worked part-time as a Santa’s helper at a mall. His childhood friend was battling a weight problem. Becker even used his own sister Kim, who was dancing at a strip club in Florida, to work as a lookout on one of his burglaries, telling her that he hoped the money she made on the venture would encourage her to quit stripping and lead a more stable life. “Maybe to someone else, none of this makes any sense, but you’ve got to understand Todd,” said Kim, a perky single mother of five. “He had created this really happy life for himself in the suburbs, with church and soccer and good schools and all that. And I think he wanted all the rest of us in his family to experience what he had.”
Indeed, Becker was a new kind of American criminal, so intent on improving his life and the lives of his fellow family members that he would often tune the radio in his vehicle to the nationally syndicated show of self-help counselor Dr. Laura Schlessinger as he drove through various shopping centers with his team, scouting out potential businesses to rob. He talked to his accomplices about the dangers of drinking and drug abuse. He encouraged them to save their money for the future. “I really thought I was helping out everyone who went to work for me, helping them put some money together and get a new start with their lives,” Becker told me, staring out his dining room window. “It’s still hard to believe just how it all turned out.”
HE WAS LITERALLY AN ALTAR BOY at a Lutheran church in Port St. Lucie, the small city on Florida’s east coast where he was raised. When he signed up for junior tennis tournaments, he would inform the tournament directors that he could not play matches on Sunday mornings because he had to attend church. “Todd never smoked cigarettes, and he would have only one beer at high school parties,” recalled one of his Florida friends, Jeff Drock. “And he wouldn’t even drink that.” What amazed almost everyone who got to know Todd Becker during his teenage years was that he never tried to have sex with girls. He said that he wanted to save himself for marriage.
If he had gone into the ministry, none of his childhood friends would have been surprised. But during Becker’s adolescence, his father, William Becker, began having run-ins with the law. A former police officer from Detroit, the elder Becker had quit the force in the sixties to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, then moved to Florida to sell video games during the era when Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were the biggest sellers. Although he had been decorated as a cop for fighting crime, he apparently went the other way when it came to making money as a salesman. He spent some time in jail for business fraud during Becker’s youth, and when he got out, he had trouble finding steady employment.
While Becker’s father went through his legal problems, Becker’s mother worked at Domino’s delivering pizzas, but her income was hardly adequate to support herself and her three children, of whom Becker was the eldest. “I think the family was evicted out of a couple of houses,” said Todd’s half brother Dwayne Becker, one of four sons from William Becker’s first marriage who were raised by their mother in another home. “And I remember Todd said he was never going to live this way again, and maybe that explains him a little.”
Becker told me he began to steal simply to help out his family. He swiped tennis balls from a tennis club because he didn’t want his mother to use her money on him. To pay for gasoline for his car, he stole money from a country club. By his junior year in high school, he was stealing radar detectors out of cars and selling them for $50 to $60 each and taking his siblings to the mall to buy clothes. Two years later, Becker enrolled at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, on a tennis scholarship. But after hurting his neck, he quit the team and dropped out of school in 1989, just after his freshman year. He returned to Port St. Lucie to attend junior college, where he ran across a guy who told him that he knew about some Apple computers that could be stolen from a warehouse. “That was when Apple computers cost four thousand dollars, which sure beat radar detectors,” Becker said.
Becker did get arrested a couple of times in his late teens and early twenties, but either the charges were dropped or he was given a minor probated sentence. When he met Cathy, in 1992, at a nightclub on the beach frequented by college students, he told her on their first date about his past burglaries. But he also talked about his love for family and his intentions to go straight. Cathy had been raised in West Texas by her mother after her father, a crop duster, had died in a plane crash. She too wanted a stable family life after having been moved from home to home, and she found herself drawn to Becker’s old-fashioned sincerity, especially when he told her his goal was to own a family-friendly business, like a Chuck E. Cheese’s. “Todd really wanted to be Ward Cleaver, and he wanted Cathy to be June,” said another of Becker’s half brothers, Bill Becker. “And they lived in the perfect community, where they could walk around at night and not have to worry about the wrong elements.”
Still, Becker could not get away from the fact that he possessed a special gift for burglary. To pay for his and Cathy’s 1993 wedding, for instance, he slipped out one night and quickly burglarized a couple of computer stores. Six months after the marriage, when he learned Cathy was pregnant, he committed a few more burglaries so they could rent a nice house in a quiet neighborhood on the Florida coast.