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Commentary: Broken locks can break your heart

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2011 - As it does on every workweek Monday, my alarm clock went off at 7 a.m. on Valentine's Day. Hearts and flowers notwithstanding, somebody's got to pay the bills.

Though I'm not a morning person, I get up earlier than I have to, sacrificing an extra 20 minutes to allow time for a steaming mug of black coffee. While sipping my morning joe, I read the editorial page of the Post-Dispatch. Normally, the combination of scalding caffeine and moral outrage is sufficient to shake the cobwebs from my brain.

The editorial staff's cause du jour that morning was the unjust incarceration of nonviolent offenders. I suppose that, in honor of the day, they decided to grant the readership a brief reprieve from their usual rant against the mistreatment of condemned killers. (Q: Of all the persecuted demographics on Earth, could you possibly find a less sympathetic one than convicted murderers?)

At any rate, the Post has decided that the state is wasting scarce resources by housing thieves and burglars in the penitentiary. Turns out most of these misguided souls are junkies whose anti-social behaviors are prompted by their various addictions. It seems we'd all be better served if they were left to roam the streets under the haphazard supervision of the Department of Probation and Parole while undergoing "treatment."

Now braced for the day, I shaved and showered before joining the rush hour to set about the business of trying to earn a living.

According to my dashboard clock, it was 7:18 p.m. when I turned into my driveway after another day at the mill. I had planned to change into jeans and then stop by a neighborhood Valentine's party.

My mother had called as I was driving home, and I was talking to her on my cell phone when I noticed that my garage door was up and the front door to the house was ajar. Not wishing to alarm her unduly, I mustered the calmest voice I could locate and asked if her I could call back later.

Despite the evidence before my eyes, the first reaction is denial. Maybe my daughter had stopped by and carelessly left the darkened dwelling unsecured. How many times have I told that kid ...?

A quick scan of the interior served to clear the usual suspect and confirm the obvious. On the wall above the living room fireplace was a gaping hole in the plaster where a 42" hi-def TV used to reside. A DVD player and the satellite receiver box were also missing.

The master bedroom had undergone a cursory toss: The top tier of bureau drawers had been rifled; the sliding closet door was open and a few articles from within were strewn about the floor. The mattress on my bed had been lifted to see if I'm the type who doesn't trust banks.

An expensive leather jacket I'd tossed across the bed was untouched. I'm not quite sure how I feel about that -- grateful to have the garment or insulted by the burglars' tacit commentary on my taste?

The only thing I discovered missing from the bedroom was the wedding ring from my second marriage. It bears a personal inscription from my former wife. City gold dealers are required by law to hold any jewelry they buy for 72 hours before melting it down. If the cops could find it within the next three days, it would be readily identifiable. If not, the sentiment etched into the ring's interior would be as irretrievably lost as the marriage it memorialized.

Every burglary victim I interviewed during my 21 years as a city cop described a feeling of being violated, and I now shared their grief. This is my stuff. How can evil strangers break into my safe place and have their way with my private belongings?

A friend of mine relates that when her home was burgled years ago, the toughest part was trying to explain to her young son why he couldn't watch a Pinocchio tape that had been stolen in the crime. How do you explain the truth to the little tyke without destroying his sense of domestic security?

And that sense is a very real thing. Despite rational analysis, I can't help feeling betrayed by my house itself. Like an unfaithful lover, it has failed to deliver on its implicit promise of security.

Entry was gained by jimmying the handle lock on the kitchen door. I'd been meaning to install a deadbolt on that door since I moved in nearly five years ago, but it didn't seem to be a priority because I live in a safe neighborhood -- the kind of place where nothing ever happens ... until it does. The next day, I took off work so a locksmith could repair my procrastination.

All in all, the current value of the property stolen probably wouldn't defray the $1,000 deductible on my insurance policy. A solicitous buddy suggested that I add a mythical set of Ping golf clubs and a Rolex watch to my report, but I informed my larcenous associate that I didn't want to become a bigger thief than the people who'd broken into my home.

That said, between the replacement price of the lost property, the locksmith's fee and the price of the alarm system I subsequently installed, it cost me more than $2,500 to go to work on Feb. 14.

On the night of the burglary, I wedged a 2 x 4 against the kitchen door and slept with a .357 magnum next to my bed. It occurred to me that, while there is a price for incarcerating property crime offenders, there is also a price for failing to do so.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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