by Justice William W. Bedsworth
It does sound like Sherlock Holmes, doesn’t it? The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter . . . all mysteries that required the brilliance of a cocaine-swilling Nineteenth Century misanthrope to solve. Well, they’ve got another such adventure on their hands in Los Angeles.
Streetlamps are disappearing in Los Angeles, and while you might think our neighboring metropolis would be fertile ground for locating another cocaine-swilling misanthrope, the local authorities seem baffled. And apparently Benedict Cumberbatch is unavailable.
Here’s the headline that got my attention: “Historic lamps are being stolen off an L.A. bridge. The city is removing the rest for safekeeping.”
These are streetlamps, folks. Hundred-year-old streetlamps. They’re seventeen-feet tall. They’re solid bronze. They weigh more than Vermont.
And somebody is stealing them. Twenty-two of them so far. Lugging them off into the L.A. night—apparently because they’re looking for a challenge and there are no tyrannosaurs around to steal.
I was a prosecutor for fifteen years. It was a long time ago. Wyatt Earp often brought in cases for us to file. We did have streetlamps. Lamplighters rode up on their horses and lit them with long torches every night. AND NOBODY STOLE THEM!
Good Lord, there have to be easier ways to make a living. When I was a prosecutor, I often marveled at the effort some people put into their crimes. The same amount of creativity and hard work that went into elaborate frauds would have made some people I prosecuted exceedingly wealthy in legitimate enterprise had they just taken that route. When I read about Bernie Madoff’s one-man illegalpalooza, I found myself wondering “When did he sleep?!”
But streetlamps? I mean, I can understand somebody who says, “I’m gonna walk into a bank and pull a gun on the teller.”1 I can understand the teenager who tells his buddy, “You distract the clerk, I’ll grab a six-pack and we’ll run like hell.” I can even understand the Ponzi operators who think they can stretch their scam out long enough to enable them to aggregate enough loot to disappear into Venezuela.
But what in heaven’s name is the thought process that leads to, “Okay, here’s the deal: We get an enormous truck (I don’t know where we get an enormous truck, I guess we steal one); we somehow knock over this huge, 100-year-old street lamp (I haven’t figured out that part yet but there must be a way) and somehow manage to load it into the back of our enormous truck (I figure we need eight other criminals or a crane); we do it in the dark when nobody is driving over the bridge the streetlamps illuminate (maybe we get two other guys to hold up a bedsheet so nobody will see us; maybe we set up roadblocks); we find a warehouse we can hide them in (yeah, the cost of the warehouse is a drawback; maybe we can steal one); we drive the streetlamp to the warehouse without anybody noticing we got an honest-to-God streetlamp in the back of our truck (anybody know where we can pick up a Klingon cloaking device?); we get welding equipment to chop them up (yeah, more money; maybe we can steal it); we find a metal yard that will fence scrap bronze that has obviously been stolen (no, I don’t know one offhand, but there’s gotta be one, we’ll just keep going to scrap metal yards and asking until we find one); then we do it twenty-one more times. Rinse and repeat.”
Who comes up with that plan? How does the combined intelligence of more than one individual2 come up with that plan? Gerbils would recognize that as a low percentage play.3
Oh, and here’s the best part. The rinse and repeat? We’re gonna do this twenty-two times ON THE SAME BRIDGE! We’re gonna do it three times in three nights in mid-September. Then, after it becomes abundantly clear that someone is stealing them, we’re gonna steal seven more in the next two weeks.
And we’re gonna do this, not during a deluge, not during a lunar eclipse, not during a freak snowstorm when nobody else is on the streets. We’re gonna go back to the same bridge on three warm, September SoCal evenings, and steal seventeen-foot streetlamps whose transportation would have stumped the guys who built the pyramids.
Then we’re gonna do it every other night for the rest of the month. Then we’ll go back in January and do it again. Several times.
This isn’t a crime, it’s a Jim Carrey movie.
But wait . . . it gets better.
Here’s how it gets better: It works.
Twenty-two times so far, it works. The Gang Who Couldn’t Think Straight has pulled this off twenty-two times on the same bridge. They haven’t spread these thefts out over all 503 square miles of Los Angeles.4 They haven’t branched out into other jurisdictions so as to disguise the fact that serial streetlamp theft was going on. It’s not like Alhambra thinks they had a one-off streetlamp theft, and Ojai thinks they had a one-off streetlamp theft, and Seal Beach thinks they had a one-off streetlamp theft, and nobody realizes it’s a serial feller.5
Nope. Twenty-two times on what my newspaper calls “the historic Glendale-Hyperion Viaduct Bridge.” In a city with 9,974 police officers,6 this crime has been committed 22 times.
So what’s the answer? Surveillance? Informants? A sting operation?7 Sherlock Holmes?
Nope. Surrender. These crimes are just unsolvable.
At least that appears to be the conclusion L.A. has come to. They’re removing the remaining twenty-five lamps. They’ve taken down eighteen, and what’s left of the fifty to sixty originals are going into a warehouse for safekeeping.8 Professor Moriarty wins.
That was announced by the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting.
Yep. L.A. has a Bureau of Street Lighting. I don’t think we have one of those in Orange County and my tolerance for research is exhausted, so you’ll have to double-check yourself. I think the city engineers handle it in most Orange County cities.
But L.A.’s humongous; I can’t imagine how many streetlamps they have. Still have, even after this unlikely crime spree.
According to their website, “Since its founding almost a century ago, the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting has been on the forefront of innovation, technology, and design.”9 They make no claims to a position at—or on—the forefront of crime detection, and really, they shouldn’t have to. If I were founding a Bureau of Street Lighting, I would not have created a division whose charge was to prevent theft of ginormous bronze streetlamps that are somehow being spirited away in the dead of night, eluding 9,974 police officers and an entire bureau.
Oh, sure, now I would. Hindsight is 20/8.10 But 100 years ago, who knew?
I wish these people luck with a problem they could not possibly have anticipated. I suspect “Warehousing of whopping big bronze streetlamps to prevent theft” is a line item in their next budget that might be hard to explain. “Consulting fee: Sherlock Holmes” might have been easier.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.