After an hour’s walk along the C&O Canal in May two years ago, Deborah Beers and her husband found their car window broken and her handbag stolen.
The thief ran up several thousand dollars on her credit cards, said Beers, a lawyer who also is the mayor of Glen Echo. She had to cancel her checkbook and the cards. Her house keys were taken in the theft.
“We had to change the locks to the house, which cost a small fortune,” she said.
The thief also took her Social Security card, which she’s never recovered.
“That still nags at me; I don’t know who has it,” she said.
After initially reporting the crime, she said, she didn’t hear from the police for almost a year. She said she doubted that minor property crime was high on their agenda.
But Montgomery County police already were hard on the case they would come to attribute to a “one-man crime spree,” a man who stole from as many as 25 other victims in and around Potomac.
Four miles away from the parking lot where Beers’ car was broken into, video footage from a Safeway in Potomac captured a man dressed in a white polo shirt buying Purina Cat Chow and Visa gift cards with her stolen credit cards that day.
Two months before, police received a call about a theft from a station wagon at the Potomac Tennis Club around 8 a.m. A thief had taken a $1,000 Anya Hindmarch purse and credit cards found inside it, and used them to buy a $200 American Express gift card.
Shortly thereafter, the thief made a critical mistake, calling American Express four times with his personal cellphone to check the balance on the card, according to Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorney Steve Chaikin. Security camera footage gave authorities an image of their thief.
“It was an exciting moment, because we now had an individual to target,” said Stephen Cohen, one of the detectives who first investigated the string of thefts.
His name was Michael Bernard Dorsey, 47, a clean-cut man who lived in Silver Spring with his wife and stepchildren. Dorsey would say at trial he operated his own business.
At the end of April, police investigated a theft from a 2011 Toyota Camry on MacArthur Boulevard, where someone stole more than $1,000 worth of property. The cards used in that case were traced to purchases made in a Safeway and a Rite Aid near Falls Road and River Road in Potomac.
Police got a picture there, too — a man wearing a white, hooded jacket, a white polo shirt and black sunglasses.
“We had identified him early on,” Cohen said, “[but] in these kinds of cases, we are always behind the ball, sometimes as much as two months. We had to be able to tie him to all of the crimes.”
In late September 2011, Dorsey went to the C&O Canal and headed down to the towpath, supposedly for a jog. By then, police had begun surveilling him, hoping to catch him in the act. One detective who worked to catch him said they spent three weeks watching him “pretty consistently.”
They watched as he set out for his run, only to return, minutes later, to his vehicle, a white 2002 Cadillac Escalade. He then peered into windows of cars parked in the Old Angler’s Inn’s parking lot. At a different parking lot near the Cabin John Ice Rink, they watched him sitting in the back of his car, scoping vehicles in the parking lot.
There had been other close calls. Earlier that month, police received a call for thefts from vehicles in Potomac. A Louis Vuitton handbag had been stolen, along with some thumb drives and sunglasses. A witness had seen a white Cadillac Escalade peel out of the parking lot and later recalled a license plate number that was one digit off from Dorsey’s, Chaikin said.
By Oct. 9, Dorsey knew the Montgomery County Police were closing in.
That day, county police investigated a report of three cars that had been broken into in Potomac. One was a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee, another car Dorsey used.
Lisa Killen, another detective, wrote of the incident, “It is the belief of the investigators … that Dorsey fraudulently made up this report to distance himself from these crimes.”
Nearly two weeks later, police watched Dorsey steal two bags from a car at a medical facility in Bethesda and put them into his car, drive away, then, shortly thereafter, toss them on the side of the road.
That was when they arrested him.
Dorsey’s wife, police said, had no idea about her husband’s crime spree. By the time he was arrested, he had stolen property, committed identity fraud, and caused damage totaling much more than $25,000, Chaikin said. When police searched his home in Silver Spring, they found dozens of items he had worn in videos or stolen from victims.
Those items, along with surveillance footage and credit card statements, were the proof that earned Dorsey five separate trials starting Feb. 6 on 20 separate counts of theft from vehicles, identity theft and other fraud-related crimes. The last trial took place Feb. 12.
If he were forced to serve the maximum penalty for each charge, consecutively, he would face 58-and-a-half years in prison. His first sentencing is scheduled for April.
At his last trial, Dorsey’s father, also named Michael Bernard Dorsey, said his son had a history of theft.
Dorsey, 67, said Michael’s mother died in 1986, when his son was still a teen. Of his four children, Michael is the only one who had trouble with the law, his father said, calling the incidents “heartbreaking.” The family grew up in Baton Rouge, La., and came to the D.C. area so the elder Dorsey could take an assistant teaching position at Howard University, he said.
The elder Dorsey said he hadn’t expected the more recent charges against his son, especially after he married a few years ago.
“He gave me the impression with family and all that he was going straight,” he said.
Police say Dorsey’s crimes weren’t violent, but they were the chronic behavior of a career criminal who has “never learned.”
“Most people will go through life without being burglarized or robbed,” Cohen, the detective, said. “But a lot of people — they get their vehicles broken into.”
Theft from autos is one of the most common crimes countywide, although rates have fallen by more than 50 percent since 2008 — from more than 10,000 thefts annually to around 4,700 in the first 11 months of 2012.
An estimate from the state’s attorney’s office puts the damage and costs caused by Dorsey’s crimes at at least $25,000 — before factoring in time and energy spent tracking and apprehending him. Over the course of the investigation, more than 50 people were involved bringing him to justice, according to one police estimate.
Putting criminals like Dorsey behind bars means a “dramatic reduction” in similar incidents because of the large number of crimes by repeat offenders, Cohen said.
At the individual level, though, it was simpler.
“You feel violated when someone breaks into your car,” Cohen said.
After Dorsey was convicted in his last trial on Thursday, Beers said, “I’m relieved he got caught — and that he’ll be off the street.”