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     Volume 4 Issue 55 |July 22 , 2005 |

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Food For Thought

To Catch a Thief

Farah Ghuznavi

In the brave new world of the 21st century, nothing is simple anymore. As the authorities are discovering, sometimes to their genuine bemusement, crime and criminals are not just becoming more sophisticated or complex, but more weird as well. And the ways to detect or deal with crime appear to be as diverse as the ways of committing it!

In the UK, there is increasing alarm over "identity theft", where criminals use financial information obtained by rooting through people's garbage bags and finding bank statements etc, in order to pretend to be someone else and order goods and services in their name - leaving them to deal with astronomical bills, of course…

Others use more traditional means, being scoundrels or bounders in the old-fashioned sense. Clearly, some are more ingenious than others. In Romania, a handsome crook - clearly a smooth operator - regularly approached women in bars, and asked them out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. Once there, he would order the best wines, and tell his companion she could have whatever she wanted. Then, with the meal over, he would make some excuse - for example, saying that he had to step outside to make a call - and abscond. Rather ungallantly leaving her to pay the bill! Fortunately, after five of his victims complained to the police, his photo-fit was finally circulated. And the next time he swanned (or should I say, slithered) into a restaurant he was arrested!

The thriving global trade related to smuggling desirable items is well-known: gold, diamonds, and increasingly narcotics, are the focus of customs officers and their sniffer dogs in airports the world over. But never underestimate the criminal capacity for innovation. Airport officials in Melbourne were recently alerted to the fact that something strange was going on, when a woman walked past them wearing a long skirt, making what were described as "sloshing noises" and "flipping sounds" (!). When they investigated, it turned out that she was smuggling no less than 51 LIVE tropical fish in water-filled plastic bags under her skirt!

It seems that even traditional bank robbers cannot be relied upon to have a standard profile anymore. A German court found three men guilty of bank robbery, and sentenced them to between nine and 12 years in prison. Over a 16-year period, the three managed to rob 14 German banks, stealing a total of over 1 million. What makes them special, do you ask, apart from a prolific capacity for robbery? Well, the men are aged 74, 73 and 68, and are known as the "Grandpa Gang"!

Faced with these innovations among criminals, some members of the public are developing equally innovative ways to combat crime. Forget about the old fashioned neighbourhood watch, crime-fighters now come in all shapes and sizes, literally. A 19-stone Russian woman managed to keep an armed burglar trapped in her house until police arrived, by the simple expedient of sitting on him!

Sometimes, criminals assist in their own capture. A mafia fugitive was recently caught out as a result of his homesickness. Francesco Tonicello managed for five years to stay one step ahead of the police. Facing a lengthy jail term in his native Italy for armed robbery, he fled to London in 2000 and began a new and secret life. He adopted a frugal existence (very different from his earlier lavish lifestyle) keeping a low profile and living in a dreary flat in south London. Throughout this time, he was very homesick and suffered from a longing for all things Italian. Chief among his desires were the delicacies of his homeland, so his family were repeatedly instructed to send him home-made goodies to the address of his new false identity. Eventually, Italian police became suspicious when they intercepted food parcels and found cheese, salami and cake being sent to someone in London from the family. They then tracked him down and arrested him, and he is expected to be shortly extradited to Italy…

Even more helpful was the thief who broke into a pie shop. The shop-owner, coming into the store, was amazed to see several pie wrappers lying around on the floor. He followed the trail to a window, where he was confronted with the sight of a jammed rear end attached to a pair of fat legs waving frantically in the air! Clearly, the burglar should have eaten fewer pies before attempting to squeeze himself through such a small space!!

Other robbers have motives which are, to say the least, unclear. Sometimes, it must be said, you just don't want to know what they were thinking of…

The mascot of a Japanese bakery business is a little girl called Peko-chan. Life-sized dolls of her decorate all the shops in the bakery chain. A Japanese man from Yamagota province, became so obsessed with the mannequins, that he started to steal them from the various outlets. When the police finally raided the house of this serial doll-snatcher, they found 15 of the dolls!

While it may be hard to believe, some robbers are even crazier. A Maryland couple were victims of TRULY strange behaviour when an armed man broke into their home. He demanded money, used a hatchet to smash a telephone, ordered one of the couple to play the piano, sang along as she did so, asked them if they wanted pizza, and then shot himself in the leg. This has to take the cake for weird burglaries…

If the criminals are mad, the legal system isn't always too sound either! For the sake of brevity, I will just give one example. In Turin, Italy, it was recently made illegal for dog owners not to walk their dogs three times a day. Seems excessive, even from an animal-welfare perspective. Who was it who said that the law is an ass…?

The frontline against crime being the police, sound crime-prevention strategies are critical for success. But some believe that the police are going too far in their attempts to "think outside of the box". The UK police have just launched a new initiative, which will take place in the bars and car parks of village pubs during summer, where police teams will be looking for evidence of over-drinking i.e. someone slurring their speech, staggering or smelling of alcohol (unusual behaviour in a pub!).

In order to appear "inconspicuous", it has been decided that teams of male and female constables will pair off, acting as romantic couples, while keeping an eye out for potential troublemakers. Concerned commentators however have questioned how far the police couples will be expected to take their impersonation, and whether this is not asking too much in the name of public service…

Finally, and most alarmingly, the court system appears to be going the way of the police and the criminals, i.e., getting distinctly stranger. Further evidence shows that Florida standards of normality are not as they are elsewhere - we hope! - has emerged from a recent court case. A man who told a judge, "I am going to the moon," spoke of spirits transporting him, shouted out "Cuckoo!" and then exposed himself to the jury, has been judged mentally fit for trial!

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