Flower Thieves Flourish On Hill

Gardening-Related Crime on Upswing

Posted June 4, 2004 at 2:41pm

As Montana Sen. Max Baucus’ wife, Wanda, recently proved at a Northwest Washington gardening shop, landscaping in the District can be a very touchy subject.

And for many Capitol Hill flower enthusiasts, the spring and summer months have once again become a frustrating season, with gardening-related crimes on their annual upswing.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, plant and flower thefts are an unfortunate and frustrating yearly occurrence for many Hill residents who spend time and money to beautify their yards. Perhaps not the most pressing crime issue in a city that has long been associated with an unusually high rate of violent offenses, flower pilfering — classified as a misdemeanor theft — can nevertheless be an expensive annoyance for local citizens.

In recent months, D.C. Police Lt. John Hedgecock, a five-year veteran of Ward 1, has seen the expected upsurge of flower theft complaints. Although he couldn’t provide specific numbers of incidents this year, one way of judging the jump in thefts is by attending local citizen meetings and scanning the local Police Service Area Internet community message board for police, crime and quality-of-life issues.

“One thing I do remember about the discussion threads and discussions at the PSA meeting; the stealing of plants is not a new phenomena,” wrote Gregory Noonan, a former citizen co-coordinator of what had been PSA 106, in an e-mail. (The Capitol Police recently consolidated the 12 old PSAs in Washington’s First District into seven larger PSAs.) “According to long time residents this sort of thing is constant year to year and generally peaks around Easter and Mothers Day.”

Sometimes these flower perps use their ill-gotten gains to beautify their own yards, Hedgecock said. “There was a house about a year ago where we chased a drug suspect to this backyard and found a lot of freshly cut stuff. … I’m sure there’s some neighbor-on-neighbor” thefts.

But Hedgecock also said that in the past he’s locked up a few thieves who make a business each year off their gardening loot. “If you’ve ever been around Eastern Market you sometimes have these guys selling flowers,” he said. He added that generally speaking these are homeless individuals who are familiar with the area.

“Perhaps my favorite anecdote … is the resident who after having plants stolen from their yard encountered them being sold on the street,” wrote Noonan, who noted that potted and planted flora are also a major target. “The resident complained to the ‘vendor’ and in the end was able to retrieve the plants by negotiating a reduced price.”

Hedgecock recalled one thief who’s MO was to cruise Hill neighborhoods with a shopping cart and trash can, surveying yards and picking up flowers as he went.

“I stopped him one day and he had several varieties of plants and flowers on him,” Hedgecock said. But he said one problem he’s encountered is matching the merchandise to the gardening victim — with flower theft being a smaller-scale crime, Hedgecock sometimes has trouble tracking down a complainant.

But that’s not to say this type of crime is kept to only a few flower beds. Hedgecock recalled one apartment building on 15th Street, Southeast, where 12 to 14 large bushes were ripped out of the ground the very night after they were planted.

“This is not a new problem on the Hill,” wrote former PSA 106 co-coordinator Roger Mattioli. “Short of booby-trapping your garden, they are very difficult to stop. Some people have placed noisemakers on strings as a sort of booby trap to drive would-be thieves away.”

“It happens more often than you’d like,” Hedgecock acknowledged.