Joseph Farley

Break In

They came in through the kitchen window, in the back of the house. Smashed the glass with a chunk of concrete and crawled in over the kitchen sink. The chunk was from a neighbor’s sidewalk, torn up for emergency plumbing repairs. These were not professional burglars. Opportunists. But experienced opportunists.

Must have been two of them. The window was too far off the ground for one person to pull himself in unless he was a gymnast. The guy that got in had to be skinny. The window wasn’t big. And he wasn’t wearing gloves. There was blood everywhere. In the kitchen sink. On the rug in the living room. On the hardwood floors upstairs. There were bloody fingerprints on all the light switches. And on the bathroom wall, sink and cabinet. The wounded thief had looked for bandages. A torn wrapper was in the trash can. Probably searched for drugs too, but there was nothing with street value among the meds in the cabinet.

It happened two weeks before Christmas, on one of the darkest nights of the year. Sunset was around 4 PM. I got home from work around 6:30 PM. It took me a while to realize there had been a break in. First thing I noticed was how cold the house was. Then I saw the broken glass on the kitchen floor and in the sink. Then the broken window. And the blood.

The back door was locked, both locks, top and bottom. I thought the crook was still the house. I grabbed an iron stick I used for training and searched the house top to bottom. I didn’t find anyone. Just saw the blood and open bandage wrappers in the bathroom.

I had bought the house almost two years before the break in. It came with a burglar alarm. The alarm hadn’t gone off. Checking the kitchen window I learned it had no sensor for the alarm. I figured one guy came in. Another guy had to have stayed outside, helped lift the skinny one to the window and kept an eye out for cops. The inside man must have left through the same window.

There was a small Christmas tree in the living room. Decorated. A few wrapped gifts underneath it. Examination showed bloody fingers had pokes holes in the wrapping paper to see what was inside. No gifts were stolen. Gloves. Socks. Books. Who wants that stuff?

The robber was quick, and in some ways polite. There was no huge mess except in the kitchen. Nothing else had been damaged. No drawers were emptied on the floor in any rooms. But the drawers had been gone through. The robber knew where to look.

Cash my girlfriend had been saving for our wedding was taken. My father’s high school ring was missing. So was my high school ring. And both my wedding rings from my first marriage, the cheap one I bought in grad school, and the expensive one of pure gold my ex-wife’s grandmother had made for me when we visited China. Made from gold jewelry she had hidden from the Japanese, bandits, communist revolutionaries. Gone now. It would have been safer for that gold to have stayed hidden in its former home in a farming village than to have made the journey to Philadelphia.

My laptop was open and turned on in the study. It had been played with, but left behind when the robber couldn’t get past the security code. No books or manuscripts were taken. No tax records. No thumb drives. I could survive.

I called the police. They came out a few times. Different cops. The first one out told me, “The police don’t do DNA tests for burglaries so just clean up the blood.“

I asked about the bloody fingerprints on light switches. I was told they couldn’t use that. The officer advised me to search all the pawn shops and jewelry stores that advertised that they “buy gold” in the area on my own, and do it immediately, because stolen goods move quickly. He said that if I didn’t find my property on my own it would probably never be found.

I was told not to say I was looking for stolen goods, just browse and report to the police if I found any of the missing items. There was a procedure. Forms to fill out. I might have to pay the pawn brokers the price they paid for the item. Pawn brokers were supposed to keep a record of who sold them things. That didn’t always occur. Even with bad paperwork, it was very hard to prove that a pawn broker or jewelry store knowingly bought stolen goods.

I spent two days visiting every jewelry store and pawn shop I could find. The proprietors all seemed strange. The places were all strange. One had two display cases and a back room with piles and piles of stuff in clear trash bags. I didn’t find the stolen rings.

My high school ring meant nothing to me, but it might have meant something to my children if they had inherited after I died. My father’s school ring meant a lot to me. It was one of the few keepsakes I had from him. There had been just two or three things I could hold in my hands and think of my father, remember him alive. At least I still had his diary from when he was twelve. It was hard to decipher the handwriting. It had been hard to understand the man. He was there, then gone. Now his ring was gone.

The wedding ring from China also meant a lot to me. Pure gold. Gold that had been passed down for generations. A taste of history. My first wife had kept almost all the photos from the marriage. And most of the property. Many of the memories from that marriage I wanted to forget, but there had also been good memories. A gold ring forged during a trip to Jiangxi in 1989 was one of them. Still there in the mind, but less tangible now. Beyond my grasp.

A cop with a fingerprint kit eventually came out and said he would see if he could lift a print off the broken glass or the remains of the window. He said he found something and that a detective would be in touch with me. No detective ever contacted me.

The uniformed officers had a curious way of approaching the crime. All at some point tried to get me to say that I made up the robbery, staged it, or that a friend or family member did it. Brilliant minds at work.

An officer pressed me to name any relatives I had with drug problems. “Addicts in the family need money for drugs and know where to find valuables.”

I mentioned my brother to see how the officer would react. His face brightened, “How can we find him for questioning?”

“You’ll have to dig him up. He died four years ago. Two years before I bought the house.”

The cop was not happy with the answer.

“Do any of your kids smoke pot?”

Pot is decriminalized in Philadelphia. Everyone appears to smoke pot. Everywhere. On every corner. On every bus. In very yard, park or parking lot. It’s as if it’s our civic duty now to get high. Still, I chose to stay mum on the topic.

A friend on the force tried to explain to me it was just wishful thinking. A lot of burglaries are done by friends of the family or relatives. Those are also often the easiest to solve, even if in the end no charges are filed, because, after all, it’s family.

I didn’t agree then. I don’t agree now.

As for the investigation, my friend said, “Detectives don’t have time to really investigate a burglary. There are too many murders and shootings. That takes precedence. A burglary only moves up the line if someone got hurt, ya know, a home invasion or beating.”

Good to know.

Home owners insurance paid for a new window. I paid my girlfriend back. The cost of the jewelry was never made up. The cost of burglar bars, a security door in the back, and motion sensor lights outside came out of pocket as well.

It was the first successful break in. There has been failed attempts before. A broken door in the front that I replaced. Cracked basement windows replaced with glass block. A man’s home is his castle, and, more and more, mine is starting to look like one. A high fence is next on the list. Though I’d prefer a wall. Maybe a moat. Stocked with fish. My new wife wants koi. I’m thinking trout.


It has been three years since I was burglarized. The neighborhood and the world aren’t getting any better. But my wife and I now have a big garden, inaccessible, thanks to the tall fence, except to the most agile climbers. And a ditch. An irrigation project really. A trench my wife dug to channel water to her ever growing garden. It just needs a good rain before it can become my new fishing hole. I’m still holding off on buying a gun, afraid I made shoot my foot off while loading it, but I do have a catalog from Smith and Wesson with a few items circled. Just in case.

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