Friday, February 13, 2009

Crime up front and personal

Most mystery writers (ex-cops excluded) don't get involved with crime on a personal level. When the subject of home invasions came up recently, however, it got me thinking about my close encounter with the wrong kind. It didn't take place at home, but at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC back in the 1980s.

I was executive vice president of the Tennessee Association of Life Underwriters, a trade association made up of life and health insurance agents, general agents and managers. Our national association was having its annual convention at the Shoreham, which is adjacent to Rock Creek Park near the Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street intersection.

One of my tasks, along with a volunteer leader, was to look after the “Tennessee Suite,” which had a large reception area that was a gathering place for Tennessee delegates, wives, and others. I always arrived a few days early to attend an association executives conference and get the suite set up. My room, which I shared with the volunteer in charge, was just down the corridor.

It was on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in late September. Most of the delegates would arrive the following day, but I had opened the suite for a few early birds. My roommate would not get in until later in the afternoon, when we would go out to buy snacks and booze for our bar.

One of the early arrivals paid me for something he owed with three twenties. I stuck them in my pocket and headed back to my room to pick up some literature for the suite. I unlocked the door and walked in but didn’t close it since I would only be a minute.

Hearing the door shut behind me, I looked around. A black man, his face covered with a handkerchief, stood there with a shiny revolver aimed at me. He wore a white jacket like a room service employee.

“Turn around,” he ordered.

I did.

“Empty your wallet on the bed.”

I dropped my bankroll of $23 as instructed.

“Take off your shoes. Hand me your belt and put your hands behind you.”

He tied my hands with the belt and ordered me to lie on my stomach on the floor. All the while I’m remembering those stories I’d read about robbers getting upset with their take and shooting their victims. I wasn’t about to argue with that pistol, probably a .38.

“You have any money in your pockets?” he asked.

Having quickly forgotten what I’d been doing, I said, “No.”

His answer was to reach in my pocket and pull out the three twenties. Then he said, “Stay where you are for five minutes, or I’ll shoot you.”

When I was sure he had left, I freed my hands and called the front desk to report what had happened. Then I went up the hallway and told my story to a group of wide-eyed life underwriters. Soon the hotel called to tell everyone to stay in their rooms until they were cleared.

Within minutes, a police helicopter appeared overhead and police cars swarmed about the hotel. Shortly afterward, a whole troop of motorized cops crowded the street in front. SWAT officers in paramilitary outfits combed the corridors, knocking on doors, checking out the rooms. It seemed a little overkill for a small-time robbery.

Later in the afternoon, after my roommate had arrived, two D.C. detectives came up to question me, and we learned the reason for all the commotion. The robber had entered the room of a delegate and his family two floors above just before he caught me. Our calls to the front desk came at nearly the same time, and they assumed there were multiple robbers hitting the hotel.

The motorized cops had been attending some sort of celebration a few blocks away and were diverted to the scene.

The robber got away, of course. Neither victim could identify him because of the handkerchief. The lead detective said he had a pretty good idea who it was, but they wouldn’t likely be able to do anything about it.

The hotel sent me an apology and the money I’d lost. The lesson I took away was always close the door when you enter a hotel room. Fortunately, I've had no more encounters of that kind. But I still remember the lesson. Maybe I'll use it in a book sometime.

Before any of you sharpies get on my case, I know that's not a shiny revolver in the photo, but it was the only thing available in my album.


Anonymous said...

As a woman, stories like these send chills up my spine. I've even recently been researching effective door jammers for traveling in hotels.

It's insane that anyone would risk the penalties for armed robbery for less than a $100. No amount of money is worth it.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you weren't hurt! That's scary!!

Chester Campbell said...

Yeah, it's scary. It's been so long I don't remember, but he may have said, "Do what you're told and you won't get hurt." That's sort of reassuring, but who wants to trust a guy like that?

Morgan Mandel said...

I could do without that kind of close encounter, that's for sure. Glad everything turned out all right. Scary about closing the door. What would also be scary is if you closed the door and someone was already in the room. If it's going to happen, I guess it will.

Morgan Mandel

Helen Ginger said...

What a scary story. Thank goodness it turned out well for you. How many times have I run down the hall for ice and not locked the door behind me? Stupid.