And Crime Writers Weigh In
1:00 pm
Mon February 17, 2014

In Key West, Graveyard Thief Flouts Police, Becomes Celebrity

An image capture from security footage of the Key West Graveyard Thief.
An image capture from security footage of the Key West Graveyard Thief.
Credit John Martini

Over the last year, the small, two-house compound in Old Town Key West where John Martini lives has been robbed at least four times.

“We've kind of lost count, as a matter of fact,” he said. “The first time or two, maybe he hit us and we didn't even know ... because he only stole cash, and he stole it out of our wallets and put our wallets back in the same place.”

Once Martini realized they were being robbed, he installed locks on his doors, something he hadn't done since he moved in in 1978. When the compound was robbed again, they installed a security-camera system.

When they were robbed the third time – at least the third time they were sure about – the bandit eluded the cameras. But the forth time, he was caught on camera.

"It was like a Looney Toons cartoon from the '50s," said Martini. "He tiptoed right past where the dogs were sleeping, looking to the right and looking to the left kind of in a crouch. Very, very careful. You could see. He was really kind of enjoying it. It was almost theatrical."

In the video, you can see the robber pull on a pair of gloves, pull out a red flashlight, check out the entrance to one of the houses, then go in.

Inside the house, the burglar was confronted by one of the residents. There was a commotion, and then the robber fled, chased by dogs. He leapt over a four-foot fence on camera, then a six-foot fence off camera, and disappeared into the night.

Martini posted a photo on Facebook, and other victims came out of the woodwork. Many others had been robbed too, several of them multiple times. Most lived within two blocks of Key West's cemetery.

They started calling him the Graveyard Thief. He liked cash and Apple products. He stole a Kindle once, but it might have been an accident. No one had been hurt. Every time the thief was confronted, he ran.

It became a thing. Some neighbors felt insulted that they had not been robbed. Recently, the Key West police department offered a $5,000 reward.

As it happens, the theme of this year’s Key West Literary Seminar was crime writing.

"It was something of a coincidence that just as a whole cohort of crime writers was coming into town, the community was suffering from a bout of highly unusual burglaries," said author Alexander McCall Smith.

Smith, author of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and about 40 other books, took an immediate interest in the Graveyard Thief. He was so taken that he wrote an entire short story based on the Graveyard Thief. Listen to it here:

What did all the crime writers in town for the seminar think was going on with the Graveyard Thief? Gillian Flynn, author of the blockbuster novel and soon-to-be-motion-picture "Gone Girl," thought it might be about notoriety.

"He must be enjoying the nickname, he must be enjoying being known for these certain things. He's going to keep doing it. But I wouldn't be surprised if sooner or later he just can't resist, and he has to do something that gives some sort of clue," Flynn said.

"The main thing that strikes me as I think about this is there's a compulsive aspect to what the person is doing. I think this is bigger than the items being stolen," said Laura Lippman, author of 20 books, including the forthcoming "After I'm Gone."

"There is something ritualistic about it. There may even be a sexual component to it. But there is definitely an obsessive-compulsive component to it," she added.

James W. Hall, who writes a series of thrillers based in Key Largo, thinks the motivation might be research.

"I learned Jimmy Buffett lives in the neighborhood. And I'm thinking that given the fact that he's a songwriter and sometimes a novelist and a mystery writer and I know what shenanigans writers go to to accumulate their sources and information, I'm thinking it might be the our Margaritaville guy," Hall said.

(Mr. Hall would like Mr. Buffett’s attorneys to know the previous statement is sheer satire.)

And Attica Locke, author of "The Cutting Season," thinks the Graveyard Thief hasn’t been caught yet because of tourism.

"My theory is that the police are letting this happen in order to further the mystique of quirky Key West," Locke said. "How do you not catch the guy? Come on!"

Here's some security footage of the Key West Graveyard Thief: