelled at him, and he answered, "Oh, sorry, wrong house," and walked away.
Baltimore residential burglaries were up in 2008 - 522, compared with 466 in the 2007. And as of Feb. 7, there had been 112 this year, compared with 91 by that time last year. But a house getting hit twice in six weeks is a bit much.
"I spent some time this weekend setting up a hidden camera in my backyard, hoping I can at least get a shot of this guy, since he somehow has been able to evade all eyes in the middle of the day," Egger told me. "It's unsettling. Some people feel safe in their house. I feel I can't leave my house."
But now, authorities have a man in custody. Just days after police held a community meeting to discuss the break-ins, one of those in attendance was in her basement about 11:30 in the morning when she heard someone kicking her back door and trying to turn a knob. She confronted the man, yelled 'Hey, hey,' and the man responded, "Wrong house" and ran away without getting inside.
Police quickly arrested him down the street and said he had two screwdrivers in his top left pants pocket. Maurice Washington, 45, is charged with one count of burglary and is being held on $10,000 bail. But police spokesman Donny Moses said officers found numerous items in his home and at pawnshops that they believe are from previous burglaries, and more charges could be filed.
The officer noted in his arrest report that the man's boots were seized and submitted to the crime lab. He also is a neighbor of the people who were burglarized - he lives one block from Egger on Dudley Avenue.