High Drama on Seventeenth Street

Cops on bikes arrived, dashed toward the action

The motorcade was led by four guys on motorcycles, followed by one long, black limo with a governmental emblem on its side, followed by another couple of motorcycles. Sirens, flashing lights, the whole catastrophe. But this was at dinnertime, so maybe somebody important was just late for dinner. I went right back to my own, which was in the dining room of the Army & Navy Club in our nation’s capitol, my DC home away from home thanks to my late ex-Marine husband. There was a large table full of dark suits who were seated (when my guests and I were midway through our entrees) immediately behind me. After catching a few titles when introductions were being made I eavesdropped for a while – but we quickly decided they weren’t Cabinet level so probably not worth the trouble. That scene, though, was only a preamble. The real drama started about 7 hours later.

Reinforcements also standing ready

Flashing red, white and blue lights on the ceiling interrupted my dreams at 2:30 AM. Below my window – which was on the fourth floor of the Army & Navy Club, overlooking 17th Street and Farragut Square – were several DC police cars, including the one with revolving lights. Across 17th Street was a Metro bus. There seemed to be no passengers on the bus, but near the rear door a bit of action was visible: a large, yellow-jacketed person could be seen moving somewhat ominously to and fro. I drew the line at getting dressed, going downstairs and peering across into the bus window. Still, there was definitely something sinister going on. People with brains close their blinds when staying in street-front rooms near the center of cities such as Washington DC; the rest of us get up in the middle of the night to follow urban dramas. But this one was clearly something of national urgency.

Pretty soon a few more of DC’s finest appeared, joining the several who had ridden up on bikes earlier. While no guns were drawn, they were clearly ready for anything. Temperatures were dropping into the low 40s and I worried about their un-gloved hands. But they kept careful watch. This went on for about 20 chilly minutes. At approximately 3:10 AM, one of the watchers sprinted around the corner, and returned with an emergency van of the DC Fire Department. (More flashing lights, but I was already up.)

Not just up, I was glued to the window by now. Watching a crisis unfold before my very eyes. A Russian spy? An undercover hit man intercepted just before executing his crime? A dangerous escapee from international custody?

Mission accomplished

The bus lights went out. A hunched-over person emerged from behind the bus, followed by the large person in yellow vest. A side door opened in the FDDC van, the hunched-over person climbed in, the officers biked off, the vehicles turned out their lights and drove away. It was 3:16. Peace and quiet were restored to Farragut Square. Admiral Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” – he’s on the pedestal at right, hidden by the trees) would undoubtedly have approved of the speedy solution to the problem of a homeless guy sleeping on a Metro bus. At least one observer, however, felt the entire episode had come to a rather anticlimactic end.

All quiet on 17th Street

Your tax dollars at work.

Identity Theft: Crime without Punishment

Caitlin Kelly posted a raw but fascinating essay earlier today, My Con Man Wasn’t Madoff, but Just as Ruthless and Deceptive, that took me back to another cautionary tale worth sharing.

My son, who flies for a major U.S. airline, came home from a trip a few years back, got off the plane and called his then-fiancee (she married him soon, happily for all concerned.) “I’m at the park with a picnic,” she said; “come on out.” It was a beautiful summer afternoon. Changing into casual clothes, he drove straight to the park and found her at the designated spot, where they shared a lovely, leisurely time.

Things were not lovely when he returned to his car. It had been broken into, in broad daylight on a well-traveled street. The thief had made off with his pilot’s uniform and airline ID, his daybook, checkbook, wallet, computer, ID — his life. Plus the financial life of a family he’d been advising with a church group, also on his computer hard drive.

After reporting the crime to the police, my son began the arduous task of rebuilding his life: canceling credit cards, changing passwords, you may know the drill. Within a very short time he discovered that the thief — who had to look somewhat like his white, male, 30-something target since he was using photo ID all over the place — had left a paper trail any incompetent novice detective could follow. Problem is, nobody wanted to bother.

Why? Banks were unconcerned with those few several-hundred-dollar checks; they covered the losses. Retailers said insurance would cover the illicit purchases; they cared not one whit about losses that ran into the thousands. The police had other fish to fry, and explained with a galling indifference that even if they hauled the guy into court he’d probably get off, or quickly out of jail.

The thief eventually quit cashing checks with my son’s name inexpertly forged, and the credit cards soon lost their usefulness — so presumably he went on to another victim. But who picks up the tab for all this? You and I, Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public, thanks to those losses being passed directly along through jacked-up prices and hidden or not-so-hidden fees.

It is hard, when you’re the victim and know you could easily find the victimizer, to accept the fact that justice will not be done. Especially when a huge chunk of your life has gone to replacing and rebuilding that life. But just as Caitlin found with her con man, crimes that loom large to many of us simply go unpunished. So we swallow hard, lock our doors and learn not to leave everything in the car.

We are enjoying seeing Bernie Madoff’s stuff auctioned off while he sits in prison; he’s paying for a few of the fish that were too little to fry. But it doesn’t seem quite enough.