Some Thieves Steal Much More Than Money
Someone took Sam's handprint.
Sam Goldstein was 3 when he stuck his hand in cement to make a Father's Day present. He was 8 when, earlier this month, the handprint was stolen from the front steps of his house in Providence, R.I.
"I didn't always notice it when we left the house," Sam told his mother, "but I always noticed it when we got home again, because when I looked at it I knew it was home."
Amy Pickworth, Sam's mother, knows that there are far worse things that could have happened. Still, when a highly personal item gets stolen, it's a hard loss to take. Something's been disturbed that should have been protected.
"It seemed like one of those forced life lessons," Pickworth says. "This isn't the way I wanted him to learn that the world isn't always a nice place. There's no way to script that so it doesn’t hurt."
An Overwhelming Response
Here I should pause and mention that Amy Pickworth is a friend of mine. When I heard about her story, it made me think, perhaps inevitably, of the times when I've been robbed or mugged myself. Certainly it was the little things I ended up regretting. I missed the wallet photos and a piece of jewelry that had belonged to my grandmother far more than the cash or the stereo.
Long ago, I spotted in a neighbor's house a Kennedy half-dollar coin that had disappeared from my home. One of my college professors had stapled it into a little glassine collector's case, which he had signed for my birthday. I didn't even ask for it back, since I was so stunned the neighbor kid had really taken it and left it in the case that had been clearly signed to me.
An Odd Assortment
People left thousands of comments on NPR's Facebook page when we asked about stolen treasures that they miss. Among some of the more unusual items they reported missing:
— Baby teeth
— A 35-pound concrete statue of baby Jesus stolen from a manger
— A box of rocks
— A Mickey Mouse waffle maker
— One unicycle
— A dollar bill that had been in a man's wallet when he died and was later laminated by his widow
— A reel-to-reel tape of a church choir, which held the only recordings of a deceased mother's voice
— A trumpet that had belonged to a woman's grandfather
— A hammock made and tie-dyed by a relative visiting from Japan
— A 15-year-old hibiscus plant taken "right off the front porch"
— A retainer
— A large metal dustpan that a woman's father had made in shop class decades earlier
— A very large stuffed dog nicknamed "Spud"
— An umbrella that a woman had written poetry about in college, stolen from her at a bar by guys who later sent her photos of the umbrella in all kinds of situations
— A stuffed snake, a silver flute and a set of the collected works of poet/philosopher Friedrich von Schiller. "There were checks and cash that were in plain view and untouched!"
I knew I wasn't alone in having had this kind of experience. So I posed a question on NPR's Facebook page: Have you had something stolen that was precious to you, but couldn't have been worth anything to the thief?
There was an amazing response. Nearly 3,000 people commented. There were a few jokes about "my virginity," but mostly it was a sad jamboree of stories about well-remembered moments of loss.
Many hundreds had lost family jewels, religious medals or photographs of their children's "firsts" -- their first steps or first ballet recital.
"When something sentimental is stolen," says Kelley Richardson, who lost a necklace that was in a box her father had brought back from Vietnam, "it's not that they stole a possession, but more like they've stolen this tiny piece of your heart."
Caught Up With A Moment In Time
People connect with certain objects. That's how we hold on to memories. What victims of theft seem to miss the most are the things they associate with irretrievable moments and people in their lives -- the items left them by departed family members, or the souvenirs from honeymoon trips.
That became really clear talking to Amity Harrington. Excitement still bubbled up in her voice the other night on the phone as she described her early days as an adult, leaving small-town Texas and converting to Catholicism and immersing herself in a new language, new culture and her new religion during a college trip to Spain.
Through all this change, her tatty brown trench coat had been her chrysalis. She had picked it up for $10 at a thrift store and proceeded to wear it everywhere. When it got stolen out of her car, the Dallas resident recalls, "I felt like I had lost my skin."
Nothing Of Great Value, Just Great Importance
People keep their mementos in fragile places: cars, wallets, apartment storage areas. And where they think they're safe -- their homes.
Victims can understand why crooks take things that can be easily pawned. Jewelry, so often given on sentimental occasions, is catnip for thieves. But it saddens people, often for many years, to think about what must have happened to the items that could have value to no one but themselves. They're mourning not just the thing but its fate, knowing that their pictures or favorite keepsakes are surely bound for a landfill.
After someone stole all the family's Christmas decorations, including a felt stocking her grandmother had sewn for her, Robyn Conder Broyles of Houston "cried and cried, especially since I knew that stocking just ended up in a dumpster somewhere."
Mean Little Pranks
Usually when items of sentimental value get stolen, they're collateral damage. Cars or homes get broken into and Grandma's costume jewelry gets swept into the bag along with the good stuff. Pictures of the kids are lost along with the iPhone on which they were taken.
Sometimes, though, thieves intentionally grab things that have so little intrinsic value that you have to wonder what they were thinking. One woman who answered NPR's Facebook query recalls that someone took an envelope containing the first baby curls that had been snipped from her son's head, right out of her purse at the grocery store. Inexplicably, her purse was left behind.
But sometimes the sentimental value of the thing is the point. Ex-roommates and ex-boyfriends seem fond of grabbing the one piece of jewelry or the old high school yearbooks that they know will be missed powerfully.
"He knew it was precious to me and not worth much," Spring Valley, Calif., resident Linda Pere Northrup says of an ex-husband, who took a ring that had belonged to her great-grandmother. "I never got it back."
It's frustrating, trying to convey to police the true value of a dress from one's youth or a notebook containing one's foolish but heartfelt attempts at poetry. "There's no difference between monetary or sentimental value," says Albie Esparza, a public information officer with the San Francisco Police Department. "If property is stolen, it's a crime."
Maybe so. But these situations pose a special challenge for the police. A stolen car or laptop may turn up, but how can they hope to find missing baby teeth?
This Story Has A Happy Ending
In such cases, people hope to bargain. They would gladly pay ransom or a reward, if only they could get back the memory card with all the not-backed-up photos, or their late uncle's letters home from World War II. "I would have given the thieves more money than they could have gotten on the street for my grandparents', my mother's and my jewelry," Alison Dealy, a Georgia woman, wrote on our Facebook page.
Once in a while, this actually works. One woman in the Chicago area, who wanted to retrieve her cell phone because it held all the pictures of her newborn twins, managed to get it back by calling it repeatedly and eventually buying it back from the thief.
In Sam Goldstein's case, all it took was an appeal to conscience. My friend Amy figured that his handprint had probably been lifted by one of the artsy neighboring students from the Rhode Island School of Design who thought it looked cool and figured the family wouldn't miss a cement block all that much.
The other day, Amy put out a sign. "To the person who borrowed our mosaic stepping stone. A child made it and he would like it back. No questions will be asked."
It worked. Sam's visiting grandmother spotted it back in front of the house while heading out for an early-morning jog. Sam and his younger sister, Ruby, couldn't wait to wake up their parents in their excitement. "The magic of the unlikely happy ending," Amy says. "We are all beaming."
She made Sam write a note to the person, thanking him or her for putting it back. They left it out on their front steps, but the thief never picked it up.
NPR intern Annie Ropeik contributed research to this article