Key West Thief Inspires Crime Writers

Feb 28, 2014

Key West, Florida, has a history of comically inept thieves and robbers. But a recent crime spree by a stealthy burglar has residents there on high alert.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Mark Hedden of WLRN talked with people who make good money sitting alone in rooms thinking about the kind of characters who commit crimes.


  • Mark Hedden, reporter for WLRN in South Florida.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit



In Key West, Florida, a recent crime spree by a stealthy burglar has residents there on high alert, including people who make their living delving deep into the criminal mind, or at least criminal characters. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WLRN's Mark Hedden has this story.

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

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

HEDDEN: Once Martini realized they were being robbed, he installed locks on his doors, something he hadn't done since moving in in 1978. When the compound was robbed again, they installed a security-camera system. When they were robbed the third time - the third time that they were sure about - the bandit eluded the cameras. But the fourth time, he was caught on camera.

MARTINI: It was like a Looney Toons cartoon from the '50s. He kind of tiptoed in. 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. I mean, it was like it was almost theatrical.

HEDDEN: On the video, you can see the robber pull on a pair of gloves, pull out a red flashlight, then go in. Inside the house, the burglar was confronted by one of the residents. And then he 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 people came out of the woodwork. Many other neighbors had been robbed too. Most lived within two blocks of Key West's cemetery. They started calling him the Graveyard Thief. It became a thing. Some neighbors felt insulted that they hadn't been robbed. As it happened, the theme of this year's Key West Literary Seminar: crime writing.

ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH: I'm going to read you a short story that I began yesterday here in Key West.

HEDDEN: Alexander McCall Smith is the author of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and about 40 other books. He took an immediate interest in the Graveyard Thief.

SMITH: (Reading) But just as a whole cohort of crime writers was coming into town, the community was suffering from a bout of highly unusual burglaries, all in one area and all very...

HEDDEN: McCall Smith wrote an entire short story based on the Graveyard Thief.

SMITH: (Reading) Miles arranged for me to speak to the police chief. He was most courteous and answered all my questions in a very patient way. I said to him: It's interesting that these burglaries are taking place down near the cemetery. What do you think that tells us? It's the folks who live down there, said the chief. They don't lock their doors as much as they should. Some of them haven't even got doors.


HEDDEN: With all these crime writers in town, we thought we'd ask them to speculate wildly. What did they think was going on with the Graveyard Thief?

GILLIAN FLYNN: You know, he's - I think he must be enjoying the nickname. He must be enjoying being known for these certain things.

HEDDEN: Gillian Flynn wrote the blockbuster novel and soon-to-be-movie "Gone Girl."

FLYNN: He's going to keep doing it. But I wouldn't be surprised if sooner or later he just has to, you know, he can't resist, and he has to do something that gives some sort of hint to him.

LAURA LIPPMAN: 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.

HEDDEN: Laura Lippman is author of 20 books, including "After I'm Gone."

LIPPMAN: 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.

HEDDEN: James W. Hall writes a series of thrillers based in Key Largo. He thinks the motivation could be research.

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

HEDDEN: 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.

ATTICA LOCKE: My theory is that the police are letting this happen to - in order to further the mystique of quirky Key West.



LOCKE: How do you not catch the guy? Come on. You could just have a cop stand on the corner every night.

HEDDEN: Police offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the Graveyard Thief. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Mark Hedden in Key West. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.