YOU HAVE SHIT to thank—because if it wasn't for "shit," I'd never have faced off with the two men accused of stealing my stuff, and you wouldn't be reading this story.
It was late on a Tuesday in August. I was in the process of moving out of a St. Johns rental, and burned out after a day of helping put out the Mercury. But those boxes in the basement weren't going to pack themselves—and, so, downstairs I went. Stink lines started stabbing my nostrils by the third or fourth stair. And, suddenly, I realized I had a much bigger problem than whether to pack yet another box of why-the-fuck-do-we-have-so-many-books or start in on the kitchen china. There, coming out of the basement drain was a disgusting eruption of feces turned back by an underground clog and left with nowhere better to go than the blue-painted basement floor of our duplex.
Cleaning supplies were required—normally not a problem, except that the heavy-duty stuff was all at the new house, which we'd been renovating for a month.
By then, it was close to 11 pm. My body was crying out for sleep. But—hey!—there was hot shit in my basement. So on went my pants, and soon I was in the car making the two-minute drive to the new place. I parked in front like usual and went up the steps to the door, shrouded in darkness because the porch light was off.
I fumbled with the key. Then I stopped. The wind was howling. And I could hear something clanging—the side gates, normally blocking the way from the driveway to a patio alongside the house."Hmm... the workers must've left those open," I thought dimly. "I should close those before going in."
I walked north along the front of the house. I grabbed hold of one gate and as I swung it over to its mate, I stopped again. A black pickup was on the patio. Packed with boxes. My heart started pounding, and before I could do a damned thing, I was looking right at one of the men who'd been loading it up. And he was looking right back at me.
GONE, BABY, GONE
THIS IS WHEN Kris Henning, a criminal justice professor at Portland State University, tells me, in as many words, that I'm lucky.
Burglaries happen every day in Portland, in every neighborhood, and for a variety of reasons. And only in rare cases is a crook actually caught in the act or spotted by a neighbor while hauling away someone else's stolen property.
Henning says the national clearance rate for burglary cases—based on arrests—is just 14 percent, and that it's been that way for decades.
"Once an offender makes a getaway," Henning says, "the odds of clearing a case are pretty slim."
Some burglars are professionals who earn their living casing and robbing. But most residential jobs are usually the result of an opportunity that's way too fucking tempting to pass up. Someone's broke, with bills to pay or a collection agent breathing down their neck, or they're looking for quick cash to get high. They see a door or a window left open or unlocked. Or they notice a house, like ours, with no one home and a lot of equipment piled in a jumble. They go in.
"This is an opportunistic crime," Henning says. "They're not out specializing in burglaries, but if they see an opportunity, they take it."
Henning says most burglars don't leave behind much evidence when they raid a house for things like electronics or jewelry. And even though Portland cops have a pawn shop detail that combs through one of the more traditionally viewed outlets of stolen goods—a 2010 study Henning worked on found known burglars were twice as likely to frequent the shops—there are too many other ways to dump the stuff. Craigslist and eBay and junkers and scrappers, according to news reports and police agencies, all wind up host to ill-begotten goods.
Police resources are so strapped that some cities won't even send a cop out to take a report if it's clear the burglar is long gone.
"CSI does not characterize what the real deal is," Henning says, describing a fantasy world where forensics techs come out to each and every ransacked home instead of focusing on shootings and violent crimes and other priorities. "We don't have the resources for that."
He's right. According to Portland police stats, some 1,500 residential burglaries were reported in just the first six months of this year alone.
"Our best effort is to get people to take more precautions in terms of securing their home," he says, "to prevent the opportunity from being available in the first place."
In my case, that may not have helped.
WAIT... IS THAT A CHIHUAHUA?
I SHOULD HAVE been scared. But I wasn't. I was angry. And it didn't hurt that the guy was shorter, skinnier, and more jittery than I was, and had the sour stink of booze floating from his unshaven mouth. He also looked familiar.
I went first, barking: "What the fuck is going on here?"
He shrank a little bit, backed toward the pickup truck, and stammered that he was "with the masonry company." We were having work done on the chimney, but that would have been obvious to anyone who walked by and saw an inescapable wall of scaffolding.
I followed him slowly and got a good look at what was in the truck. I saw tools, but I also saw some shit a mason or laborer would have no need to be stacking in his personal vehicle: a still-in-the-box gas stove, several boxes of Ikea cabinets, countertops, some paintings and prints.
"You're with the masonry company?" I shouted. "So why the fuck do you need my cabinets? And you're drunk, aren't you?"
He apologized for drinking, weirdly, and then tried to change his story. Instead, he was with the kitchen contractor. The driver's side door of his truck was open and he got in, pleading that this was a misunderstanding and that I should let him drive off.
At this point, I'd noticed his accomplice. I was outnumbered, and that should have given me pause. But the other guy in the passenger seat was even less menacing. Why? Because he was clutching, on his lap, a (surprisingly quiet and actually pretty cute) brown Chihuahua. Yes, a fucking Chihuahua.
Two thoughts sprang to mind. The skinny guy was fondling his keys, so the first was that I had to keep them there no matter what. The second was that I needed the cops.
While yelling at them, I'd unlocked my phone with my left hand at my side and started dialing 911.
Then while the phone was ringing, I impulsively reached forward and snatched away the keys.
Here, again, I was lucky. What could have been brutal turned slapstick.
He didn't knife me as I tried to haul ass down the driveway. Or pull a gun. Or punch me. And neither did his friend. He just wanted his keys. So he wrapped me up from behind in a desperate bid to get them back. I played keep-away, flailing my half-trapped arms around like Robby the Robot from Lost in Space (a reference the more elderly grand jurors LOVED when I testified), until I could throw them somewhere safe. Except I ended up missing the bushes, tossing them onto the driveway, and the guy ended up letting me go to grab them back.
This all took less than a minute. Freed, I announced that I was on the phone with 911. The dispatcher told me not to confront anyone—smart advice, but a little too late. The Chihuahua-holder got out of the truck and started urging his friend, whom he identified as "Gabe," "to unload the truck and let's go."
Meanwhile, I'd begun reading off the truck's Washington tags and describing both men to the dispatcher—the Chihuahua man helpfully responding when I asked if him if he was white or Latino: "I'm white." We waited for the first patrol cars to show up, and "Gabe" started telling his friend to take his dog and run away. To his credit, the Chihuahua man refused.
The cops rolled up, took my statement, handcuffed the Chihuahua man, and cleared the house. I thought they'd also grabbed Gabe, but he somehow escaped, and was nowhere to be found. Gabe's friend apologized before being put in a squad car. His dog had to be taken downtown separately, to a kennel in Central Precinct. It bid adieu by pissing on the cop who took him away.
DON'T I KNOW YOU?
I HARDLY SLEPT that night. A technician spent hours dusting for prints and snapping pictures, gleeful over a trove of evidence—boxes and a truck filled with fingerprints. This was one of those cases where it did make sense to invest in a tech, and it paid off.
Poking around the construction dust inside the house, she noticed a missing window screen and found some other hard-to-spot evidence that, detectives later said, helped tie the men to being inside the house.
A team of burly detectives then showed up in an unmarked car and helped inventory and unload the truck, which was later towed away to the police bureau's impound lot. I made it back to bed by 5 am.
The next morning, my wife and I headed back to the house to let the workers know what happened and ask if they were missing any tools. The mason who was working on the chimney asked what color the truck was (black). Then he asked me to repeat the guy's name (Gabe). Turns out, Gabe really was on the job for the masonry company. He was a laborer, hired only a few weeks before. That's why I'd vaguely recognized him. He'd probably figured out a way to let himself in.
The supervisor showed up a few minutes later and said he'd actually run into Gabe at a Safeway downtown. Gabe told him he totaled his truck and had to quit work. On the phone with the detectives, the supe said Gabe was a hard, fast worker who had recently been chided for drinking on another job but given a second chance.
Hearing all that—that he was a worker, not some shadowy figure casing the house from the outside—was a relief. As to how often that's the case in Portland?
"We don't know the typical relationship" between victim and suspect, Henning says. "They don't record that in the reports so it goes into the computer system."
I began to wonder more about the men—particularly in light of the friend's surprising apology.
The arrest report identified the friend as Brandon Lee Mares. His mugshot, taken that morning, captured the fright of a man who knows he's just made a life-altering mistake. His Facebook profile turns up photos with kids and, unsurprisingly, lots of dogs. Court papers confirm he's never been arrested or convicted. Not once. But they also show he's had a rough go in recent months: The 35-year-old is newly divorced (with no kids of his own), was working odd jobs, and had kicked a meth habit this spring. Since then, he's been in Narcotics Anonymous and attending an outpatient rehab program.
In keeping with his remorseful stance, according to an affidavit, he almost immediately admitted his role in the burglary and said he knew he was headed to my house to do it.
Gabe, later identified as Gabriel Troy Egan, 36, slipped through the law's fingers only a little while longer. He was too skittish to collect his last paycheck, where a sting would have been waiting, and an arrest warrant had to be sent out to Washington State, where he lived with roommates.
On August 31, 10 days after the burglary, cops in Longview finally caught up to him, pulling him over in a new (for him) truck. Even still, he almost got away one more time. He asked if he could be let out of handcuffs to call a friend to fetch his truck. The next thing the cop knew, Egan had took off again and was found hiding in the rafters of a nearby garage.
According to the Daily News, a news outlet across the Columbia, he told cops he was a drug addict and "did not want to 'detox' in jail."
Egan didn't have much choice. In court papers, he said he's struggled with an addiction to opiates since he was 17—never completing high school and doing a six-month rehab stint a decade ago before finally settling into a methadone program for the past two years. He said his parents were drug addicts, too.
His conviction record—with seven felonies and 10 misdemeanors—reads like that of a man who's struggled with an expensive drug habit: burglary, theft, attempting to elude officers, theft, heroin possession.
Property crimes—driven more by "economic and lifestyle issues" than other crimes, says Henning—often see "the highest rates of recidivism."
"People with recurring involvement in the justice system usually have more than one problem," he says, speaking not about my case but generally. "It's not just drugs. It's the fact they have a poor employment history, or they hang out with others engaged in criminal activities. They usually have very difficult childhoods."
JUSTICE IS SERVED?
AS OF PRESS TIME, I'm scheduled to see both Egan and Mares in court this coming Tuesday, November 13. Mares is out on bail, given his lack of a record, but Egan's been in jail in lieu of a $50,000 bond.
I thought I might wrestle more with the idea of pressing charges. But I didn't—I didn't want an extraordinary amount of justice, just the right amount. I was wronged; my castle had been breached.
But all that wasn't even the worst part. Once the excitement died down, once it was all in the cops' hands, I sat on the couch to think about how lucky I was—how this situation could've gone very, very wrong. That's when I came to another realization:
I still had an awful, drying explosion of shit in my basement to clean.
Yeah. Real lucky.