Awesome stained glass. Looks geometrically balanced and the structure seems to float in space.
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Electronics, firearms, jewelry -- the stuff of south St. Louis burglary reports is pretty standard stuff.
"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.