Brush with the law

Melissa Stagnaro

This week’s headlines about Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s brush with the law, brought up a long-buried memory of a similar experience I myself once had. While Gates’ run-in was with the Cambridge Police Department, mine took place inside the beltway, when I lived in Arlington, VA a couple of years after I graduated from college.

I should note that, despite my close proximity to the White House, no presidential statements were issued on my behalf when my new neighbors (and Arlington’s finest) mistook me for someone breaking into my own home.

All right. Let me explain.

I think it was either November or December of 1999 when I moved from a house I shared with some friends in the Pentagon City section of Arlington to another located a stones throw off Wilson Boulevard, just a few blocks up from the Courthouse metro station.

The new location was less than a block from my day job as a market research analyst, and within easy walking distance to all kinds of fun and trendy restaurants and bars. At the time I moonlighted at one of those establishments, the Clarendon Grill, and it was through Jeannette, a friend I worked with there, that I ended up with my new digs.

Juggling two jobs meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to coordinate my move. Thankfully, my friends Brian and Ed stepped up to help me. We spent a couple of nights painting my new room (a necessity, I assure you, as the original pepto-pink walls were nothing short of nauseating), but I thought I’d have to wait a couple of nights to make my actual move because of my crazy work schedule.

But once again, Brian and Ed came to my rescue. They enlisted Fletcher, another of our friends, and while I was busy waiting tables, the three of them moved all of my things. It was a total surprise to me. I’d had no idea they were planning it, until they came to pick me up after my shift.

I didn’t have much time, however, to bask in the delight of knowing I had such great friends. You see Ed, who is surpassed only by my father in his attention to safety and security, had double checked to make sure every door in the house was thoroughly locked before leaving after they had delivered the final load of my belongings. That meant he had thrown the deadbolt on the front door and locked the back door, to which no one living in the house had a key.

Which explains why, at approximately 11:30 p.m., I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house which I had only just moved into watching Brian, Ed and Fletcher (who for some reason was wearing a Santa’s hat) try every window in the house to see if one was unlocked.

Just as one of the boys finally found a second story window that appeared to be unlocked, I saw a dark shape move out of the corner of my eye. Before I could make it out, however, I was blinded by a brilliant white light.

Light which was being shone into my eyes by one of the dozen or so members of the Arlington police department, wearing what looked to me like full SWAT gear, who had apparently just crept up a dark sidestreet hell-bent on confronting the robbery in progress reported by a concerned neighbor.

Yep. That was fun.

The situation seemed hopeless. Since I’d only barely moved in, my old address was still on my driver’s license. I don’t think I’d even filled out the paperwork to forward my mail yet. Jeannette, who was the only one of my three new roommates that I knew, was staying at her boyfriend’s that night.  This was probably a year before I got my first cell phone, and his number, along with that of my landlord (who I knew only as “Chuck”) were written in my address book. Which, as you can guess, was sitting in one of the boxes piled inside.

To top it all off, Fletcher (still wearing that stupid Santa’s hat) refused to give the officers either a first or last name to go with the “Fletcher” he kept repeating. He was holding the ladder for Ed, I believe, who was reluctant to come down when he was so close to gaining entrance to the house. Brian, if I remember correctly, had gone around the house to try a side window. The next I saw him, he was being marched back around with his hands behind his head.

My mouth kept moving, as I talked to the officer questioning me, but my mind was on other things. Namely how my father was going to kill me after he had to drive the 6 or so hours down to Virginia in order to bail his baby girl out of jail. The idea of spending a night in the clink wasn’t nearly as scary as having that conversation, believe me.

I don’t remember if I cried, but it is a distinct possibility.

Somehow, it all turned out okay in the end. After a couple of phone calls to CGrill, I was able to get in touch with Jeannette and she came to our rescue. She knew the neighbor who had made the call, and she was able to verify that I did, in fact, live there. They came to their own conclusions about Brian, Ed and Fletcher, who got a bit of a stern talking to about their level of cooperation.

None of us were arrested, thank goodness, but it was quite the adventure.  I think we were lucky to get out of it unscathed, because let’s face it, they would have been justified in making arrests in that situation. It was probably the most drama that quiet little neighborhood had ever seen.

I certainly couldn’t blame our neighbor. After all, if you saw three men (one of them in a Santa’s hat) get a ladder out and start trying to open your neighbor’s second story windows in the middle of the night, wouldn’t you call the police? After I got over the shock of it all, I actually went over and thanked our neighbor. I’m glad he was looking out for us.

And I have to commend the Arlington PD on their response time, which was under 5 minutes if I remember correctly. While I never had cause to call them myself, I always felt very safe living there knowing they could be there in an instant if I needed them.

Having gone through that experience, I have a bit of a different take on the Gate’s incident that my co-workers. It’s obvious that there were wire’s crossed somewhere, but I just can’t fathom why you would be upset that officers would respond if someone reported a break in at your house. Isn’t that their job? Why wouldn’t you cooperate with their investigation? I think that, perhaps, just who “acted stupidly” in this situation could be up for debate.