ASK DR. CRIME LAB

Like Abigail Van Buren, Joyce Brothers and Xaviera Hollander, Dr. Crime Lab wants to help. He wants to utilize his expertise, his know-how in the world of wrongdoing and advise you, the law-abiding citizen, the potential victim.

The only difference between Abby or Dr. Joyce and Dr. Crime Lab is one of residence. The doctor currently lives deep within the bowels of Phoenix's Madison Street Jail.

That's where his letter arrived from, a neat, three-page missive that began with the humble sentence "I've been involved in a life of crime for the past 20 years, but please bear with me; I do not want to bore you with the criminal aspects of my life."

The Doc continued to explain his idea of answering readers' questions in hopes of deterring evil and preparing them for encounters with swindlers, felons and the darker element of society. In short, people like him.

"I have experience in the following areas: con games, prostitution, gangs, drugs, forgery, robbery, burglary, theft and several other methods of crime," he wrote. There's no arguing with a wealth of knowledge like that. Think about it--not only robbery, but burglary and theft. He even included a sample question.

Dear Dr. Crime Lab: My husband just paid for what he believed to be a brand-new VCR still in the box, but to our surprise it was just a box of old bricks.

Dr. Crime Lab replies: The con game that your husband was a victim of is called "sugar," because it's too sweet to be true. Your husband probably paid anywhere from $50 to $100 for what he believed to be a VCR that would cost anywhere from $300 to $500 if purchased in a store. Your husband thought he was getting something for nothing, and nothing from nothing leaves nothing. In your case, bricks. Remember these rules--you can't beat an honest man, and greed is your worst enemy. Right on, Dr. Crime Lab!, I thought to myself, how sweet it isn't! I don't want any of my readers coming home and trying to watch Free Willy on a pile of bricks. Of course, the greedy should be punished, but we all know that nobody's perfect, that everybody is tempted by a sweet deal every now and then. If I can deliver you from evil, if I can join forces with this man to prevent poor souls out there from going astray, then all this damn typing will have been worth it. When you want to talk to God, you go to church and find a man of the cloth. And when you want to get the poop on criminal activity, you go to jail and find a crook.

Walking into the Big House on Madison Street, I felt like I was about to be on Scared Straight or something. I saw large cons with bad tattoos, small cons with bad teeth, all chained, handcuffed and shuffling together. Solid steel doors covered with scratches opened for me as guards nodded solemnly through windows of thick glass and chicken wire. I tried to look tough, yawned a lot, wiped my nose, scratched my ass. Prison stuff, right?

Finally, I came to a small cinder-block room, a meeting chamber, chat alcove--whatever they call it--and was introduced to Dr. Crime Lab. A real live bad guy, a person who just couldn't fit in with the laws of society and normal human decency. I can tell you this, he had a firm handshake, was polite and well-groomed. With a nice suit, he could easily have been a politician.

The self-proclaimed Doctor had no problems with handing over personal information. He is 37 years old, from Southern California and is presently a guest of the county for "two counts of burglary, two counts of theft and escape. When the police were attempting to arrest me, I fled," he explained. "They call that escape." His first arrest came at age 15, for "possession of dangerous weapons. I hit a dog with some nun-chucks." After that first taste of evil, he was hooked. "Then we broke into the school and stole ice cream from the cafeteria," recalled DCL flatly. After the ice cream caper, the misguided youth continued on a downhill spiral that would make most folks shudder. "Then I went into robbery, selling drugs, pimping and pandering, three-card monte, forgery, check scams, all kinds of stuff."

The man claims to have done time in some of the most wickedly glamorous prisons around, Folsom, San Quentin, Soledad, and has totaled some ten years' worth of serious time. Checking out those claims would have taken almost as long, so I focused on the Doc's most recent incarceration.

Dr. Crime Lab has been at Madison Street for "about two months," time enough to set his mind wandering. And while the minds of many men in jail travel to thoughts of women, the Doctor's fixed on one in particular. She is quite short, not too attractive, and speaks with a heavy accent.

"I was thinking about Dr. Ruth," he says, brow furrowed in reflection. "How people write her with questions about their sexual problems. Now, me, myself, I have been involved with crime, and I have taken advantage of people many times, and I thought this would be a good situation for people to ask somebody, 'How do we keep this from happening to us?'"

And not only that, he says; one must also be aware that "criminals are getting more sophisticated, so each and every day there are more kinds of con games, actually more ways to commit crimes."

So I asked him.
"Hey, Dr. Crime Lab, could you give me an example of one of those sophisticated crimes?"

He leaned back in his plastic chair, thought a moment, and shared. "I go in to a ready tellerlike place, and I use a camcorder, put it up where people think it's for security. I got it zoned in on the number thing. People punch in their code, they throw their receipt in the trash, the camera records them doing this. I get their name and balance from that. I get a blank card, use an encoder and encode the numbers on the back, then I can go to any ready teller. That's a real sophisticated one."

So sophisticated that I was skeptical. I was troubled by a couple things: 1) If the Doctor was so good at crime, what is he doing in jail? and 2) Wouldn't his fellow prisoners get a bit upset with him revealing trade secrets?

Tut, tut, my friends. "In certain things I'm good, but I know people that are much better, the people that taught me are much better," he assured me. "And there is a code among confidence men; I don't tell certain key things. If I do that, then I'm telling people how to commit crime. I will only tell a potential victim what to look for." Ah, yes, honor among thieves.

I hardly know anyone who hasn't been burglarized--myself included--so I thought I'd test Dr. Crime Lab's wits. What does a burglar look for, and what can one do to prevent such an occurrence?

Once again, with the touching sincerity of a true con man, he gave me the lowdown. "If I was going to burglarize a house, certain characteristics would have to exist," he said. "Being a drug addict, first of all I would want cash or something I can convert into cash very easily. So if you've got a camper or motorcycles and stuff like that, I think, 'Ah, he's a sportsman. Maybe a hunter, maybe has guns.' "As far as an alarm, that basically wouldn't mean anything. The issue is, are the police going to come, or will it be some type of security agency? Now, if I can get through that window or break down that door, what I'm thinking about is can I get in and out before the police get there. "Neighborhood watches are good, effective against crime, as long as they make the calls, but it's still the same thing: Can I get in and out before the police arrive?"

Then the Doc dropped his voice a little, almost sounded like a lawyer cutting to the essence of the situation. "I've asked criminals around me several times, 'What's the best deterrent?' A dog in the house. If the people are asleep, I might go in there, because I can get in and out without waking them up. But if there's a dog, I'm not going in. He might not even bite, but if he's barking, I'm not going in there. Even a little dog, because he's making noise!"

Crime, of course, doesn't pay, and sometimes it's really a headache, too. I asked about the Bricks-as-VCR scam, and the Doc admitted it didn't always work out. "I used to make a living doing this," he bragged, then proceeded into a tale of dedication, attention to detail, and sheer stupidity. "I got a box like what a case of beer comes in, then I got some bricks--I actually bought the bricks--and wrapped them up in newspaper and put them in the box. Then I put brown wrapping paper around it and got a Radio Shack ad. I cut out a picture of a VCR, pictures of the remote control, what the features were of the VCR, then I pasted them all around the box and got a red pen and marked it as if it was being shipped somewhere. I got a square piece of wood, and the picture of the remote control fit over the piece of wood, and I took plastic and wrapped it up. "So I go out to sell this thing, and the first guy I ask was a construction worker. He says if I wait for him, he can go around to the ready teller and get $100 out, so I wait. He gets the money, but says, 'Just one thing before we do this, I want to see it first.'

"I said, 'I have no problem with you seeing it, but give me half the money now and half the money after you see it. If you open it, it's going to take the value down, and it'll be hard for me to convince the next person that it's brand-new.' "He says, 'You got a point there.'

"So we get in his truck, he gives me the 50 bucks and he looks at me and tells me, 'Get out my truck.'

"I said 'What you mean? Give me another 50 bucks.'
"He says 'This is mine now, I paid you 50 bucks for it. Get out my truck!'
"I know I can sell this within an hour, I'm not taking 50 bucks for it. So we get out and start fighting over this. But remember now, this is bricks. We're actually fighting over bricks.

"The lady who works in the library comes out and says, 'Wait a minute! What are you people doing?'

"I say, 'He's trying to take my VCR!'
"And she says, 'Well, what do you want for it?'
"I tell her I want $100 for it, and he only gave me $50. She says, 'Give his $50 back, and I'll give you $100 for it.' "He doesn't want to do this, so we're still wrastlin' over it, and she goes and calls the police. They come, and I tell them what happened, but I guess the detective that came had been exposed to this before; he looked at it and told the guy to get in his truck and leave; told the lady she couldn't buy it. They handcuffed me and took me down to the station.

"They told me they didn't want to see me doing that around there no more, but I know people that do this 10 or 15 times a day."

So there you have it, the VCR-brick sting fully revealed. If any of you have other crime-related questions, write in and let Dr. Crime Lab repay his debt to society by keeping the Good out there alert to the Bad and the Ugly. The Doctor has learned the hard way how to make life easier for you. This is 1995, remember, and sometimes owning a dog that barks loud just isn't enough. Rest assured that your queries will get lengthy, thoughtful analysis; Dr. Crime Lab has plenty of time on his hands.

As he told me before I headed back out into the sunny world of females, lobster dinners and consensual sex, "I don't think I'll be out of here for a long time.

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