Herein lies the tale of Blane Nordahl, Master Silver Thief. I put his title and occupation in caps because he’s worthy of the notation. The guy spent most of the 1990s and into 2003, ripping off every decent set of sterling silver flatware he could lay his mitts on, mostly in the rarefied air of country estate homes in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. He was better than good, and as burglars go, an artist.
My thoughts in this examination of his craft are guided by Stephen J. Dubner’s well-crafted and highly-entertaining article, “The Silver Thief,” in the May 17, 2004 issue of
. He talked to the police detectives who chased Nordahl all over the Northeast (with a brief stopover in Indiana to hide out with his mom). He even managed to get some time with Blane himself, when he was locked in state prison in upstate New York.
Built like a male gymnast (always preferable to a man being built like a female gymnast), Blane was small and muscular. His small 5’4” frame, skinny waist, and thick shoulders gave him the ability to slip between small spaces between the window panes and the molding he so carefully cut and stacked neatly next to the houses he burgled.
With knowledge of alarm systems and electronics, he could defeat a sophisticated home intrusion system, steal every piece of real silver tableware he could load into his sack, and climb out the very same window.
He chose sterling silver for several good reasons: he had a good fence in Manhattan where he would ship the stuff (thank you UPS for unknowingly aiding and abetting a felon). And he knew, correctly, that in the mansion-like homes where he made his entry, the homeowners were either fast asleep upstairs, in another wing of the house, or away altogether, living in another mansion states away until the summer/winter vacation season.
In terms of the quality of his booty, we’re not talking Walmart knives and forks. This was the good stuff: teapots from the Revolutionary War, serving platters from the Civil War-era, or somebody’s grandma’s cutlery, brought over from the Old Country. Nordahl spent hours in local libraries, studying antique silver patterns, their makers, vintages, and hallmarks.
Blane would case his targets well in advance by calling the local real estate agents and acting like a big-shot home buyer on the look for a house worthy of his wealth. They, not surprisingly, were ever so helpful in helping him learn where the richest people lived and even told him who was living there or if they were out of town. He hit houses that were far off the main road, with long driveways or access roads. (I suspect that some of the burglar alarm systems were turned off to make it easier for the agents to show the houses during the day.)
With his targets selected (it wasn’t unusual for him to hit one to five houses in a night), he would pack his nylon burglar duffle bag with another empty nylon bag, screwdrivers, a carpet knife, wire cutters, a wood chisel, nail pullers, a flashlight, a white cotton rag, duct tape, white cotton gardening gloves, and a small pry bar. And once on scene, he was patient and precise, once taking two hours just to cut a hole in a door.
His hardest move was also probably one of his smartest. He would park his car three to five miles away from the houses he hit and walk to them, usually through the woods. He often drove a near-new Cadillac Seville. He once told the cops, “You have to park where it fits in. If it doesn’t fit in, then you can’t park there.”
After the jobs he would sort the silver, toss the cheap stuff aside, and hoof it back to the car, carrying the loot, with no flashlight. He would hide the bags under some bushes, walk the rest of the way to his car, then drive back hours or days later and pick up the bags. One grudgingly admiring detective who investigated Blane’s capers over the years said, “How he finds his way to and back, it’s amazing. If I gave the same task to seven-eighths of the cops in town, they couldn’t do it.”
Once, in New Jersey, the police learned from an informant (Blane had a soft spot for blowing his money on hookers and strippers with good hard-luck stories) that he would hit a group of houses in an area of a few blocks. The lead detective put 16 officers on a stakeout, all within a two-block area. By daylight, the cops were relieved to find he had not hit, thinking that their presence had scared him off.
Just after the lead investigator went home and went to bed, his boss called, “Can you tell me why I authorized all this overtime? Because he hit three houses last night!” The detective asked, “Well, what section? Because I know what section he didn’t hit.” His boss gave him the address, which was inside the two-block area where they had been watching for him.
Blane told The New Yorker reporter that sometimes he was both good and lucky. One night, after he had hit two houses, he was spotted by the police, who gave foot chase. He jumped over a hedge, took off his white t-shirt, curled into a ball, and covered himself with dirt. He closed his eyes and waited, for two hours, until they gave up and left. He got up, hit two more houses, and then while waiting to hit the third, fell asleep outside. He woke up in the morning, hit the house anyway, and as he was leaving, ran into the cops in daylight. He ran through a marsh, with cops behind and a helicopter overhead. He burrowed under a ridge and while hiding, had an officer even step on his leg. He thought he was caught but then the cop kept moving away. He hid in the mud until dark and got away again.
And yet another time, the FBI got a good line on Blane as he was driving a load of drywall to fix his mother’s house in Indiana. They started chasing him in the driveway and he managed to get out of her house and into the woods behind her home. Once he hit the trees, he was long gone. An FBI agent called a detective who knew Blane and said, “We chased him in the front door and out the back, and he’s in a wooded area. We have him cordoned off. We have helicopters up, we got dogs here. It’s nineteen degrees, and it’s going to snow. He cannot survive in the woods for any length of time.”
The cop told the FBI man, “How long have you been out there?” and when the agent said “Oh, about forty-five minutes,” he said, “I’m telling you right now: Blane is gone. He is probably ten miles away right now. Call me back when you find out I was right.”
The chagrined FBI agent called back and said, “He was at a bank withdrawing money by the time we were talking to you on the phone.”
Even when Blane was in custody he was no model citizen. During a stint in the Albuquerque jail, he tried to tunnel out of his cell and might have made it had his cellmate not snitched on him. Further, he was released accidentally on bail from an Ohio County Jail while waiting for extradition to New York. No one bothered to read his file to see he was a flight risk, a skilled escape artist, and a career crook.
And when the police finally caught him in Philadelphia, it was only because informants and some of his family ratted on him. He received a 25-years-to-life sentence, but as we know, he’ll sit quietly in jail, and be let out again.
By the way, remember how the FBI tried to catch Blane as he was driving a load of drywall to his mom’s house? There are those in law enforcement who believe he hid his money behind her walls. A hard search couldn’t find anything, and of course, neither he nor mom is saying a word about it.
Blane was arrested in Florida, for what might be his last time, in August 2013.
Dr. Steve Albrecht is internationally-known for his writing, keynotes, and training on workplace violence and school violence prevention. He manages a training and consulting firm specializing in high-risk HR, security, and work culture issues. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration, an MA in Security Management, a BS in Psychology, and a BA in English. He is board certified in HR, security, and employee coaching. He has written 17 books, including Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace (Irwin, 1994), one of the first books on this subject. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. He can be reached at DrSteve@DrSteveAlbrecht.com or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht