WHEN MOTHERS SAW TODD BECKER in the carpool line at the elementary school in Stonebridge Ranch, an upscale bedroom community in McKinney, north of Dallas, they’d occasionally stop chatting on their cell phones and do a double take. Becker was a good-looking young guy in his early thirties, with neatly cut hair and brown eyes. He wore khaki pants and crisp T-shirts. He had a pleasant smile, his teeth very white and straight.
But it wasn’t his looks, the mothers later said, that were the most attractive part about him. Around Stonebridge Ranch, Todd Becker was known as the family man, a devoted husband who always took the time to eat lunch with his sweet blond wife, Cathy, and a doting father who coached his children’s soccer teams and took them to their ballet lessons. Some of the mothers were impressed that he liked to go to the school and read stories to his children’s classes. Others noted that he was happy to let the neighborhood kids swim in his backyard pool or jump on the trampoline. He was pleasant and soft-spoken, never one to talk too much about himself. He rarely had more than a beer or two at parties. He took his family to Sunday services at the Lutheran church not far from his home, and at the Stonebridge Country Club, where he was one of the top tennis players, he never threw his racket when he was losing. “Let’s face it,” one mother would later say. “A lot of women around Stonebridge Ranch wished their own husbands were more like Todd.”
At his $280,000 two-story custom-built home on Fallen Leaf Lane, in Stonebridge’s Autumn Ridge neighborhood, where he had turned the living room into an extra playroom for the kids, Becker always led the family in a prayer at dinner. At bedtime, he would kiss his children good-night and tell them to sleep well. He would kiss his wife good-night and tell her to sleep well too. Then, he would get into his minivan or his Ford Expedition, back out of the driveway, and head off to commit some of the most daring, professionally executed burglaries that law enforcement authorities have ever seen.
Todd Becker made his living by stealing the cash out of safes from stores, restaurants, and businesses throughout Texas and Florida, where he had lived before moving to Texas. He and his small band of employees would pry the safes open with crowbars, slam them apart with sledgehammers, hack into them with concrete saws, or cut them open with torches. Many times they’d yank the entire safe out of the floor and carry it away to be opened at a more discreet location, occasionally inside Becker’s own garage. Becker would split up the loot with his team and then take his cut to his bedroom, hiding the money under some clothes in his closet. He’d shower, comb his hair, and be downstairs by the time his kids awakened, ready to fix them pancakes and drive them to school. When a torrent of gun-wielding police officers arrived at his house one morning in late 2002, bursting through his front door and stepping over children’s toys to arrest him, his neighbors stood in their front yards, cups of coffee in their hands, their mouths open. A few of them later told the cops that they had made a terrible mistake. “We said there is no way he could be a thief,” one neighbor recalled. “He’s just like the rest of us.”
A few months ago, while the 33-year-old Becker was still out on bond, he allowed me to come see him. When I walked up to his house, he greeted me at the door, gave me a friendly handshake, and said with a half-smile, “Well, here’s my crime den.” He led me to his dining room table, made of burnished cherry, while his youngest daughter, aged two, watched Barney in the family room and Cathy, who’s 35, made coffee. It was a couple of weeks before Halloween, and Cathy had decorated the front of their house, as she did every year, with pumpkins and plastic skeletons hanging from a tree and a sign on the front door that read “Autumn Greetings From the Beckers.” Next to the sewing machine in the kitchen were Halloween costumes that she was making for their four children. “Usually, I’m in charge of the neighborhood Halloween parade,” she told me with a slight shrug of her shoulders. “But this year I thought someone else should do it.” As she talked, Becker flipped through a scrapbook to a page that showed pictures of his wife and children in costumes from a previous Halloween parade, cheerfully marching down the street with their neighbors. Then he turned the page and showed me photos of birthday parties that he and Cathy had thrown for their kids. “Not what you were expecting, huh?” Becker asked me.
Nor the authorities. According to police detectives, burglars are typically impoverished young males looking for money to buy drugs. Wearing sweatshirts with hoods, they amateurishly smash through store windows and grab what they can while the alarms are blaring. “You don’t find these guys meticulously planning out their crimes so that they can live an all-American lifestyle in a nice neighborhood with a nice family,” said Bill Hardman, a detective from Fort Pierce, Florida, one of the many cities plagued by Becker. “They want crack or guns. But Todd Becker was one of a kind—a clean-cut yuppie daddy who bought dolls for his children.”
What especially intrigued the cops about Becker was the way he chose his accomplices. Like the Old West outlaw Jesse James, who also had a love of snatching money out of safes and strongboxes, Becker relied mostly on kinfolk to help him: his two half brothers, his brother-in-law, a step-nephew, and a childhood friend. Unlike Jesse James, however, he didn’t choose them because they were experienced criminals or good with guns. (Becker didn’t allow weapons of any kind to be used during his burglaries. He didn’t even allow guns in his home, fearing that his children might find them and accidentally shoot themselves.) He picked relatives and friends who happened to be down on their luck, involved in unhappy relationships, or stuck in dead-end jobs, if they had jobs at all. One brother who worked for Becker had a job on the side performing as an “entertainer” on a subscription Internet sex site, and another 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.
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 kids. He used his extra-long ladder to help another neighbor put up Christmas lights. He tracked down another neighbor at work to let him know that his burglar alarm was going off and that he’d be happy to check the house out for him. Parents appreciated the way he never yelled at the kids on the soccer teams he helped coach, and the elders at the Lutheran church near the Becker home appreciated the $500 checks he deposited in the collection plate.
Cathy, meanwhile, babysat anytime someone needed her. She generously gave money to a friend on the block who was running in a charity race to raise funds for breast cancer research. She taught vacation Bible school at the church, and she made sure to invite the neighborhood kids over for her children’s birthday parties, for which she brought in petting zoos and pony rides. “What can I say? We loved them,” said neighbor Jodi Anderson. “My husband works for a defense contractor, and he used to be in the Navy, so he’s trained to be a little skeptical of people. He can always spot the bad seed. But he never thought twice about Todd. He told me that he wished he could find a job like Todd’s so he could be around the house more.”
Becker still held onto his dream of opening a Chuck E. Cheese’s. He also talked with Cathy about someday owning a Stride Rite children’s shoe store and perhaps a tanning salon. With his new Stonebridge Ranch lifestyle, however, he knew he wouldn’t be going straight anytime soon. On his way to Texas, as a matter of fact, he had committed a couple of computer burglaries in Louisiana and Mississippi to get a jump start on his upcoming mortgage payments. To help out the other members of his family, he used some of his burglary earnings to buy a restaurant near Port St. Lucie called Big Al’s Catfish House, changed the name to Becker Boys Big Al’s, and hired Bill to manage it. But the restaurant failed. He then opened a check-cashing and quick-loan business called Treasure Coast Cash Company, which he had his father run. That company shut down after the State of Florida charged the elder Becker with loan sharking.
To cover his debts and to pay his father’s legal fees, Becker found himself forced to carry out even more burglaries, and it wasn’t long before he was flying in his old burglary buddies to help him plunder from Texas’s computer companies. During one job, his brother-in-law Danny stumbled across a small safe in the corner of a store, pulled it from the floor, and carried it out to the minivan. When they got the safe open, they found more than $10,000 inside. Becker, always one to look for new entrepreneurial opportunities, took a breath. His career in crime was about to take a major step forward.
IN THE ANNALS OF AMERICAN CRIME, few criminals have been romanticized like those who can get into a safe. Almost since moviemaking began, Hollywood has loved producing films about a gentleman burglar leaning his ear against a safe and trying to decipher its combination. The reality, however, is that safecrackers cannot compete with today’s manufacturers, who can build safes with electronically controlled locks. Bank safes, surrounded by reinforced vaults and state-of-the-art security systems, are virtually impossible to penetrate. But smaller safes and ATMs found inside many businesses can be broken apart or dislodged from their moorings. They can be stolen—which is exactly what Becker decided to do.
He did not have to be told that compared with the pilfering of computers, safe-stealing would be a high-risk, noisy business. The sound of a sledgehammer pounding into the bolts holding a safe to the floor or the ear-splitting whine of a gasoline-powered saw slamming into a steel safe could be heard dozens of yards away. What’s more, most businesses with safes—at least safes with substantial money—are located in busy commercial sections of cities rather than remote business parks, increasing the likelihood of eyewitnesses and cops.
But as far as Becker could tell, about the only criminals willing to steal safes were stupid kids who would drive stolen pickups through the plate-glass windows of convenience stores and frantically try to dislodge the safe behind the counter before the cops arrived. He became convinced that he could beat the cops by carefully planning his burglaries, spending days scouting locations, looking for stores that his team could get into and then get away from without causing too much disturbance. He studied stores on the Internet to see what kind of cash transactions they did. He particularly looked for stores that cashed payroll checks, as well as stores owned by foreign-born shopkeepers, because they tended not to trust American banks and thus were likely to keep more money in their own safes.
Becker’s team was also ready to make some more money. Although Dwayne’s life had improved somewhat through the computer thefts—he had used his earnings to buy a Mercedes—he remained in dicey financial shape. To make extra money, Dwayne’s new girlfriend had persuaded him to perform sex acts with her in front of a camera attached to their computer, which were then shown on an Internet sex site. (Viewers who paid to watch the not-particularly-good-looking couple could e-mail them and request that they try new positions.) Meanwhile, Bill was still having trouble keeping a steady job in the restaurant business, and Danny was still relying on the money Kim made as a topless dancer. Paulo Rodrigues was still fat.
Becker brought in one more family member: his step-nephew Julian Gavin, whose mother had married Bill. Julian was a rawboned, chain-smoking country boy who liked to take his mother “mudding” (driving her in his pickup through big mud pits). He was also, by his own admission, a crack cocaine user who had been drifting through life ever since his fiancée had died in a car crash. A concerned Becker told Julian that he could get a new start in life with the money he would make robbing safes. (“Since I had nothing else to lose at the time,” Julian would later tell a police detective, “I took him up on the offer.”)
According to police reports, Becker also recruited a Stonebridge Ranch neighbor, 43-year-old Joey Thompson, an unhappy salesman of heavy equipment with no past criminal record. Becker told me that Joey, depressed after losing $60,000 in the stock market, had come to him to talk about new career opportunities. Like Becker, Joey loved Stonebridge Ranch and didn’t want to lose his home. “Whatever you’re doing, I want in,” Becker recalled Joey saying. Taking pity on his sad-sack neighbor, Becker replied, “Well, I’ve got something, but it might not be exactly what you’re expecting.”
Becker told his team that he would keep 65 percent of whatever was found in a safe; whoever was working with him on that particular job would receive the rest. (Typically, Becker would commit a burglary with either one or two members of his team.) Becker said he would pay all expenses and that he would purchase all the burglary tools, including two-way radios with headsets so that everyone could remain in contact during the heists. He promised they would hit the businesses only late at night, when no one would be there, thus avoiding the need to use guns and hold anyone up. And if anyone was arrested, he said, he would pay for his bail and his lawyer.
Whether he liked it or not, Becker was coming into his prime as a criminal mastermind. After spending the day substitute-teaching for his daughter’s kindergarten class or playing shortstop for a Stonebridge Ranch league softball team, shouting out encouragement to his teammates, he would find himself sitting at his dining room table, sketching diagrams about how he could get into his next target. On Sunday nights, when he and Cathy watched The Sopranos, the HBO series about the fictional mob family that lives in a nice suburban neighborhood in New Jersey, he would instantly spot the mistakes that Tony Soprano and his mobsters were making when they committed their crimes.
For his own burglaries, he had his guys wear light-colored T-shirts or polo shirts, along with shorts or regular jeans, because he thought that anyone wearing too much black at night would look suspicious. He rented green or blue minivans for the burglaries because they blended in with traffic and were hard for potential eyewitnesses to remember. He also did all the driving, because he had learned how to stay calm, no matter what, when dealing with the cops. While casing a location in Dallas, for instance, Becker and his team were pulled over by a police officer. Becker lowered the window of the minivan and pleasantly told the officer that he was giving his out-of-town brothers a sightseeing tour. The officer, unable to detect anything suspicious, smiled back and told them to be careful because several burglaries had recently taken place in the area.
Regardless of Becker’s ingenuity, it was hard to imagine that the Becker Crew, the name the cops would later give to Becker and his cohorts, would last long enough to make a name for itself. Julian, an eccentric sort, refused to wear baseball caps during the heists—he believed hats made a man go bald—which made him an easier target for identification. Dwayne would get so nervous that he constantly had to stop what he was doing to use the restroom. During one burglary, he unzipped his pants in the middle of the store and urinated on the floor. During another burglary, Paulo tried to lift a safe, lost his balance, fell on his back, and could not get up without assistance. On another job, the lumbering Paulo ran so slowly during a getaway that Becker was forced to drive toward him in the minivan to pick him up before he collapsed from exhaustion.
Becker told me that Danny was not quite focused during burglaries because he was worried about what Kim was doing in his absence. Occasionally, he would call her during a burglary just to make sure that she wasn’t cheating on him with someone from the topless bar. As for Joey Thompson, he happened to own a high-powered torch that could cut through steel safes. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as skilled with it as Becker had hoped. According to Becker, he and Joey broke into a company in Rockwall, a Dallas suburb. While using his torch, Joey burned the entire business to the ground.
The Becker Crew split time between Florida and Texas, going after safes in bingo halls, liquor stores, small supermarkets, self-storage businesses, camera shops, clothing outlets, gasoline stations, convenience stores, and restaurants, from Burger Kings to Red Lobsters. (A typical suburbanite, Becker didn’t like to venture into the inner city because he was afraid of gangs.) If a safe could be moved, the Becker Crew would carry it into the back of the minivan, where it would be taken either to Becker’s garage if they were in the Dallas area or to Bill’s garage if they were working along Florida’s east coast. Or sometimes they would dismantle the safe right in the minivan, remove the money, and then dump the safe out the back doors. One time Becker watched his team dump a safe in the parking lot of a Lutheran church in Florida. A Lutheran church! Becker’s very own denomination! “Guys, please, show some respect!” Becker yelled.
Becker told me that during 2001 and 2002, he and his crew pulled $650,000 from as many as one hundred safes in Florida and Texas. Sometimes, he said, they would strike three or four times in one night, the money in each safe ranging from a few hundred dollars to $50,000 or more. Other times, weeks would pass before Becker would round up his guys and do a job. During that period, police departments in Texas and Florida were beginning to sense, by the similar way the phone lines were being cut and the front doors carefully opened and the in-store surveillance videotapes taken, that one group was probably responsible for the sharp increase in safe thefts. At one point, at least thirty local agencies were on the case.
But amazingly, despite numerous hair-raising escapes, the Becker Crew was never caught. In one foiled burglary attempt in Texas, in which an alarm was accidentally tripped, Julian escaped from the cops by jumping over a fence, only to find himself in a small pasture where he was chased by an angry horse that kept nipping at his rear end. In Florida, Becker and Julian broke into Norris’s Famous Place for Ribs in Port St. Lucie and came across an unmovable, five-hundred-pound safe. They started cutting it apart with a gasoline-powered saw that Bill had rented for them. But before they could get through the steel walls, they ran out of gasoline. They had Bill bring them a can of gasoline, and then they started again. By daybreak, however, they had worn out their saw blade trying to get into the safe. They drove to Lowe’s hardware store, waited for the store to open so they could purchase a new blade, returned to the scene of the crime, began again, and then saw a restaurant employee arriving. As they were fleeing, Becker suddenly realized that Julian had left the rented saw, which could be traced back to them, in the restaurant. Julian ran back inside, dashed past the startled employee, grabbed the saw, and raced out. As Becker pulled away in the minivan, a few police cars were gathering on the street in front of the restaurant, setting up a morning rush-hour speed trap. The police didn’t realize until Becker was long gone that a burglary had been attempted.
WHEN I ASKED BECKER IF HE ever felt remorse about his chosen profession on Sunday mornings, when he was sitting in a church pew with his family, he told me that he constantly prayed for forgiveness. He said he also asked God to let him have one big score, so he could finally quit and fulfill his dream of living the noncriminal life. Although he did buy a few nice things for his family—a Rolex for Cathy and $500 porcelain dolls for his daughters on their birthdays—he was not that big of a spender. He was always trying to save money, he said, for that Chuck E. Cheese’s franchise. When Becker took the family to Orlando for an expensive vacation at Disney World, he told me (and later told investigators) that he paid for the trip by having his Stonebridge Ranch buddy Joey fly there and meet him so that they could burglarize businesses at night after Becker had spent the day taking the children through the Magic Kingdom.
As for Cathy, there would be times during her Friday night bunco games with other mothers when the conversation would inevitably turn to the challenges the women were facing in their marriages. Cathy would look searchingly for a moment across the table, not sure what to say. The women believed she simply had no complaints about her life. What she told me, however, was that she lived in constant fear that her husband would someday go to jail. “It preyed on my mind, every day,” she said. “When Todd would leave for the night, I’d lie in bed, unable to sleep, about to throw up every single second.”
At one point, Cathy got her residential real estate license and went to work for Coldwell Banker, vainly hoping that she could bring in enough income that her husband would no longer feel a need to steal. She went to a counselor at the Lutheran church, telling him she wasn’t sure how to deal with a problem in her marriage. But when the counselor asked exactly what that problem was, she didn’t dare tell him. To use the self-help vernacular that she would hear on such television shows as Oprah, Cathy was the classic enabler. She had to admit that she loved the kind of life that Todd had provided for her. She could never convince herself that Todd, a man who truly loved his family and did everything he could to make their lives better, was any worse than those corporate executives, plenty of whom lived right there in Stonebridge Ranch, who ignored their kids and kept mistresses on the side and did their own bit of white-collar thievery, bending accounting rules or hiding income from the IRS. She knew that Todd would never harm anyone: After all, he tried to hit only businesses that had insurance, so the owners could recover their losses.
And, she liked to point out, if Todd were really that bad of a man, would he go to such trouble to try to improve the lives of those who worked for him? When he flew his accomplices to Texas to do burglaries, for instance, he always invited them to come to his house to play with the children and eat one of Cathy’s home-cooked meals. It was as if he wanted to show them that they too could climb the ladder to . . . yes, suburban life! (After one dinner at Becker’s home, Julian went outside to smoke a cigarette. A neighbor saw the wiry young man wearing a very un-suburbanish muscle shirt and called the police, thinking the Becker house was being burglarized.) Despite their attempts to get him to change the radio to a rock station during their scouting expeditions, Becker kept playing Dr. Laura, because he believed they could use her no-nonsense advice on improving relationships and raising children. When Dwayne asked Becker to invest $25,000 of his burglary earnings into the Internet sex venture, Becker refused, telling him that he didn’t like those sex sites and that he believed Dwayne needed to do something more productive with himself.
The truth was that his lessons didn’t seem to be catching on. Behind his back, the crew called Becker “Ken” and Cathy “Barbie.” Despite Dr. Laura’s admonitions about living an immoral life, the crew still liked to get drunk at topless clubs to celebrate successful burglaries. One night, Julian and the others persuaded Becker to come with them to the Lodge, one of Dallas’s more famous topless nightclubs. For a while, Becker sat uncomfortably in a booth, then he went back outside to sit in his minivan. Julian eventually showed up with a woman he had met and promptly had sex with her nearby on the hood of the woman’s car. Periodically, Julian would shout at the disgusted Becker, “I’m giving her the mustard, baby! I’m giving her the mustard!”
What Becker never could have imagined was that his desire to help his brothers would eventually lead to his own arrest. It wasn’t a crack police investigation that exposed Becker. What brought him down was his own perplexing moral code. In July 2002 Dwayne’s girlfriend frantically called the St. Lucie county sheriff’s department and claimed that Dwayne had hit her and kicked her in the face and taken a six-pack of beer from her refrigerator. After Dwayne was jailed on a charge of aggravated battery, he tried to get Becker to bail him out.
Although Becker had promised his co-workers he would always take care of them if anything happened to them during one of his burglaries, he made it clear he was not going to help them if they got into their own trouble, like a drug arrest. And he was certainly not going to help out Dwayne for battering his girlfriend. “I had had conversations with Dwayne about hitting women,” Becker told me. “I had said to him, ’What kind of man could do that?’ I was disgusted with Dwayne. So I said no, I’m not bailing him out.”
It was a tough decision. Becker knew that Dwayne was already somewhat disenchanted with him because of his lack of interest in his Internet venture. Dwayne had also been arguing with Becker about his share of the burglary proceeds, which he thought needed to be bigger. The fact that Becker would not bail him out was the last straw. An angry Dwayne impulsively contacted a police detective and said that he might know a thing or two about the mysterious safe burglaries that had been occurring around Florida. Indeed, Dwayne was so willing to talk that he forgot to arrange any kind of immunity deal for himself before making his confession.
When the cops located Julian and confronted him with the statements Dwayne had made, he did quickly cut a deal, perhaps because a few months earlier he’d been arrested for doing some burglaries on his own. Apparently, Julian had begun to believe he was as good as Becker and no longer needed him. In Orlando, in a single evening, he had attempted to steal the safes of a Dairy Queen, a check-cashing business, and a Steak and Ale—all of them located within a block of one another. An Orlando police officer saw Julian running from the last burglary, drove up beside him, and shot him with a stun gun, causing him to soil his pants. Julian realized that the only way he could avoid prison for his triple-burglary stunt was to betray the very person who had taught him how to do it.
And just like that, the Becker Crew was no more. Police officers descended on Todd and Cathy’s dream home, yelling at them, “Where are the safes? Where is the money?” They found only a couple thousand dollars in the bedroom closet and around a hundred dollars in Cathy’s purse, which she told them was money from her daughters’ Girl Scout cookie sales. When Becker’s five-year-old son watched the officers lead Becker away, he told his mother that the men were soldiers and that they wanted Becker to go away with them to fight terrorists. Cathy said, “I bet that’s right,” and then she burst into tears.
When police officers in Florida went looking for Bill, they found him working part-time as a Santa’s helper at a mall because he was still having trouble finding a good job in the restaurant business. (He was also a very bad criminal: The cops found one of the stolen safes, which he had been too lazy to discard, in his garage.) As the police approached, he was wearing a Santa’s hat and a bright green vest festooned with decorations of candy canes, telling children to smile for their photo with Santa. According to Bill, the police shouted, “Step away from the Santa booth!” During the arrest of Paulo in another part of Florida, the police found a sculpture of a purple dolphin, titled “Taking Flight,” that had been taken from one of the Florida stores where a safe had been stolen. The sculpture was so beautiful, Paulo later said, that he just had to have it for his living room.
Becker was taken to Florida to be booked on state burglary charges. In the jail, he came across Dwayne. “We were sitting there by ourselves,” Becker recalled, “and I said, ’What did I do to you that was so terrible that you had to do this to me?’ I said, ’My kids love you—they jump on you. They call you Uncle Dwayne. They jump all over you.’” Becker paused, still stunned by the betrayal. “And there was nothing Dwayne could say. Nothing he could say.”
FOR DAYS AT STONEBRIDGE RANCH, people drove past the Becker house to gawk. Neighbors on the street talked about how Becker used to give each of them a nice bottle of wine for Christmas. Parents from the soccer teams that Becker helped coach wondered if the soccer league would let him coach again after he got out of prison. He was, after all, so good with the kids. “We definitely knew what he did was criminal,” said Jodi Anderson, “but we did admire the way he pulled it off. It did take a lot of courage. And it’s pretty hard to get away with something like that for so long in this neighborhood, where everyone knows your business.”
Some neighbors withdrew from the Beckers, and one woman on the street told her children they could no longer play with the Becker children because their daddy was a burglar. Cathy told me she was so furious at what the neighbor had said that she marched up the street to where the woman and others were gathered one evening and shouted, “You hypocrites! I’ve seen you get drunk in front of your own kids. I know you smoke pot. I know you went swimming naked in someone else’s pool!”
When investigators asked Becker to explain how he could maintain his Stonebridge Ranch lifestyle despite filing income tax returns that showed him earning less than six figures, Becker said that he had made money gambling in Las Vegas. (Becker had indeed done some gambling over the years in hopes that he could earn enough money to quit burglarizing.) But Becker quickly succumbed after hearing the evidence accumulated against him. Besides the state burglary charges he was facing, an IRS task force was charging Becker with money laundering and was planning to take away all his assets. M. Andrew Stover, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, met with Becker and told him that Cathy could well be prosecuted for conspiracy. “His reaction was amazing,” said Stover. “He started crying and shaking—something you rarely see a major criminal do—and he said that all he wanted was to take care of his wife and family.”
To keep his wife out of prison, Becker agreed to confess to everything he had done. His attorney, Mark Watson, of Dallas, also arranged that in return for a five-year federal prison sentence, Becker would reveal the names of the various fences around the country who had bought his stolen computers years before.
Dwayne, Bill, and Paulo received two-year sentences in Florida. The cases against Joey and Danny are still pending. Kim was never charged because the statute of limitations had expired for her particular criminal adventure. (Due to Becker’s encouragement, she did quit dancing and now works as a waitress at an Italian restaurant.) Meanwhile, with his full immunity, Julian has disappeared from Florida. The rumor is that he has used his burglary money to help out members of his family, just as Becker used to do. Julian has allegedly purchased his father a Camaro and given money to his mother, who now has no income with her husband, Bill, in jail. (When I talked to Becker about Julian’s new life, he paused for a moment, then said, “I hope I had an effect on him, getting him to help out his family, because that’s what it’s all about.”) Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Dwayne, Becker’s Judas, told me when I went to see him in Florida that as soon as he gets out of prison, he is going to get his dog back from his girlfriend and move to Tennessee. “I’m going to get started again,” he said. “Find a nice house in a nice neighborhood and not drink or anything.”
“It sounds just like the life Todd wanted you to live,” I said.
There was a pause. “Well, no,” said Dwayne. He paused again. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
I went to see Becker and his wife for the last time this past November, just before he left for federal prison. The IRS had decided not to confiscate his Stonebridge Ranch home, which still had a sizable mortgage, because real estate values had decreased in the area and the home would be difficult for the federal government to sell at a profit. As a result, Cathy and the children were going to be able to stay in the house. (Although Cathy, who has gone back to work as a real estate agent, said she was going to make the mortgage payments with her income, some detectives speculate that the Beckers still have a secret stash of stolen money.) When I walked through the front door, Cathy was busy decorating the house for Thanksgiving and Becker had just returned from his next-door neighbor’s home, where the woman there had locked herself out of the house. “I used a flat-head screwdriver to pop open her back door,” he said with a shrug.
Becker had been busy that week—cleaning out the attic so that Cathy wouldn’t have to do it for the next five years, going to the school cafeteria to eat lunch with his children, and attending church. I asked Becker if he could imagine ever returning to the craft that he does so well. There are plenty of police detectives who believe he will go right back to burglary when he gets out of prison, because it’s the only profession he knows. But Becker firmly insisted that this time, he was going to go straight. When I asked what he might do for a living after prison, he mentioned a seminar he had given a few months earlier to a group of detectives on the burglaries he had committed. The audience was so attentive that he had begun to ponder the idea of becoming some sort of paid consultant to police departments and businesses that wanted to know how to stop good burglars.
“I think that’s a good idea, honey,” said Cathy, coming in from the kitchen.
“There could be some money in it,” Becker agreed. “We might finally get the money to open that Chuck E. Cheese’s.”
He grabbed Cathy’s hand, and the two of them smiled at each other. For a moment, they looked just like Ward and June.