Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ghost Burglar

Over the years I’ve been a big fan of Elmore Leonard's crime fiction and went through a couple Agatha Christie spurts as well, but it’s been a while since I read any kind of true crime. So when a friend recommended Ghost Burglar, it wasn’t the genre but rather the local tie-in to Duluth that piqued my interest. From the first page, however, I was gripped. And the story features characters and plot twists as interesting as nearly anything by the masterful Leonard.

Ghost Burglar is the story of Bernard Welch who was one of the most successful thieves in U.S. history, as well a surprisingly witty prison escapee, with two such exits under his belt. A rather unassuming fellow by day, he’d developed a system that made him extremely successful during his night prowling.  He had a nose for neighborhoods that had the kind of loot he was looking for. It had to be goods that were of value but easy to pass along, and easy to retrieve quickly. During the years he was in operation Welch, a loner who achieved the status of America’s Most Wanted burglar, made millions.

One Amazon reviewer wrote, “Ghost Burglar is a riveting read that kept me up at night!” I shared that sentiment, looking forward to the end of each day when I would unwind and make a little more progress in the story.

The book’s authors are Jim King and Jack Burch. King was the detective who became intimately acquainted with the ways of Welch, who also eluded capture by means of a range of aliases. Burch was a reporter who in 2005 decided this would make a worthy topic for a book. When he met and interviewed King he found the detective to be a goldmine of information. King expressed interest in the project, and turned out to be a writer now that he was retired. “We did a lot of talking by phone to nail down details of the case,” noted Burch, ”and during those interchanges, it became obvious that this project would turn out much better if we tackled it together.”

In 2008 they made a trip to Duluth together during which time they drew up an outline and assigned responsibilities. Burch explained: “The combination of our experience and skills was a good fit throughout the project. We wrote one very rough draft, edited that and then just kept on editing and refining throughout the project. The final edits were done by Jessica Radzak, a Chicago-based book editor retained by our publisher, Mike Savage.”

The story begins with an interrupted robbery in which Bernard Welch shoots and ultimately kills a doctor. But the doctor didn’t immediately die and because he didn’t believe he was fatally wounded chose to drive himself to the hospital. To the doctor’s surprise Welch is creeping back to his car a few blocks away and the doctor veers off the road and smashes into Welch with his car. And so we see the end from the beginning as this event leads to the media circus that became Welch’s trial.

Examples of the kind of goods Welch had an eye for.
The book does an excellent job of showing the education of Bernard Welch, how he learned his trade and how he’d become so elusive. How did he end up with a home, including a sauna and indoor pool, in one of Duluth's most elite neighborhoods? That was a lesson he learned from an incident earlier in his career. He was an east coast crook, rich neighborhoods from Jersey to D.C., but he got caught because 200 miles away is still too near when fencing stolen goods. During his first stint in prison he assessed the mistakes he'd made and refined his methods. One of these was how to put his stolen merchandise back into the market and he settled on an unsuspecting community a thousand miles away.

When finally apprehended Welch became a news sensation around the time the Congdon murders took place here in the Northland, two of the biggest crime stories of that period. You can find the book here at Amazon.com .

EdNote: This weekend I will share an interview with the book's two authors who provide additional details only hinted at in their book.

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