Many years back, I served as a grants administrator for a metropolitan police department. I spent time with veteran officers and listened to the stories they would tell. Most were common; many were sordid, and some were perversely funny. Few were uplifting.
This is one of their stories, a cop’s Christmas story …
The watch commander handled the briefing and would determine the police response to the incident. He read out the fact sheet, “Vandalism of St. Joseph Church on 23rd and Franklin. Theft of two statues from an outside nativity display. Committed sometime in the early a.m. Perpetrator(s) unknown.”
The vandalism would not normally place high on the long list of crimes to be investigated, but this was an act of desecration and the local citizens would demand action. Additionally, St. Joseph Church was in a gang-infested area where the department wanted to establish a neighborhood watch program; they needed to maintain the goodwill of its residents.
Subsequently, the watch commander decided to make an effort to find the vandals. He assigned two veteran detectives who knew the neighborhood to manage the case.
His only instruction: “Work the case quickly.”
The preliminary investigation only yielded a few clues. Footprints in the snow at the crime scene indicated a single perpetrator. The damage caused was minimal – more likely due to haste rather than a conscious effort to desecrate the site.
The perpetrator’s sole objective appeared to be the theft of two small statues. But, according to the church pastor, “The statues were not valuable – merely painted plaster replicas worth less than $50.”
The detectives reviewed the sparse evidence and decided on a course of action. They checked the local pawn shops, looked inside trash containers, put the word out to their informers and searched the immediate area for likely witnesses.
Their persistence paid off. A snitch said he saw the crime and provided the name of a rival gang member; they had a suspect.
Now with a tangible lead, the detectives spoke again to the pastor. He told them he knew the suspect and his family, and their questioning revealed an all-to-familiar story.
The suspect’s family was poor; the husband had left, and the mother was barely able to support her two young children. They lived in a two-room apartment in the neighborhood and relied upon food stamps to get by.
The mother was religious and took her children to church. The boy, however, was rebellious and unwilling to accept their plight; he started to hang out with one of the neighborhood gangs.
When the mother became ill, the boy went with her to the hospital emergency room. Prescriptions provided temporary relief, but her condition only worsened until she became bed-ridden.
The pastor said he had gone to visit them at their apartment and gave the detectives the family’s address. Based on this information, the detectives went to the suspect’s home.
When the detectives arrived, a young girl let them in and told them her mother and brother had just left for the hospital. The detectives scanned the meager apartment, and there in plain sight were the missing statues – statues of the Infant Jesus and Mother Mary.
The statues were nestled in a shoe box stuffed with straw under a hanging paper globe – a makeshift manger scene with Bethlehem’s star.
When asked about the statues, the sister explained, “The Baby Jesus and Blessed Lady had just appeared on my mother’s bedside bureau while she slept. When she awoke and saw the little shrine, she cried tears of joy.
“She said, ‘They were a beautiful gift from an angel, and both she and God were happy.’
“Then, we all prayed together. Mother asked God to protect us and made us promise to hold this special Christmas in our hearts.”
Additional questions were asked, and the detectives called the hospital and checked police records for prior arrests for the boy. The hospital confirmed the seriousness of the mother’s condition, and the boy’s record was clean.
The two detectives evaluated the facts and determined the probable motive in the thief of the two statues. Most motives are simple ones – this one was no different. The boy simply loved his mother and, by his action, merely wanted to comfort her.
Then, these two hardened detectives spoke to their watch commander on the boy’s behalf. In the end, no charges were filed. They told the sister the statues were borrowed, returned them to the church without explanation and closed the case.
In retrospect, I can’t condone the little thief’s choice to steal, but I believe I understand it. I also believe I understand the police officers’ choice not to make an arrest.
Maybe it was the time of year or the circumstances – maybe both? But, as I mentioned earlier, most motives are simple ones. I believe the officers, by their action, simply wanted to show that they cared.