"When you start seeing windows, it's like, whoa!" chuckles Lieutenant Michael Caruso. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out there's a place buying these things and one person or group of related people stealing them."
Windows -- stained glass windows, to be precise -- commenced crowding the crime maps at Caruso's South Patrol Division this past summer. Joining wrought iron, terra cotta, fireplace mantels, even the black metal stars affixed to earthquake bolts, glass had seemingly become the latest architectural object St. Louis thieves had found they could pop and peddle.
What stumped Caruso and his minions were the stained glass burglar's street smarts. He'd strike at noon or midnight, enter via front doors and back. But he always wore gloves. And once inside he was careful. Police were left with few scraps of evidence.
Nearly eight months later, hundreds of windows having been hauled off in at least 80 break-ins, Caruso says his team of six detectives finally cracked the stained glass case.
Alleged stained glass bandit Cortez L. Tanter was arraigned last week in St. Louis Circuit Court. He is being held on $7,500 bond. The 28-year-old St. Louis resident faces charges of first- and second-degree burglary and stealing. Additional charges sought by police have yet to be issued by the Circuit Attorney's office.
Caruso says three of Tanter's accomplices remain at large.
Police concede that other criminals have tried tapping into the window market, but they dub Tanter "the major player." The night he was arrested, March 17, officers took him on a driving tour of south city during which they say Tanter pointed out a dozen buildings he'd burglarized, fencing the windows to support a heroin habit.
"Cortez is going away for a long time," Caruso sums up.
Back on September 10, police had caught Tanter armed with a pistol and cowering in the basement of a building on South Grand Boulevard, after he'd pried out several windows on a floor above. He spent two months in the workhouse but was freed when he posted bond. That case has yet to go to trial.
Police say that during Tanter's incarceration, the pilfering plummeted. But by December transoms and casements were again the talk of the South Patrol.
On the morning of December 8, detectives thought they'd caught a break when Donald Thomas, an Arsenal Street landlord, walked in on 40-year-old Terry Diamond V trying to snatch windows from Thomas' rental property. Diamond swung a pry bar at his apprehender and a fight ensued. "He threatened my life, and I wasn't going to take it," the landlord says in retrospect. "I picked up a brick and hit him in the head."
Thomas then pinned Diamond to the ground and held him until police arrived. Free on a $15,000 bond, Diamond is slated to be arraigned May 19 on burglary and assault charges. When the thefts continued, detectives concluded that Diamond was a secondary player in the stained glass saga. They continued their probe, combing local antique stores for clues.
City law dictates that a merchant who purchases goods off the street must acquire a thumbprint and take a photo of the seller. Police say most local dealers go by the book, but they're equally certain many of them have been approached by thieves.
"Every Monday morning we have a line of people out here who want to sell stained glass and other stuff," says Richard Cottrell, owner of the Antique Center of St. Louis on McPherson Avenue in the Central West End. "I've seen people pull up with wonderful things in their truck, and sometimes it's hard to say no. But I never take it, because you don't know where it came from. They all say, 'My auntie died.'"
In March, after some of Cortez Tanter's "known associates" pawned items that could be traced to him, police felt they had finally gathered sufficient evidence to make an arrest. They summoned a witness to a January burglary who quickly singled out Tanter in photo and physical lineups.
The witness had seen Tanter load windows into the trunk of a car -- right outside the Tower Grove East building he'd stolen them from, at lunchtime -- and had then driven around to the side of the building, where he saw two windows were missing and called the police. "I didn't realize I was seeing a crime until I thought about it for a second," recounts the witness, who asked not to be named in print.
Neighborhood leaders, real estate agents and art glass fabricators say they've been fielding frequent calls from burglary victims.
Dale Preston, the owner of Preston Art Glass Studio on Chouteau Avenue, says the problem reached "epidemic" proportions last fall, when he received at least one call a week from someone trying to find their stolen windows or looking for replacements. "It mostly happens between the time a house is closed on and new people move in," Preston says, adding that the phones have quieted since mid-March.
In his audiotaped confession, Tanter admitted to casing neighborhoods for properties for sale or rent and said he'd committed some burglaries and driven the getaway car for others. He'd park the car on a nearby corner, have an accomplice enter the building, then pull up to the house and help load the windows, he said.
Caruso says Diamond found his prey through the real estate listings. "If he saw a classified ad in the RFT that said, 'Gorgeous stained glass windows' -- boom! There's the target."
Art glass crowns stair landings and flanks fireplaces in hundreds of south-city homes built between 1880 and 1940, according to historian Mimi Stiritz, a member of the board of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation. "During that time the quality of the glass was equal to comparable-sized houses in Chicago or New York," she says.
Real estate agents vigorously tout such vestiges of vintage to homebuyers like Gary Hagen. Last fall Hagen was unimpressed by the exterior and garage of a big house in Holly Hills. Then he laid eyes on the 100-year-old, German-made stained glass panes scattered throughout. He saw castles and swans and flowers. "Wow," he thought. "It just kind of made you happy, when you walked in."
He wasn't so happy after three windows were filched one December afternoon between the time his rehab workers left and he stopped by to check their progress. He estimates his loss at $6,000 -- minimum. Like many victims, Hagen combed antique stores and hung fliers offering a $1,000 reward for his windows' safe return. Last month he finally bought replacements.
"Unfortunately, you can describe them as best you can, but I can't go out and find your windows," a police official concedes. "They're so similar, and they're all so intricate -- it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack."
Police believe most of the stolen glass is quickly crossing the St. Louis border, and that one might as easily find the treasures in Clayton as on eBay.
Some local dealers grumble that competitors buy stolen property but don't display it. "They'll stow the pieces in a closet and then sell them to dealers coming through from out of town, like Texas," Cottrell says.
Luby Kelley, proprietor of Junk Junkie on Hampton Avenue, says victims shouldn't throw in the towel too quickly. About three weeks after $3,200 worth of windows were stolen from his new home on Magnolia Avenue last year, Kelley's real estate agent noticed them hanging in a Maplewood antique shop.
After some maneuvering, Kelley finally "bought back" his windows for $500 -- the price the merchant told Kelley he'd paid for the panes.
"Everybody on the rehabbers' listserv is really hopeless about recovering their windows," says Kelley, making reference to www.rehabbersclub.org. "But I'm sure there's people in town you can recover them from, if you hunt hard enough."