On the Trail of a Silver Thief

Audra Melton
by Kim Severson - April/May 2014

After serving multiple jail sentences, the country's most notorious cat burglar headed south, where police suspect he started making up for lost time

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[I.]     The Crime Scene

As she did most mornings, Mary Doffermyre woke up and headed straight for the thermostat in the dining room. Her husband, Everette, had a habit of turning it down. The old white brick Georgian-style house on Tuxedo Road, one of the best addresses in Atlanta, could get drafty. As she reached to turn up the heat, she noticed that her beloved art deco Tiffany tea service, the one that had been in the family for as long as anyone could remember, was missing from the sideboard.

Again, she blamed Everette. He was a noted plaintiff’s attorney, a wealthy man unafraid to take on tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. But he was always moving artwork around the house, a trait she found maddening. Then she noticed that her mother’s ornate sterling-silver compote, a foot-high beauty with little oarsmen on the top, was gone. “Everette!” she screamed as she ran back up the stairs. “We’ve been robbed!”

Sometime while the couple slept upstairs, the bedroom door locked and the dogs snoozing nearby, a thief with the precision of a craftsman had unscrewed the black wrought iron that protected the lower half of the French doors in the dining room. He eased off the putty from around the windowpanes and then meticulously stacked the thin strips of wood framing in a triangle, the way a child might assemble Legos. “They were just laid out there so neat,” Mary says. “He was so anal.”

The thief set the old window glass carefully against the side of the house and hoisted his body through the small hole. He had chosen only two rooms to rob. Crossing the hall into a living room, with pieces of silver on top of the baby grand and the bookshelves, could have set off the motion detectors. Still, the damage was devastating. He got the julep cups, three silver pitchers, and countless silver trays. Gone, too, were 150 pieces of Mary’s favorite flatware. Like so many Southern women
of a certain generation, Mary was deeply attached to the spoons and forks that marked her table at dinner parties and holiday gatherings. What was on your table said everything about you.

Looking back, she is grateful she had moved another set, her cherished Francis 1, down to the Palm Beach house. But the set she kept in Atlanta was particularly important to her. It was an antique Lansdowne pattern by Gorham, each piece monogrammed with her grandmother’s initials. She had service for twelve, both the dinner and the daintier luncheon size, along with every service piece one could imagine.

The silver thief had gotten almost all of it, right down to the butter picks and sliced tomato server. All that remained were the hollow-handled knives and the boxes, which the thief had left on the ground right where he had squeezed in through the door. The knives just didn’t weigh enough to be worth the cost of shipping them to the smelter.

On that November morning in 2012, the Doffermyres had become members of an exclusive club: victims of a silver thief investigators believe was so prolific and so skilled that for nearly three years he marched through as many as a hundred homes in the most privileged neighborhoods in six Southern states, stealing more than $12 million worth of the region’s finest sterling silver.

The theft of silver in the South is particularly painful. So much was lost during the Civil War. The pieces that remained had sometimes been saved only because someone had hidden them in a smokehouse or buried them somewhere on a plantation. Silver had also offered a way for the South to rebuild. Pulling together a new collection of silver after the war sent a signal that life would go on, and that Southern civility was not, in fact, dead.

“The silver that’s here, it fought to be here,” says John Jones, an appraiser based in Birmingham, Alabama, whose clients numbered among the victims. One family in Nashville’s Belle Meade neighborhood lost four generations’ worth of fine silver, some of which had been crafted from melted coins and hallmarked. Whether the thief knew all of this when he began raiding the richest homes in the South is still a mystery. The answer lies, at least for the moment, in the Fulton County jail in Atlanta, where the man police believe is responsible is awaiting trial.