True Crime

Journalists around the nation wanted access to Todd Becker, the all-American dad who also ran a safe-stealing ring, but only executive editor Skip Hollandsworth got him to talk.

February 2004By Comments How did you get interested in Todd Becker?

Skip Hollandsworth: I first saw Todd Becker’s name in a newspaper story. The story was very short, saying he had been arrested for stealing safes. At one level, the fact that someone stole safes intrigued me—I had heard of safecrackers, of course, but I had never heard about someone specializing in stealing safes. But what really interested me was another detail in the story about Todd living in a neighborhood called Stonebridge Ranch. As I would later write in my own article, every major city in America has a development like Stonebridge Ranch, a glittering new master-planned community where everything, from the location of the schools to the size of the community swimming pool to the length of the country club golf course, has been perfectly blueprinted. Stonebridge Ranch is the realization of the suburban dream: custom-built homes, garages big enough for two SUVs, everyone young and successful and ambitious. It is the place for people who are constantly looking for the perfect safe incubator for their children. The neat patterns of the streets, the stop signs, the endearing names given to the neighborhoods—all help convey a sense of order and peace. I put down the newspaper and said, “What is a professional burglar doing at Stonebridge Ranch?” And apparently, a lot of other members of the news media were asking the same question.

SH: That’s right. Todd and his lawyer were inundated with requests for interviews. Initially, he turned everything down, and the story was practically forgotten. But one year after his arrest, I made another attempt to get to him. At that point, he had agreed to plead guilty in federal court. He was out on bond, and he had a few weeks of freedom left before heading off to prison. He also knew I had been working on the story, trying to understand who he was. I had been talking to many of the police detectives involved in his case, all of whom were willing to talk because the case was completed. And after a brief meeting with Todd at his lawyer’s office, he called me at home one day and said, “Come on out to the house.” As you point out in your story, when you walked up to the house, you had trouble believing you were entering the house of a professional criminal.

SH: Well, this was a house that had a sign on the front door that read “Autumn Greetings From the Beckers.” There were kids’ toys in the front yard. I could hear the theme music from the television show Barney, which his youngest daughter was watching in a room near the front door. And for a moment I just stood there and wondered how Todd Becker could have maintained such a secret life as a burglar within a social framework of such intense normalcy. Then the door opened and there was Todd and his wife, a young couple who looked like all the other young couples in the neighborhood, trying to live the American dream. So what’s the answer? Why did a professional burglar want to live in Stonebridge Ranch?

SH: When I began researching the story, I thought that Todd had ingeniously picked Stonebridge Ranch to be a kind of modern-day outlaw hideout. It was a brilliant strategic decision, I figured. The cops would never imagine that the guy doing this fiercely noisy, scary, risky job of safe stealing would be living in a family neighborhood, driving a minivan. But as I got to know him, I realized that he genuinely wanted to be the prototypical, all-American everyman, experiencing the prototypical suburban family life. It’s something he had wanted since childhood. He really did have this image in his head of the kind of dad he wanted to be—devoted to his wife and children, a good neighbor, the kind of guy who tended to his lawn and waxed his minivan and coached soccer and sat through ballet lessons. I’ve been interviewing criminals for twenty years, and this is the first one I’ve ever come across with such a need to be a Ward Cleaver. Here was a guy who genuinely lived a moral life. He was absolutely loyal to his wife, he tithed at the church, and he taught his children right and wrong. But in the end, he had this one talent that he could not deny: He was a great burglar. He obviously was a smart man. Why didn’t he just quit burglarizing and find a legitimate job?

SH: As I point out in the story, he thought all the time about how he could go straight. He wanted to run his own business, like a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant. But every time he tried a business, it would fail. He tried opening a restaurant. He also opened a company that sold satellite dishes, and he opened a check-cashing business—all of them went bust. To pay off debts from his failed ventures, he found himself having to commit more burglaries. And, of course, the more burglaries he did, the better he got, which made it easier for him to stay in the burglary business. He kept thinking that if he could come up with one huge score, he could finally have the money to buy a Chuck E. Cheese’s franchise and live like everyone else. But he never did get that big hit. Like everyone else in the neighborhood who was over-extended and living paycheck to paycheck to finance their expensive lifestyle, Todd was living from burglary to burglary. One of the more intriguing parts of your story was the way he chose his accomplices to make up what the police called the Becker Crew.

SH: It just seems like something out of fiction: this young fastidious father, who rarely drank and who didn’t do drugs and who sang hymns at church, teaming up with his roguish relatives and a high school friend. “Why,” I kept asking myself as I started to research the story, “would someone who by all accounts was so nice, so pleasant, and sometimes so corny with his old-fashioned birthday parties for his kids, want to work with relatives who inhabited the seedier side of life, who liked to sit in bars with neon signs out front, the kind of places where your eyes need about sixty seconds to adjust to the darkness when you walk inside?” What I realized was that he didn’t quite know where else to turn. After all, he didn’t associate with other criminals. He didn’t hang out in criminal haunts. He had this odd altruistic streak—a desire to give others a leg up so they could live a better life like the one he had created for himself. I also think once the professional relationship began, Todd felt guilty at the idea of abandoning his friends and relatives in favor of more professional accomplices. Even when he realized these guys could bring him down, he stuck with them. He had this strange kind of loyalty to them, this belief that he could transform them. I’m not going to give away what happens in the end of the story, but in a tragicomic twist, he does exactly that. It’s interesting that on Sunday nights he liked watching The Sopranos, the HBO series about a crime family in New Jersey.

SH: Just like Tony Soprano in the television show watched the Godfather movies, so too did Todd and his wife, Cathy, sit down to watch The Sopranos. I’ve often thought that Todd’s story was a kind of clean-cut Yuppie version of The Sopranos without the violence. But it also deals with the same issues of American values and moral ambiguities and the American idea of success. It deals head-on with questions about family, community, crime, and ethics. As fascinating as Todd’s story was, for instance, I found it equally fascinating the way the neighborhood dealt with him after his arrest. How so?

SH: Even when the news broke that Todd was a professional burglar, most people didn’t scorn him. They still saw him as one of them—a guy who, like everyone, bends the rules a little to stay afloat in an upper-middle-class world, but who nevertheless loves his family and tries like hell to do what is best for them. He wasn’t perfect. But neither were they. And he did live with old-fashioned values, which meant a lot. What’s more, I think some of the neighbors who lived oppressed suburban lives quietly admired the fact that he had such courage to try something so risky. Here was this guy who by day lived the very kind of lives they did. But then at night he turned himself into a kind of modern-day Western desperado, stealing safes the way the old frontier bandits used to steal safes from stagecoaches or trains. He was like Sam Bass, the famous Texas outlaw of the 1870’s who created a gang that robbed trains. Bass (like Becker) was admired because he never wanted anyone to get killed or hurt to get his loot. And Bass (like Becker) was only caught because a member of his gang betrayed him. What did you think of Cathy, Todd’s wife?

SH: Some people speculated that she was the Bonnie to Todd’s Clyde. Not true. She didn’t participate in the crimes, but she certainly knew about them. She talked to me about lying in bed on those nights Todd was gone, terrified that the cell phone was going to ring and that Todd would be telling her to get the bail money ready, that the police were on his tail and about to bring him down. In one sense, she wanted a different life. But in another sense, she had made a Faustian bargain with herself. She had decided to ignore Todd’s other life in order to stay in the Stonebridge Ranch world. What’s interesting is the sympathy the other wives felt for her after Todd’s arrest. They, too, had made their own lesser Faustian bargains: staying with their husbands whom they no longer loved or giving up their budding careers in order to raise their families. One of the more interesting anecdotes about Cathy that didn’t get into the story because of a lack of space was the support group she found after Todd’s arrest. She met other wives for lunch who told her that their own husbands had served time in prison for various white-collar crimes. Over soups and salads, she learned details about how to handle the home while Todd was gone and how to talk to the children about why their Daddy was going away. What do you think will happen to Todd and Cathy?

SH: Cathy has decided not to move and start over somewhere else. She loves Stonebridge Ranch too much. She has taken a job as a realtor and is staying in the house, because that’s where she wants the children to be raised, regardless of what kind of stories they hear about their father at school. Todd will be out in five years and he says he will come right back to Stonebridge Ranch and start over. He says he’s not going to go back to crime—if you want to see what he plans to do, read the next-to-last paragraph of the story—but some police investigators think prison will only make him a smarter criminal. After all, they say, he’ll get a chance to talk about burglary techniques with other inmates. I don’t know what he’ll do. One thing I can guarantee: If he does go back to burglary, he’ll use a new set of accomplices. The old Becker Crew is gone forever.

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