His methods may be controversial, but an Illinois State Police inspector says he's had great success in getting some criminals to cough up stolen cash.
"It's all about the cash. That's all it's about," said Inspector Bill Hendrickson, who for the last 17 years has been negotiating with a group of thieves who call themselves gypsies; families who have made a business of stealing and con jobs.
"They learn to do this from their parents. They learn how to con people," he said, adding that he estimates there are more than 100 such criminals in the Chicago area.
An Illinois State Police report shows an increase in one such con that has the victim inviting the burglars into their homes. The con men often a ring doorbell and pose as handymen or utility workers. They wear official safety vests and a hard hat and carry a walkie talkie. They trick the victim into showing them the boundaries of their backyards and then signal their accomplices to go in the front door.
A former burglary thief who said he'd stolen "$50-$60,000, maybe $100,000" in such crimes said elderly people with lonely hearts and poor eyesight work best.
The ISP report showed a troubling increase in these crimes, as much as 25 percent in some Chicago areas. Burglars stole $7,000 from one woman's mother on the northwest side of Chicago. Another $20,000 was stolen from a man in Northlake.
"It’s a terrible feeling," said the Northlake victim, who wished to remain anonymous.
Hendrickson co-authored a gypsy training guide that is used by police and said that when victims describe a suspect, he often knows their names. He contacts them to recover what was stolen and says he threatens them with jail time.
He said he's recovered "into a million dollars."
Police traced the Northlake burglary to one person Hendrickson had profiled in the gypsy guide. The man denied everything, but Hendrickson said a person acting on that man's behalf later delivered $20,000 in money orders to give back to the victims.
"They never admit guilt," Hendrickson said, but added those he contacts often come through with the cash. "Strange isn't it?"
That's the catch. If the thieves pay up, victims must agree not to prosecute. While Hendrickson noted that the victims are getting their money back, he knows that by not prosecuting some people may feel they are not getting justice.
"It’s a source of conflict with us," he admitted.
Hendrickson said that while he may know who the thief is, that doesn’t mean a senior citizen would be able to pick them out in a lineup.
"She can hardly recognize the person," one woman said of her mother who was a victim.
Even if a jury convicted a burglar, many victims don't see a dime and thieves don't serve any jail time. One former thief admitted that he had been arrested seven or eight times and had received four or five convictions, but said he'd served no prison time for his crimes.
The Illinois State Police this week announced a new task force to confront these increasing crimes and to educate potential victims, many of whom are senior who keep too much cash at home.