For five years, someone prowled 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 the roughly 30,000 items discovered in 31 duffel bags after John Suddard's recent arrest on charges of possession of stolen property. 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 night.
Burglary victims were invited, and an officer escorted them around tables set up in the school cafeteria to see if any of the items are theirs.
Francesco Venturiello, whose Schenectady home was burglarized in May, said he was "hoping." He said he lost cash and roughly $75,000 worth of 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," he said. "My wife will faint."
But it wasn't his night.
"Must have been another crook who got into our house," Venturiello lamented after he and his wife left empty-handed.
He said hundreds of people showed up at the school and it took him an hour just to complete the check-in
"Everybody was like hoping to find something, anxious to look," he said,
"They had everything, rings, chains, silverware, money, even a small gun," Venturiello said.
"And lots of Coach bags," his wife interjected.
Though some people apparently did get lucky. Venturiello said he saw several bags of items that had been claimed.
"I'm glad they got them back," he said.
Suddard, a 39-year-old who has served three prison terms for burglary since he was 19, was arrested days before Christmas as he attempted to pawn at an Albany-area coin shop jewelry and coins stolen from near Hudson Falls a day earlier, authorities said. He was being held in jail without bail, and it was unclear whether he had a lawyer. He declined a phone interview from jail.
Hudson Falls police Chief Randy Diamond said items recovered link Suddard to 24 burglaries, though there could be many more.
Police say the burglar's method of operation was basic: Wait until people leave their house, break in and search for cash and jewelry. He worked mostly in colder months, when the sun sets earlier, and struck whether the homeowners were gone for weeks or minutes, police said. He kept burglar's tools and a camouflage ski mask in his car, they said.
"Seldom did he actually encounter anybody in the house," Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell said. "There were a couple of times when he was spooked - people showed up and he had to run out the back door. ... Generally, his crimes went unnoticed for days."
The burglar pretty much stole "anything somebody would throw in their jewelry box," 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," Winchell said, "right down to the roots."
The duffel bags were found on the property of Suddard's brother-in-law, who is cooperating with the investigation.
Police said they believe most of the items were stolen since Suddard's last release from prison in 2007. He operated mostly in the cluster of three counties around Hudson Falls, though it's unclear how far he traveled, police said. He also spent time in other Northeastern states and in Florida, they said.
Diamond said it appears that Suddard pawned the most expensive items and may have held on to the remaining booty to sell later. Of the items recovered, a few have inscriptions linking them to victims.
The display at Hudson Falls High School on Wednesday was for the items that couldn't be identified. The viewing was restricted to people who reported burglaries and have police reports. Victims will not be allowed to take identified items home just yet, because they are still potential evidence.
Diamond said the police 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. With interest so heavy, police said they plan to do at least one more display after Wednesday.
"We've caught this guy," Diamond said. "We need to link him to what we can and return the property that we can."