Living the 'Unlocked Life' in Suburbia

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a story that defied common sense.

All across the suburbs, rich people were making themselves poorer by insisting on living the "unlocked life."

You know the type, so caught up in the psychological spoils of suburbia - safety, serenity, mile-long driveways to keep bad guys at bay.

They leave the house, windows and cars unlocked, intentionally, defiantly.

One night, riding shotgun with a Radnor cop, we happened upon a home with a Jaguar and two Land Rovers in the driveway.

All were unlocked. All with the keys plopped, invitingly, on the dashboard.

The cop was not surprised.

All I could think about were inner-city residents erecting bars over their porches to protect themselves and their meager possessions. Here, wealthy folks couldn't care less.

"People believe what they need to believe," Brian Berry, a social psychology professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, told me at the time, "and we all need to believe we have a zone of safety, of comfort."

Back then, the result of emotional entitlement was usually petty theft - change, CDs and cellular phones pilfered from SUVs, often by thrill-seeking teenagers.

It was only a matter of time before a professional thief raised the stakes and got personal.

Unarmed and dangerous

Patrick Lloyd Burns was as discriminating as his targets were not, according to court papers.

Police say he robbed the master bedrooms of the super-rich, business execs and professional athletes in suburban Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

He is thought to have pulled off more than 200 high-end heists in 18 months before his arrest last week.

In Haddonfield, court papers say, he lifted $225,000 in jewelry from a single home. In Blue Bell, he had an $118,000 evening. In all, Burns told authorities, he netted between $5 million and $10 million, but prosecutors suspect his haul was much higher.

The thief may have earned more than his marks. He was fast and focused, getting in and out of houses in minutes, not that it always mattered.

While many of the mansions had alarm systems, not all were activated. Once again, the cops weren't exactly surprised by the senselessness.

John Scholly is chief of police in Lower Gwynedd Township, where the perp hit several homes, snatching $50,000 worth of bling at a time.

The suburbs are full of people who pay heavily for security systems they don't use, Scholly said. Some people rely on the sign in the yard to scare off crooks. Others worry that their pets could cause embarrassing false alarms.

"Actually, a lot of people only arm the system when everyone's at home, inside," Scholly told me. "I guess that's when they need to feel safe."

Home, safe home

Ann Baiada may reside in Moorestown - the best place to live in America, according to Money magazine - but she grew up in Philadelphia.

A city girl always locks her doors. But with five kids and a cat, she gave up on the alarm long ago.

"We got into a bad habit," admits Baiada, whose family runs the Bayada Nurses health-care company.

Her house was hit Labor Day 2004 while her family was down the Shore. The thief took $30,000 in jewels, including cherished pieces that were probably worthless to pawnbrokers. The zircon bracelet with the worn-down stones her father gave her mother before he left for the war? Baiada was saving it as a college graduation gift for her youngest daughter.

And Baiada's nursing pin?

"He probably just threw them away," she says with a shudder.

From now on, Baiada won't give a thief the opportunity. She moved the valuables she has left to less-obvious hiding places. And she upgraded her alarm system to one that goes off if anyone heavier than a cat walks on the floor. As of this writing, Baiada is taking pains to arm it every day.

She may live in sunny suburbia, but now she knows better. Even paradise has its storms.

Philadelphia Inquirer

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