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.
Cathy believed Becker when he kept promising that his next burglary would be his last, but as criminals like to say when describing their pasts, one thing led to another, and soon Becker was a full-time burglar, focusing on computer companies located in out-of-the-way business parks throughout Florida. He asked Dwayne, a part-time construction worker who was then hanging out at bars in the afternoons, drinking and playing darts, to help him break into businesses, and he persuaded Bill, a Grizzly Adams look-alike who had been unsuccessfully trying to build a career as a manager of Holiday Inn restaurants, to allow the stolen computers to be stored in his garage. Although he could have found other professional burglars to work as his accomplices, Becker told me that he decided to work with family members and friends because he felt they would not squeal on anyone else if they ever got arrested. He said he also thought it might be nice to boost the fortunes of his family, especially those Beckers who were facing personal or financial challenges. As a favor to his sister Kim, Becker asked her husband, Danny Birtwell, an electrician who had shown little competence in the workforce—“He was a complete idiot,” Kim told me—to work with him. And he also recruited a friend from his old high school tennis team, Paulo Rodrigues, who had become somewhat disheartened because he was seriously overweight (Becker estimated he weighed three hundred pounds) and because he had a rather mundane job as a salesman at Mattress Giant.
It seemed to be the unlikeliest of operations, this partnership between a fastidious young suburban dad and his unambitious relatives. Initially, they looked more like the Marx Brothers than Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. The beer-drinking Dwayne occasionally broke into the wrong businesses. Danny once fell off a roof while trying to get into an office building. After one burglary, while the team was unloading the computers from Becker’s car, Danny accidentally locked the keys inside the vehicle. Unwilling to damage his own car, Becker called a locksmith in the middle of the night. When Danny took a break from the burglary business, complaining that he had been working too hard, Becker brought in Kim to work one job with him. She wore a cute sweat suit, brushed her hair back into a ponytail, and hid behind some bushes to look for cops. When Becker was ready to leave with a stack of computers, she sprinted to the minivan, her enhanced breasts bouncing like beach balls.
Against all odds, Becker kept himself and his employees one step ahead of the cops. He taught his guys how to pry open the front door of a business with a crowbar without shattering the glass or tearing the door frame, thus allowing the door to shut behind them and preventing a cop or security guard driving by from realizing that a burglary was in process. He showed them how to cut certain phone lines, which would disconnect most alarm systems. To make sure they hadn’t tripped a silent alarm, Becker would have everyone pile back into the car after cutting the phone lines, drive fifteen minutes in one direction, and then return. If no police officers had shown up by that time, they would break in.
Becker told me that he and his team made $2 million in a ten-year span selling their stolen computers to fences (other criminals who purchase stolen goods). He was doing so much work that police departments all over Florida had begun to share information in an attempt to find the computer thief. Becker figured that the cops had to be thinking about him: Because of his earlier arrests, his name was in their databases. What’s more, Cathy wanted to find a place for the family to live where they wouldn’t always have to look over their shoulder, a place where they could be anonymous.
So Becker did exactly what so many nineteenth-century lawbreakers once did to hide out from the long arm of the law. He moved to Texas. And just like the outlaws of old, Becker decided to hide out on a ranch.
WELL, IT WAS CALLED A RANCH. At the edge of almost every large American city there is a development like Stonebridge Ranch: a master-planned community, filled with just the right amenities for the upper middle class, including eighteen-hole golf courses, a large community swimming pool, hike-and-bike trails surrounding man-made ponds, and strategically placed shopping centers. All the neighborhoods are given lofty names (Eldorado, Stone Canyon), and the custom-built houses that line the uncracked streets look nearly identical, with nearly identical trees planted in the front yards and nearly identical SUVs sitting in the driveways. In such communities can be found the newest generation of Americans bonded together by their striving for entitlement. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect for Todd Becker.
In 1996, Becker put down $56,000 for his new home, which Cathy loved because it had a second-floor catwalk. (“Perfect for decorating for Christmas,” she told me.) They added a chandelier to the living room, and on a dining room wall they hung vases from which poured fake ivy. On another wall they placed photos of themselves holding each of their children. “He was a very caring, loving neighbor, friendly to everyone,” said Kathy Scherer, who lived on the same street and who believed Becker’s story that he worked in “computer consulting,” one of those nineties catch-all phrases that could mean absolutely anything. He helped clean up one neighbor’s house when it was toilet-papered by some