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Stories III

The emptied-home mystery

by Jo Garofoli

Simon Watts left his rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco’s North Beach area in the capable hands of a house sitter while he made is annual pilgrimage home. Nothing strange there. However, when she left the flat empty for four days to go on a boat trip, something bizarre happened along the lines of the plot of Dr Seuss’ book ‘The Grinch who stole Christmas’. And the moral of this story? Don’t leave your home alone (even for four days)!

Monday, 27 October, 2003

Police say they have never seen the likes of this daylight North Beach heist.

The question that haunts Simon Watts isn’t how somebody broke into his North Beach apartment while he was on vacation and stripped everything out of the two-bedroom unit – dirty laundry, the sliver of soap in the soap dish, his daughter’s wedding photo.

What troubles Watts is why they did it; nearly all of it had little more than sentimental value. He estimates the total loss at between $30,000 and $50,000; Watts has no insurance.

Police have no suspects, have exhausted all leads and consider the 4- month-old case inactive. Yet what continues to worry Watts, the 73-year-old woodworker, shipbuilder and freelance writer, are the questions that nobody, especially the police, can answer.

Like why would someone take 32 rolls of film and negatives that his friend gave him before she died of cancer? Or why would someone dismantle the 15-foot-long wooden shelf he custom-made for his office wall and lug it down 42 steps from his third-floor apartment to the sidewalk?

And why would someone steal frozen peas out of his freezer?

‘If a fire had done this, then there would be no motive,’ said Watts, the accent of his native England still strong. ‘But what’s hardest to understand here is the underlying malice that went into this.’

San Francisco Police Inspector Mark Sullivan said he has never seen an apartment stripped in this manner. In broad daylight no less. Neighbors told police they saw a medium-size white van parked out in front of the Bay Street building for a day, maybe two, and at least two people removing furniture from the unit. A few assumed someone was moving out and ignored them.

Beyond that, Sullivan said he has little to go on. Even the date the theft occurred is fuzzy.

Watts left in early May for his annual trip back to Nova Scotia to see his family, teach shipbuilding classes and work at his small studio there for several months. This year, he included a visit to England and was traveling around Western Europe with friends when the theft occurred.

His longtime friend Kelly Donahoe agreed to housesit for him. The 44-year- old caterer was moving back to San Francisco and figured housesitting would give her a place to stay while she found work and a new place to live.

Early June 9, with Watts’ blessing, Donahoe left for a boat trip through the Delta. When she returned shortly before June 13, the dead-bolt on the apartment’s front door was unlocked, the back door was wide open, but there were no signs of forced entry.

Inside, there was nothing in the apartment but a few dangling picture hooks. Photographs had been lifted from the walls, throw rugs snatched up, the refrigerator cleaned out – but left in place. Even the shower curtain was gone.

‘It was like the Grinch who stole Christmas,’ Donahoe said as she and Watts sat in his apartment Sunday.

‘But these were not people off the street,’ Watts interjected. ‘These were people who knew what they were doing. They had to bring the right tools.’

He said it would have taken hours and expertise to dismantle the 36-inch diameter kitchen table Watts made out of old-growth Douglas fir and edged with mahogany. Same for his queen-size bed, two end tables and other shelves and bookcases that were gingerly pinched off their moorings. Thieves took his tools and his vises, too, leaving him unable to do his work.

Even stranger: The thieves cleaned up the apartment after they cleaned it out.

But stolen couches and chairs can be replaced, Watts said. What can’t be are filing cabinets containing more than 3,000 negatives representing 40 years of his beloved craft. Drawings, plans, sketches, photos of his woodworking projects gone.

Then there are the sentimental losses.

Like the seven handcrafted models of Nova Scotia fishing vessels. The artist who did them is losing his sight, Watts said, and wouldn’t be able to recreate them. They might be worth $1,000, but they are invaluable to Watts.

Gone, too, are seven original drawings his father, Arthur Watts, did for the British publication ‘Punch,’ in the 1920s and 1930s. Fortunately, Arthur Watts had sent many of the originals to the publisher for a recently published compilation of his father’s work.

Despite this violation, Watts doesn’t want to move. He loves San Francisco, loves the place where he’s lived for 15 years with a view of Alcatraz and the bay, and loves his monthly rent: $773.

‘Where else could I find a place like this for $770 in San Francisco?’ Watts asked. ‘Plus, if I moved because I was scared, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.’

Donahoe, the housesitter, also is dealing with this loss. Taken in the heist was her set of knives and kitchen tools essential to her catering work. Like Watts the woodworker, Donahoe can buy replacements. But they wouldn’t be the same as the knives and spoons that fit her hand perfectly.

More devastating: She lost all of her recipes and menus – the intellectual core of her work.

And with their disappearance, she’s discovered that she’s lost the desire to work in the kitchen. It just doesn’t seem fun right now. She’s even had trouble finding a place to live, instead picking up a series of subletting situations.

Friends have helped both. Donahoe, with help from several others, repainted Watts’ apartment. Watts’ children bought him new dishware, friends gave him a new dresser, and Cost Plus gave him a 20 percent discount on a few items after they heard his story.

Yet Watts wants his sentimental possessions back. His family is offering ‘a substantial reward’ for information leading to the recovery of the items. He thinks the people that took the items may have thought they were just moving someone out.

‘I’m convinced that they didn’t know what they were doing,’ Watts said, who jokingly said that he has vainly combed his ‘enemies list’ in the hopes of finding someone who would put someone up to such a stunt.

‘It’s kind of like a death,’ Donahoe said. ‘Your friends and family help you out at first, and are really generous. And then time passes, and there’s still this pain that you feel.’

Watts nodded. These days, he sleeps on a box spring and mattress instead of the bed he handcrafted. His end tables are made of cardboard rather than Douglas fir. He goes to sleep every night wondering, ‘Why?’

Anyone with information on the break-in should e-mail

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle

Jo Garofoli

About the author: Jo Garofoli

Joe Garofoli is a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.