NEW YORK, March 21 — The office of chief medical examiner, which operates New York City’s DNA laboratory, tests all manner of objects for microscopic evidence that could link a suspect to a crime. This is a story about a small and bizarre subset of those objects, evidence left by criminals feeding that most basic of human appetites.
Literally feeding. Criminals who eat in the act.
“Partially eaten apple”, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office wrote when asked for examples. “Sunflower seed shells. Half-eaten chocolate cake. Chewed gum.” When she got to “half-eaten biscuit”, the list was not yet half over. “Chicken bones. Chicken wing. Pizza crust. Fruit pit.”
For the victim of a home burglary, it would seem to be yet another affront after the crime: The violation of the kitchen and the discovery, while perhaps seeking simple comfort in the stress, of a lowly pit where once there was fruit. That violation was last seen in this space about two weeks ago, in the tale of a Brooklyn man whose attempt to rent his apartment to a stranger went terribly awry.
But the phenomenon of the hungry burglar is timeless. An article in The New York Times on May 17, 1886, described the theft of nearly 100 pieces of flatware from the Poughkeepsie mansion of a fallen general’s widow. “After completing their pillage”, the story noted, the burglars “went down to the kitchen and brought upstairs to the parlour cooked meats, bread, cake, eggs and milk, and partook of the banquet there and then”.
The peculiar act of eating at the scene of the crime occurs often enough to warrant mention in police textbooks like Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstructing the Past. A burglar may take food from the kitchen, the authors, James W. Osterburg and Richard H. Ward, write, “or display other forms of aberrational behaviour that help establish a modus operandi.”
It is far from uncommon in New York City. “Happens all the time”, Detective Anthony Barbee in Brooklyn told me a few years ago. “One of the questions we always ask people, ‘Look in your refrigerator. Is there anything open?’ Maybe they’re neat freaks and they notice something moved around. They look at you like you’re crazy.”
The act defies criminal logic. “I would assume, you’re a burglar, you have an adrenaline rush, you want to get in and out,” Barbee said. “But some people make themselves at home. They get comfortable.”
Others take their refreshments to go.
Last year, a tenant in an apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan came home to discover that someone had stolen a credit card, a laptop, sunglasses — and a bottle of alcohol. A man in Queens answered a knock at his door in August, let in two women who were pretending to need a bathroom and even offered one of them a slice of cake. After they left, he realised he had been robbed.
Officers quickly found the women, who had cash from the man’s home, among other things. “In stopping the vehicle,” prosecutors later said, “police allegedly recovered cake”.
In 2011, a woman in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, came home to find a large hole in her window screen, and her electronics and watches missing. There was a note: “Thanks for the O.J.,” it read in part. “Have a nice day.”
Steve Panagopoulos, a retired Brooklyn detective, said he associated food theft with addiction: “These guys are straight-out junkies.”
“Think about it,” he said last week. “They don’t really even care about getting caught. Taking their time, sitting there opening refrigerators, that’s pretty crazy.” That sort of behaviour was the undoing of one serial thief he remembered. “He had taken out a thing of cheese, crackers,” Panagopoulos said. “He left them behind on the table. That was processed for DNA.”
A former detective in Chinatown once shared the story of an epic intrusion visited upon the apartment of a woman who had left for a week to care for her mother.
“They came in and used the pots and stove and cooked,” the former detective, Jose Santiago, said. “They hung out, smoked a couple joints, ate.”
Soon they had company. “Word got out in the building,” the detective said. “One person would go in and take a TV. Literally couches, everything. She was cleaned out.” Cleaned out, but no one cleaned up: “There was food in the pots when she got home,” he said.
Perhaps the pots were sent to the laboratory of the medical examiner. There, they would have found company in the other evidence left by criminals who eat at the scene.
“Candy wrappers, lollipop,” the spokeswoman’s list read, finally ending with a New York City flourish.
“And, of course, a bagel.” — The New York Times