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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Peter Pan

projo.com | Providence, R.I. | Metro

Jose Antonio Guzman, 36, a homelsss, undocumented immigrant from mexico, is arraigned on 21 felony break-ins. At rear is Deputy Sheriff Jason Colbert.
PROVIDENCE -- The skinny bandit who wormed through ventilation shafts and drilled holes through walls in a two-month crime spree has landed in a place he can't slip through.

Jail.

The little thief grabbed attention and confounded the police with his unusual and prolific crime wave at restaurants, coin laundries and stores throughout the South Side.

Most thieves break through doors or windows, grab the goods and run. But this thief was resourceful. He slipped down ventilation shafts, wriggled through greasy kitchen vents, or, when he found no other entrance, hammered out a small hole in the walls and crawled through. He came and went the same way, careful not to trigger any store alarms, leaving with cash, cigarettes, phone cards, and something to eat.

A few of the police investigators and some of his victims had dubbed him "Peter Pan," and as the number of break-ins grew since March, so did speculation. Who was this thief who could squeeze through narrow areas? A circus acrobat? A contortionist? A small, daring child?

None of the above.

Early Sunday, when police interrupted the 21st break-in, they found the mysterious thief was a homeless illegal Mexican immigrant driven by an alleged addiction to crack cocaine.

Jose Antonio Guzman, 36, had been in this country once before, but was deported in 1992 from Houston and sent back to Mexico, said Providence police Detective Maj. Paul Kennedy.

Two years ago, Guzman left his wife and two young sons in Mexico and swam across the Rio Grande at Brownsville, Texas, Kennedy said.

Guzman traveled with relatives to Stamford, Conn., and then made his way alone to Providence, Kennedy said. He worked some, picking up daily jobs in construction doing roofing and other building work, Kennedy said.

Guzman is a small man, just 5 feet 3 inches and 130 pounds, but he's very strong, the police said. And flexible. His strength, agility, and knowledge of building construction paid off in another way, the police said.

No longer working, Guzman was using crack cocaine more frequently and living in an abandoned house known for junkies on Burnett Street in the Elmwood section, the police said.

Then, the break-ins started.

The police noticed the first unusual break-in on March 20 at the Homeland Market on 750 Potters Ave. Then, four more in April. By May, the break-ins were occuring nearly every day.

The targets were mostly within walking distance of where Guzman was staying -- Broad Street, Cranston Street, and Elmwood Avenue. Guzman chose places at random, the police said, unconcerned about even those locked shut with heavy metal gates and metal shutters.

He used his knowledge of air shafts and roofs to find ways into buildings, the police said. He was limber enough to slide headfirst down the shafts, turn himself around, and kick the grates out so he could get inside, said Detective Lt. Stephen Campbell.

He'd get something to eat in the restaurants, even stopping to use the stove to cook a meal in one place, the police said. He took money, cigarettes, and phone cards -- all used to buy or trade for crack cocaine.

Determined to catch the thief, the police staked out local businesses where they thought he'd strike next. They called the Fire Department and used a ladder truck to help them check rooftops.

They didn't find him. Store owners wondered where he'd strike next. But in the city's underworld, Guzman was becoming famous.

"One of his [drug] dealers told him, 'You're the guy they're talking about,' " Kennedy said.

His reign was drawing to an end last week. Guzman allegedly began his 36th birthday last Monday with two break-ins and continued with more on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Just after midnight on Sunday, Guzman was crouched in an alley between a clothing store and a garage for a funeral home on Broad Street. Then, someone overheard him banging out an opening in the cinderblock foundations of the buildings, and called the police.

Crew chief Walter Snead, an 18-year veteran dispatcher, got the call. As he listened to the caller describe the area and what she was hearing, Snead said he immediately thought of the recent break-ins. He knew the police had been in the area, checking rooftops for the thief.

Concerned the thief might have a radio scanner and would be able to hear police transmissions, Snead got an officer on the phone. He put the police on a conference call with the witness. He said her descriptions and his knowledge of the area led Patrolmen Lawrence Werchadlo Jr. and Michael Otrando directly to the unsuspecting thief.

The officers went to 42nd Street, the name of a clothing store at 736 Broad St., next to a garage used by the Juhlin-Pearson Funeral Home. As Otrando secured the area, Werchadlo drew his gun, turned on his flashlight, and walked around the back of the store. He said he heard banging and then saw Guzman crouched low beside the opening he'd made in the store wall. Guzman had pounded out a cinderblock and appeared ready to dart inside, police said.

Werchadlo yelled at Guzman and ordered him to lie down. Otrando came running. All they knew was that they'd stopped a break-in. It wasn't until they brought Guzman back to the police station, where he spoke with investigators, that they realized they'd caught the thief police had dubbed Peter Pan.

The police waited to announce the arrest until yesterday afternoon, just minutes before Guzman was arraigned at District Court on 21 felony counts of breaking and entering. He was ordered held at the Adult Correctional Institutions on $1,000 cash bail for each count. He faces up to 10 years in prison for each charge.

The police contacted the federal office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which would detain him if he's released from the ACI.

The word had already spread about Guzman's arrest. Alvaro Pacheco's store, the Army Food Market on Cranston Street, was one of the first places where Guzman allegedly broke in and stole money and phone cards. The police had stopped by his store to tell him about the arrest, he said.

The thief had allegedly broken a small hole in the wall of Pacheco's store, ending up under a sink behind a cooler filled with meat, sausages, and cheese. Pacheco pointed out the barely foot-high hole, which he'd patched.

"That Peter Pan!" he said, laughing. "I think that was Peter Pan going in there!"

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