The villain struck early, usually just before dawn while the streets of Chicago were quiet, when most of its residents were still asleep, when it was unlikely there would be witnesses. He was stealthy and efficient, and his victims never realized what hit them until it was too late. They were helpless against his swift hand.
That was, until one victim decided to fight back.
I already knew a few things about detective work when I decided to take on this case, having hung out with cops when I covered the police beat as a young newspaper reporter in South Florida 15 years earlier. I knew that tracking down criminals took patience. That it required careful observation and critical thinking. And it required evidence. Good hard evidence. I also picked up a few pointers from old school TV detectives who sat in unmarked cars on overnight stakeouts, drinking black coffee and eating deli sandwiches while patiently waiting for the perps to emerge.
The crime I planned to investigate on my own was personal. It hit close to home. Someone was stealing one of the most treasured parts of my life, a piece of my morning ritual, my sense of the world.
And the more it happened, the more incensed I became. My wife watched me swear and pound my fist each time I trudged upstairs empty handed to our second floor condo in the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s Far North Side. I needed those papers.
I’m a newspaper junkie, still grasping onto a dying tradition of having printed papers delivered to my home that I can open and savor with my morning coffee. I find it comforting and life affirming, the big headlines and photos telling me what’s important that day, the crinkle of newsprint, the black ink on my fingertips that irks my wife when I smudge it on the white refrigerator door and light switches. I depend on having a newspaper—not a laptop—to take with me into the bathroom.
The morning paper is a ritual I picked up from my father, a longtime journalist and former newspaper reporter like me. I remember as a kid watching my dad spread out the broadsheet Chicago Tribune at the kitchen table, his coffee and Winstons at his side, streams of smoke shooting from his nostrils. He told me how important it was to read, to be informed, to be aware. I began subscribing to my own newspapers in college and never stopped. And now, every day, I receive the Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and on Sundays I get the New York Times, as well. The papers are usually waiting for me at the front entrance to my condo building. I count on them to start my day, to inform and startle me, amuse and engage me.
My investigation began with some basic surveillance. I decided to get up early to watch out my second floor window in hopes of observing the thief in the act. The window was just above the front entrance to the three-story building, so I had a clear view of anyone who approached the door where the deliveryman left the papers. (The same carrier delivered both.) If I moved quickly, I could run down and confront the thief. What then, I did not know.
I began by getting up around 5:30 AM to determine what time the deliveryman arrived. I learned he usually came around 6:15, give or take ten minutes. So the next morning, I made sure I was up around 6 and took my place by the window. I pulled up a chair, sat with my coffee and watched the tops of people’s heads bob by as the morning went from dark to early light. I got bored after about 20 minutes, having seen no unusual activity. I was eager to get down to get my paper so I could start the morning ritual. The papers were waiting for me during the next few days, but then, alas, the Sun-Times was missing one morning. During the next few weeks, some days I’d get the papers, others they would be gone. Perhaps the thief was toying with me. I wasn’t keen to play, nor did I have the discipline to get up early every morning to do window surveillance. I’d have to come up with another plan.
Newspapers hold a deep place in my heart. They helped sustain three generations of my family, beginning with my grandfather Sol, “Dixie” Davis, a photographer during the much romanticized, Front Page era of the 1920s and 30s, a time when major cities like Chicago and New York had half a dozen or more dailies, when reporters wore trench coats and fedoras, smoked in the newsroom and stowed bottles of bourbon in their desks. Sol worked for the Chicago Daily Times and Chicago Herald and Examiner, among other papers. When I was a teenager, my dad showed me yellowing newspapers and brittle old prints of my grandpa Sol’s famous pictures. Sol photographed some of Chicago’s biggest newsmakers, including John Dillinger and Al Capone; celebrities Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, Rudolph Valentino and Shirley Temple; and sports figures Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth. My dad followed his dad into the business, starting at the sports desk of the Chicago Tribune, then on to the City News Bureau, the renowned training ground for journalists, (“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”), and later as a reporter for the El Paso (Texas) Herald Post where he covered everything from church news to labor unrest. He once had a bullfighting column.
By the time I was ready for college, I wanted to be like my dad and my grandpa. I had been seduced by the news business, drawn to the idea of making a living witnessing life as it unfolded, by having permission to go places, talk to people and ask questions that no one else could do and then writing about it. Like my dad and grandpa, I craved the adrenaline rush of being summoned at a moment’s notice to the scene of a big story, of facing impending deadlines and seeing my stories in print the next morning, knowing that my work and my byline would arrive on people’s doorsteps. I wound up studying journalism at the University of Illinois and writing for The Daily Illini, spending more time in the newsroom than in class.
After college I took my first newspaper job in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the Sun-Sentinel, working in a crowded, bustling newsroom that gave me that rush I had craved. I spent most of my time on the crime beat during the wild shoot-‘em-up, cocaine-driven 1980s. I covered riots in Miami, Cuban and Haitian refugees floating ashore on makeshift rafts, a deadly hurricane, plane crashes and scores of murders, fires and disasters. Later, as a freelance journalist, I wrote for the Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and covered the Midwest for USA Today.
News was my life. Newspapers put bread on my family’s tables. I knew what it took to produce the news that people depended on each morning. Damned if some low life thief was gonna mess with my newspapers.
The thievery at my building began a few years earlier. The first couple of times, I thought the carrier was simply late or forgot to come. I called an 800 number, spoke to a customer service rep, and usually in less than an hour, someone would come to the door with replacements. But after five or six times, it became clear that someone was stealing them. At first I suspected neighbors, and posted a sign in the foyer asking that my papers be left alone. I lived in a six-unit section of a 24-unit building, and didn’t know my fellow unit owners that well, so they were all in the initial pool of suspects. After a few more calls to the newspapers, the carriers placed warning flyers inside the plastic coverings stating that stealing newspapers was a crime punishable by fines and jail time. It worked for a few weeks, but the thievery eventually resumed.
I knew that calling the police wouldn’t do any good, and I’d be embarrassed to report it, given the much more serious crimes that occur daily in my city, and in my neighborhood, considered Chicago’s most ethnically diverse with its mix of middle class and poor, vintage 1920s apartment buildings, new condos, subsidized housing, single family homes, blacks and whites, Asians and Africans, Mexicans and Middle Easterners and the occasional roving gang bangers who spray graffiti and sell drugs in the alleys. About four blocks south, there have been occasional shootings and murders. One afternoon I came home while someone had been trying to climb though a bedroom window I stupidly had left unlocked. He ran off down the back stairs just as I got to the bedroom. A guy was stabbed in the stomach a half block from my front door one night.
Those were serious crimes that deserved police attention. Not mine. That’s why I decided to take the law into my own hands on this newspaper caper. Besides, I always thought detective work was cool, and often had fantasized being on the homicide squad, collaring elusive murderers thanks to my street smarts and keen instincts, and bringing justice to grieving families.
Seeing that the surveillance from my upstairs window wasn’t working, I decided that some kind of undercover operation might be in order. I figured I could pull it off. After all, I had first hand knowledge of how it worked. During my days on the crime beat I went on operations with undercover cops who posed as drug dealers, hookers and johns. I sat with cops in unmarked squad cars and surveillance vans, including one disguised as an ice cream truck in which I hid in the back with a bunch of sweaty officers on a 90-degree day. The trick was to pounce at the right moment. The element of surprise was key. When those cops got the signal, they burst out of the ice cream van just as the perp made a drug buy, and I tagged along right behind them. The guys they busted had this Holy Shit expression. One time I saw a guy piss in his pants because he was so scared at the rush of cops. The rule of thumb in these operations was to get ‘em fast, take ‘em down and no one gets hurt. I thought I could do that. Well, maybe not take ‘em down. I didn’t want any one pissing his pants, either.
The Chicago Police Department strongly encourages community participation in its mission to keep the city’s neighborhoods safe. On the other hand, the department discourages getting too involved. That’s what a sergeant recently told me when I called the department to ask about the do’s and don’ts of citizen involvement. What should regular folks do when witnessing crimes in progress? Should they try to solve their own crimes? Where do safety and common sense come in?
“Neighborhood residents can very effectively be our eyes and ears, providing valuable information regarding crime and quality of life issues,” Sergeant Antoinette Ursitti told me in a rather bland, carefully crafted email response after we chatted briefly by phone. “An allegiance between the community and police is the best tool at the disposal of law enforcement.”
But then she got to the heart of things. “However, we never encourage anyone to take any enforcement action, risking their own personal safety. Anyone who sees a crime being committed is asked to call 911 immediately and provide detailed information abourt the offender and incident so that police action can be taken.”
Call 911 for a newspaper thief? I had to take care of this.
After my paper was stolen once again, I moved into the next, more serious phase of my investigation. Instead of watching from upstairs, I decided to go on a real undercover stakeout in my car. That night, I waited for the perfect parking spot to open across the street from my building to give me a clear view of the entrance, but far enough away that the thief would not see me. My car, a black 4-door 2000 Toyota Camry that I bought used with 90,000 miles and two hubcaps missing, even looked sort of like an undercover cop car, like those Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors favored by cops and cabbies.
The next morning, I got up around 5:45. I didn’t even need the alarm because I was so excited. I brewed some coffee, put it in a thermal cup and went down to my car in my cool undercover cop-looking get-up, a mid-length black leather car coat and black knit cap. It was fall, the air cold. The deliveryman had not yet arrived. I tried to position myself in the car so that I was sitting low, and not easily visible. I sipped coffee and thought about those cop shows where they did stakeouts like this. The only thing missing were deli sandwiches.
About 6:15 the deliveryman pulled up in a compact car, got out and placed the papers on the doorstep. OK. Now I could watch.
Around 6:30 more people were emerging from their homes and apartments, going to their cars or walking east one block to the bus stop on Broadway Avenue or “L” train station another three blocks away. I sized people up as they walked toward my building. Everyone was suspect: The man in the business suit with his computer case slung over his shoulder. The joggers. The woman with the baby stroller. The two snotty supersized guys who lived together in the condo unit west of mine and never talked to any one unless to complain.
I peered over the dashboard. A gray haired man paused in front of my building. “Aha!” I thought. I felt a rush of adrenaline, fear and excitement. But he continued on, heading east past the alley and on to Broadway. I hadn’t thought too much about what I’d do if I caught someone in the act. What if he was big and mean? What if he got violent? Just in case, I brought a small digital camera thinking I might photograph the suspect from afar. I decided to play it by ear, and react based on the size, age and manner of the thief.
After about 45 minutes of surveillance, I decided to call it quits. I needed to start my day. Such is detective work. Some stakeouts take weeks or months before paying off, though I wasn’t sure whether I’d have the patience to be in it for the long haul. I tried a couple more times with no results. Disappointed, I called off the undercover surveillance for a couple of weeks, and sure enough, the papers began to disappear again.
I recently located a video on YouTube titled “Man Stealing Newspaper.” The filmmaker set up a video camera to point at the front stoop of his condo in San Diego. About two minutes and 30 seconds into the video a man with a baseball cap and jacket walks up, bends down, takes the paper and quickly walks away. I learned that the video was made by Devin Braun, a transportation planner in San Diego. I had found a kindred spirit.
“Basically we live on a condo that fronts the street and our newspapers are dropped on the front porch…easily taken by anybody walking down the sidewalk,” he told me by email. “After many a stolen paper we asked the carrier to put it behind the bushes. The man in the video apparently figured that out. He’s one of many ‘resident’ homeless people in the neighborhood. We set up the camera to catch the person and to see who it was and what time he did it.”
Braun said the man was the second newspaper thief he caught on camera. But like me, he didn’t go to the police. He did something even more radical. “Because of this man on the video we canceled the paper and just buy it when we feel like reading it.”
Cancel the paper? I would never do that.
Yet thousands of people have been canceling their newspapers during the last two decades. Most major metropolitan dailies are available online for free, as are hundreds of other news and information sites, aggregation services and media outlets that deliver the news you want when you want it and doing so with fewer employed in the industry. This is part of the reason newspapers have declined, and why I never sought to return to newspapers after seeing so many friends and colleagues get laid off. In 1985, the year I began my newspaper career, there were 1,676 daily newspapers. Not long after I started working in South Florida for the Sun-Sentinel, the Miami News and The Hollywood Sun- Tattler, both substantial daily papers in the region, went out of business, along with the evening paper, The Fort Lauderdale News. Economics were largely to blame. A lousy economy meant less advertising, the lifeblood of newspaper revenue. Today, there are about 1,400 daily papers left, though by one estimate that number could be reduced by half by the end of the decade. There’s a web site called Newspaper Death Watch, which chronicles their demise. A government report shows that in the last ten years, newsroom staffs have been reduced by 25 percent, with more than 17,000 employees being laid off or forced into buyouts. In 2011 alone more than 3,600 lost their jobs. If someone wasn’t stealing my newspaper it was just a matter of time before there’d be no newspaper left to steal.
This thief was stealing the very symbol of what remained of a dying industry and a part of my life I was still clinging to. Even though I bailed out of my job before I could get laid off, I opted to continue working as a freelance writer. At first I contributed mostly to newspapers, though for considerably lower pay than my once-salaried position. The flood of laid off journalists trying to make a buck drove down the value of the written word even more as papers tried to squeeze cheap content out of professionals like us to keep profits up. Pay for Internet sites was worse, sometimes pennies a word. Later, I began teaching college journalism classes part time, mostly for the money, but also with the faint hope of inspiring a younger generation to keep the fire going. I could never let go of my newspapers, clutching with all my strength a part of who I was and how I had defined myself for more than 20 years. I wasn’t going to cancel my papers and read them online. I wanted my printed newspapers in my wretched, ink stained hands. So it was back to surveillance work.
Once again, I secured a prime parking spot across the street, got up before 6 and took my place in the car. It was another cold morning, just above freezing, cold enough to elicit streams of vapor when I exhaled into the car. I slouched down in the front seat, watched and waited. People emerged once again to make their morning commutes. My neighbors left for work. I eyed everyone with suspicion once more.
Then, from behind my car, a dark figure emerged from the alley. He crossed the street diagonally toward my building. I slouched down a little further. The man walked to the entranceway. He looked left, then right and crouched down and snatched one paper. He straightened up and walked briskly eastbound, across the alley.
I felt my heart pumping and a surge of nervous energy. It happened so fast and I did not think, but my body moved forward. I opened the car door, felt myself breathing hard as I slammed the door shut. I walked fast toward the man while yelling, “Hey, Hey, hey, you.” I was moving fast and entering his personal space. “What are you doing? That’s my paper. You’re stealing it.” My voice was loud in the still morning.
He was an African American man, about 60, who I assumed was homeless based on his ragged coat, stained slacks and peppery stubble. He had graying hair beneath an old baseball cap. I don’t remember seeing his shoes. I do remember his face, and his eyes told me he was startled.
“You just stole my paper,” I said.
He mumbled, and said something about it being his paper. That he gets the paper. I didn’t really understand what he was saying. I was breathing fast.
I swiped the paper from his hand like a child grabbing a toy from another. “That’s my paper. I saw you take it.”
I told him that I would be watching him. “I’m going to call the cops next time.” I said it twice and then he walked away.
My nerves were still electric when I went back upstairs, my wife now awake and wondering what was going on. She lectured me about putting myself in danger.
When I calmed down I began to feel stupid for yelling at this poor guy as if he did something horrible or homicidal. Had I reacted a little too dramatically? Here was a homeless guy, taking newspapers and likely selling them on a street corner somewhere. I’d seen guys doing that around town. Homeless guys stealing the product of a dying industry to stay alive.
There was something sad about this newspaper thief, this guy who had to steal papers and hustle them on the street. I didn’t think it excused what he did, but it helped explain why. I was reminded of the many people I’d seen busted for crimes, petty and felonious, when I was a reporter. It rarely felt satisfying to see them being carted away in cuffs, (except for rapists and murderers) and certainly not romantic. It wasn’t like TV at all. Most were poor, desperate souls, addicted to drugs or booze, locked in poverty, stuck with hopelessness, trying to make a buck or steal one.
So I got my newspapers back and scared the shit out of some poor old guy who very well might have been a victim of the same social and economic forces that have driven newspapers to their deaths, a man who might have lost his job, his livelihood and found himself unemployable, cast aside, and old relic. Perhaps as he walks the streets and contemplates stealing another paper he’ll think of the crazy dude who jumped out from his car and snatched away that newspaper as if his life depended on it. If only he knew.
Photographs by the author and Martie Sanders.