For five years, someone prowled the rural counties in upstate New York, pilfering pearl necklaces, gold chains, bracelets, coins, silverware and other valuables from an untold number of homes.
Now authorities face the daunting task of finding owners of an astonishing 30,000 items discovered in 31 duffel bags after John Suddard's recent arrest. So police in the village of Hudson Falls, near the Vermont border, took the novel step of displaying the items at the local high school on Wednesday.
Burglary victims were invited inside, and an officer was recruited to escort them around tables set up in the cafeteria to determine whether any of the items were theirs.
"I'm hoping," said Francesco Venturiello, whose Schenectady home was burglarized in May. He lost cash and roughly $75,000 worth his wife's jewelry, including irreplaceable pieces bought in Italy. "I swear to God, if we find anything in there, I'm going to have to call an ambulance. My wife will faint."
Mr. Suddard, who has served three prison terms for burglary since he was 19, was arrested Dec. 21 as he attempted to pawn jewelry and coins at an Albany-area coin shop stolen the day before an hour north in Hudson Falls. He is being held in jail without bail on charges of possessing stolen property. It wasn't clear whether Mr. Suddard had an attorney.
Mr. Suddard, 39, declined a phone interview from jail.
Hudson Falls Police Chief Randy Diamond said items recovered so far link the suspect to 24 burglaries, though there could be many more.
Police say the burglar's method of operation was basic: Wait until people left their house, break in and search for cash and jewelry. He worked mostly in colder months, when the sun sets earlier. He struck whether the homeowners were gone for weeks or minutes. He kept burglar's tools and a camouflage ski mask in his car, police said.
"Seldom did he actually encounter anybody in the house," Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell said. "… Generally, his crimes went unnoticed for days."
The suspect pretty much stole "anything somebody would throw in their jewelry box," Mr. Winchell said, and then some. Along with jewelry, police found cash, coins, a handgun and game tokens.
"One of the bags I went through actually had an adult molar," Mr. Winchell said, "right down to the roots."
The duffel bags were found on the property of Mr. Suddard's brother-in-law, who is cooperating with the investigation.
Police think most of the items were stolen because the suspected thief's last release from prison in 2007. He operated mostly in the cluster of three counties around Hudson Falls, though it is not clear how far Mr. Suddard traveled. He also spent some time in other Northeastern states and in Florida.
Chief Diamond said it appears that Mr. Suddard pawned the most expensive items and may have held on to the remaining booty to sell later. Of the items recovered, a small number have inscriptions linking them to victims.
The police chief said the department has been inundated with calls from as far away as New Jersey and New Hampshire, some from callers missing cars, boats and other items clearly not involved in this case.