A Tale of Two Fort Greenesby Terésa Stern
Between January and July 2008, a series of more than a dozen burglaries targeting neighborhood restaurants and businesses angered and frightened owners. The perpetrator broke in late at night, usually through rear entrances not visible from the street. Luz, Madiba, Bagel World, Amin, DeKalb Convenience, the Hideout, and June (now General Greene) all took hits. At Who’s Your Doggy, a pet supply store on Adelphi Street, the burglar entered via the basement, drilling through the ceiling to create a hole in the store’s floor.
Most of the incidents in this rash of crimes involved small thefts of cash, ranging from $50 to $300. The target businesses lost more money in the clean up the next day. Cash registers were broken beyond repair, costing a thousand dollars each to replace. During the burglar’s third and last nocturnal visit to Bagel World, he cut the register’s power cord and carried off the machine itself. Amin, an Indian restaurant, was a three-time victim. Manager Ibrahim Rubel noted that the burglar stole minor items like a flashlight, a lighter, a small calculator, and all the Corona beer in stock. The biggest cash loss was to DeKalb Convenience, a magazine shop, where the intruder got away with about $1,000 and cigarettes while also destroying the registers. Perhaps the largest reported theft of merchandise was at Who’s Your Doggy, where owner Tracy Klonowski said $3,000 worth of leather leashes were stolen.
Creative entry was the burglar’s trademark. At Luz, the thief struck twice, lowering himself through a skylight like a character from Mission Impossible. At Amin, he came once through a tiny rectangular window in the kitchen and another time apparently used a crowbar to bend cast iron window guards. At Madiba, he entered from the roof through a high window. Turning off lights and obscuring some security cameras as he jumped down to the bar, he went straight for the key to the stockroom, emerging with a generous supply of Bacardi rum but none of the costlier liquors. According to security footage, after collecting $80 from the register, he poured himself some cranberry juice and left the glass on the bar.
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning on the third weekend in September, someone spray-painted brown squiggles all over the colorful painting of a happy waiter on the brick wall of the DeKalb Avenue bistro, Chez Oskar. In the morning, a paint can lay in a thick muddle of green paint on the sidewalk. On the can was a printed label displaying the customer name Luis Concepcion. There was also other garbage strewn across the sidewalk. Two nights later, a masked man showed up after the restaurant closed, padlocked the door so that the cleaning worker inside could not get out, and cut the wires to the exterior lights.
Several restaurateurs believed that it was Luis Concepcion who committed all these crimes. The forty-four-year-old lifelong resident of the neighborhood lived two doors down from Chez Oskar. Ironically, according to proprietors, Concepcion had been instrumental in getting their restaurants ready to operate. A jack-of-all-trades with strong construction skills and a can-do attitude, he’d helped build Madiba and Chez Oskar a decade ago. But some owners, now burglary victims, described Concepcion as a mixed blessing. His attitude, they said, alternated between helpful and menacing. Charlotta Jannsen, Chez Oskar’s owner, claimed that a witness saw someone resembling Concepcion, wearing a black bomber jacket and walking a black dog, flee the crime scene. A few minutes later, the witness saw a man and dog fitting the same description enter Concepcion’s building. Madiba’s owner, Mark Henegan, believes that only someone with inside knowledge could have navigated the unusual entries, quickly located keys to stockrooms, and known how to disable security systems.
Frustrated that the police had failed to detain anyone for these crimes, neighborhood proprietors organized a July meeting with Council Member Letitia James and Captain Anthony Tasso, who had just taken over on June 30th as commanding officer of the 88th Precinct. Tasso reconfigured schedules to keep detectives on patrol during high-crime hours. Helicopters equipped with infrared lights flew over the area and crime prevention officers frequented back alleys and yards where burglars could gain access. None of these efforts, however, resulted in an arrest. Instead, it was DNA found on two items left behind at the crimes: the glass of cranberry juice from Madiba and a cloth napkin the intruder used to cover his face while breaking into Luz. Luis Concepcion was the DNA match.
Concepcion lived with his younger brother—known in the neighborhood as Skinny—on Adelphi Street in the apartment that had been their mother’s until she died last year. Both have had run-ins with the law. Luis returned home in June 2007 after serving two years in prison for possession of a concealed weapon, which he claims was a sheetrock cutter he was carrying home from a construction job.
Mark Henegan, owner of Madiba, seems hurt and perplexed by the news that DNA evidence implicated Concepcion, who he remembers as the very first person he met when he signed his lease ten years ago. It was the day of the Puerto Rican parade when Henegan came to visit his decrepit storefront, trying to envision the restaurant it would become. Concepcion was standing in front of the entrance holding a large Puerto Rican flag whose spangles, he noted with pride, had been sewn on by his mother.
Full of aspirations but little capital, Henegan recognized Concepcion as someone who could help get his business up and running. Luis and Skinny were the neighborhood go-to guys when someone needed a paint job or a roof cleaned. Once, when a Madiba customer accidentally locked herself out of her car, Skinny was able to open the door faster than you could say “slim jim.” Over the years, Madiba occasionally gave Luis meals when he asked, but Henegan says that he was generally a paying customer.
Concepcion was arrested at his home on September 24th and is now in custody awaiting trial for third Degree Felony Burglary. While DNA evidence can be mishandled, staged, or falsified, it is stacked compellingly against him. Nonetheless, during a recent interview at Riker’s Island, he defended his innocence.
Concepcion claims that he’s never been to Luz and doesn’t even know where it is. A muscular 5’9” man with a thick build, he would have had trouble entering through some of the small spaces that were used to gain entrance to businesses. He asks how accusers would explain his motives. “Why would I steal $80 from Madiba when Mark would just give it to me if I asked?” Interestingly, Henegan expressed the same sentiment in nearly the same words: “Why would Luis steal from me when he knows I would help him if he needed it?” Some restaurateurs believe he was driven by drug addiction, but Concepcion himself and those who knew him personally—including Henegan—said that though he used drugs sometimes, he did not have a habit.
Concepcion points out that he was registered to enter a carpentry apprenticeship program in November; that he is fortunate to have one of Fort Greene’s few remaining rent-stabilized apartments; that he earned money doing odd jobs; and that he received help from public assistance, food stamps, and occasionally his sisters, who are steadily employed. “Why would I steal?” he asks simply. “And if I was going to steal, why would I do all this right in my own backyard? Everyone knows you don’t shit where you eat.” To explain his name on the paint can left at Chez Oskar, he states that he had put several cans of paint and compound out on his curb, which is just a few yards away from the restaurant.
He also claims that the police harassed him all summer, frequently stopping him unprovoked to ask questions. Once, he said, three detectives confronted him at the corner of DeKalb and Washington Avenues as he was walking home. According to Concepcion, they grabbed and opened the briefcase he was carrying, letting important records and documents fly into the wind. After breaking his cigarettes into pieces, the cops told him they were going to get him and called him a “spic”. Concepcion said he filed a harassment complaint with the NYPD which is now being handled by Internal Affairs. Although police officials would not confirm this, Luis’s sister and Henegan both say they are aware of the case. Concepcion also states that when officers came to his apartment to arrest him, they examined his belongings and took some items as evidence even though they did not have a search warrant. Captain Tasso confirmed that the police did not possess a search warrant.
Fort Greene has changed dramatically in the ten years since hip restaurants like Madiba and Chez Oskar arrived. Formerly a neighborhood primarily made up of middle and working-class blacks, in recent years it has become increasingly affluent and increasingly white. On warm summer evenings, police shut down parties held in the parks while bistro patrons dine and drink at sidewalk tables. Well-off parents are opening a private school, and new homeowners circulate petitions to lock the schoolyards at night. It’s nearly impossible to find an affordable apartment, and even bodegas have begun to carry organic merchandise at high prices.
If Luis Concepcion is found guilty as charged, his motives for committing these crimes will be an open question. Concepcion would serve time for burglarizing a decade after helping to build Fort Greene’s upscale pioneers. In any case, it’s unlikely that Concepcion will be living in Fort Greene again any time soon.
Terésa Stern is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and fitness trainer. She lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.