To his neighbors in the wealthy Washington suburb of Great Falls, Va., Norm Hamilton was a model citizen. His lawn was well tended, his new Mercedes-Benz carefully washed and his manner, while reserved, always gracious. Sometimes he would offer investment tips, explaining that he had made a small fortune in real estate and the stock market. In the summers he would take his wife, Linda, and his three children to a vacation home in Duluth, Minn. “He was charming,” says one neighbor, Gloria Tatem. “In this area, he fit right in.”
The manner fit, but the life’s work did not. Last month police identified “Norm Hamilton” as Bernard C. Welch Jr., 40, a master craftsman whose métier was burglary. Though he had allegedly stolen an estimated $7 million in antiques, coins, jewels, furs and silverware over the last five years, police might never have captured him but for a fatal encounter last December 5. That evening Dr. Michael Halberstam, a prominent Washington cardiologist and brother of author David Halberstam, returned from a cocktail party to find an intruder looting his home. Lunging at the man, Halberstam was shot twice in the chest, but still managed to get behind the wheel of his car to drive to the hospital. On the way, Halberstam spotted the fleeing burglar and swerved to run him down. An hour later Halberstam, 48, died on a hospital operating table. The gunman, not seriously injured, was found crouching behind a shrub by the roadside. Who was he? “You’re going to be surprised,” he told police.
The authorities were more than surprised. Since 1975 a task force of as many as 30 detectives from 10 jurisdictions had been hunting for the man they called the Standard Time Burglar because he operated mostly from November to April, when the evenings were darkest. Wanted in connection with 3,300 burglaries, Welch was suspected of raping three women at gunpoint and pistol-whipping a dozen other victims while breaking into several houses a night. Frustrated by the burglar’s elusiveness, Maryland Det. James King, one of the principal investigators, became an antiques expert himself, attending regional shows and poring over library books. “We became fatalistic,” he says, “that we’d never catch Welch by known investigative techniques.”
No one seemed more stunned by Welch’s arrest than his common-law wife of four years, Linda Hamilton. “It was like a death in the family,” says Detective King. “She had known him only as Norm Hamilton, a nice guy and a good provider.” Linda has told police she thought her husband was a dealer in rare coins and collectibles—and they believe her. “This guy was better than any fictional character,” says King. “He was hitting three or four houses every night. But his claim to fame was not how much stuff he stole, it was how he lived after stealing it. He wasn’t your typical junkie. He took his money and invested it. This guy had imagination.”
Even as a child, Welch seems to have been driven by an outsized ambition. Growing up in Spencerport, N.Y., near the Canadian border, Welch lived in a crumbling home with 25 cats and no indoor plumbing. His father, a machine operator for Eastman Kodak, reportedly spent much of his salary drinking and gambling. His reclusive mother spent her time writing to a network of international pen pals. “I got away with murder as a child,” Welch once told a probation officer. “I did everything and never got caught. I thought I could go through life and do the same thing.” Dropping out of school at 16, Welch made a name for himself trapping foxes, skunks and muskrats, then peddling the pelts around town. He began working as a plumber in 1958, but was already moonlighting as a burglar when he married his hometown girlfriend four years later. Housebreaking soon became a family affair. His wife, Anne Marie, sometimes taking along the first of their three babies, would drive Welch to a house he had chosen, then wait patiently while he ransacked the premises. “He thought he was smart to get away with it,” Anne Marie later told police.
For two years he succeeded. Then in 1964, after being questioned about a flea market burglary, Welch piled his family and possessions into a car and a U-haul trailer and fled Spencerport at 2 a.m. Settling in the tiny resort of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., he opened an antiques shop stocked with his loot. “He didn’t have anybody working for him, and he used to keep the shop open during the day, but I’d see him unloading his flatbed truck at 3 in the morning,” recalls County Sheriff James Batt. Suspicious, police found there was a New York warrant out for Welch’s arrest. Welch was extradited and sentenced to five years in prison. He served three, devoting his spare hours to studying antiques and earning a high school equivalency diploma.
Ultimately, prison seems only to have hardened Welch’s criminal bent. After his release he went to work for Kodak as a pipe fitter in upstate New York, but was soon looting houses again. He delivered precious metals to an illegal refiner in Delaware and drove trailers full of stolen antiques to Florida to sell to dealers. Then a buyer alerted New York police, and Welch was returned to prison in 1971. Sentenced initially to 10 years (the term was doubled when he was later convicted of more than 50 other burglaries), Welch escaped in 1974 by climbing a 20-foot fence with a fellow inmate, Paul David Maturano. He and Maturano drove to Richmond, Va. (smashing through a police roadblock en route) and began robbing houses together, but Maturano became disenchanted and quit. “Welch was burglarizing everything in sight,” he later told police. “Then we met broads, and he liked to slap them around. I didn’t like that.”
Divorced by Anne Marie in 1971, Welch lived for 18 months with a Richmond schoolteacher without arousing any suspicion concerning his livelihood. Then in early 1976 he moved to the Washington area, where he met government secretary Linda Susan Hamilton. He told her he couldn’t marry her because his estranged wife had not granted him a divorce, but that he wanted to take her last name in the hope of evading alimony payments. That spring the couple rented a three-bedroom house in Falls Church, Va. They lived lavishly, and once paid a teenager $140 to feed their cats while they went off on a two-week Caribbean vacation. “We used to laugh about how they threw money around,” recalls neighbor Liz Tomlinson. Her husband, William, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official, had “Norm Hamilton” checked out to learn if he was wanted on drug charges. He was not.
In January 1978 Welch and Hamilton bought their first house—a $102,000 split-level in Linda’s hometown of Duluth. They summered there for three years and installed a costly burglar alarm system. What the neighbors did not realize was that “Hamilton” was working during his vacations, unloading some of his booty. At one outlet Linda would leave a box of coins with dealer Stan Sunde and receive a check from him a few days later. After a number of these transactions, “Norm” began handling the business himself. “He dressed well and he knew what he was doing,” says Sunde. “Once I asked him where he got the stuff—coins, rings, cuff links. When he told me that he bought estates, I said, ‘I wish I could get estates like that.’ He said, ‘You have to know the right people.’ ”
In Virginia the couple settled down to an affluent life in suburbia. They bought a sprawling $235,000 brick rambler in Great Falls in the summer of 1978 and promptly began making improvements—a swimming pool, security cameras and floodlights, even an auxiliary generator to provide electricity in case of power blackouts. “But there wasn’t much furniture anywhere,” recalls neighbor Tatem, “and what furniture they had was in poor taste. There were no antiques.”
In fact, the valuables were all in the basement, along with two smelters for melting down gold and silver. After the Halberstam killing, police found 51 boxes of loot. Fairfax County police devoted six days to cataloguing more than 13,000 items, and some 4,000 burglary victims lined up for hours in hope of identifying stolen possessions. At his lawyer’s request, Welch (who has pleaded not guilty in the killing of Dr. Halberstam) is now undergoing psychiatric tests. Whatever the outcome, Welch’s legacy will not soon be forgotten. “The ramifications go on forever,” says Virginia housewife Carol Nagel, who believes he was the burglar who broke into her house last year. “The children won’t go into the house now without yelling ‘Is anybody there?’ and at night they lock their bedroom doors.” Adds Detective King: “I see months of paperwork ahead, as well as years of cases. Even if you put his body in constant pain for the next 50 years, there’s no way he can fully pay for what he’s done.”