Legend In Dine Time String Of Break-ins Blamed On `Dinnertime Burglar'

Posted: March 04, 1998

He has the agility of a cat, the cunning of a spy and the eye of a jeweler.

He can break into your house while you're eating dinner and be gone with all your valuables before dessert.

In the late '70s, Johnny Carson, Glen Campbell, Irving Wallace and Jackie O's mother learned the hard way.

Now, after a 15-year hiatus - he was in jail on murder charges - that ended with his parole in June 1996, Alan Golder - the ``Dinnertime Burglar'' - is back.

And everyone - from the FBI to the mob to Main Line investigators - is trying to catch a thief.

Lower Merion police believe Golder, 42, may be the masked man behind a daring string of 12 home burglaries between January and October of last year.

``He's somebody we're strongly interested in,'' said Sgt. Mark Keenan of the Lower Merion detectives. ``He's our best suspect - there are extreme similarities.''

All the Lower Merion burglaries took place within a mile of each other in the tony Haverford section, where mansions run more than $1 million.

On three occasions, the Dinnertime Burglar struck two homes on the same night. The heists came in spurts: three in January, four in March, two in September and three in October. Investigators say the details of each incident closely match the methods of the flamboyant master thief, who spent the 1970s plundering rich neighborhoods across the country to feed an international mob-run jewel ring and finance a Hollywood lifestyle.

Lower Merion Detective Richard Birkenmeier said the Dinnertime Burglar's Main Line targets appeared to be chosen at random and took place between 6 and 11 p.m., when the families were home downstairs with alarm systems off.

``He wouldn't go in until he knew where everybody was in the house,'' Birkenmeier said.

He'd climb a porch or gutter or trellis to the second floor, lock the door to the master bedroom and scavenge for jewelry.

Then he'd leave without a trace - except in one incident, when he was confronted by a woman whom he locked into a closet before making his escape.

Police estimate the bandit's Haverford haul was in six figures, including roughly $200,000 in one robbery.

Last week, police in Greenwich, Conn., issued a warrant for Golder, identified as the prime suspect in a similar string of dinnertime burglaries that netted more than $750,000 worth of jewlery from 16 homes between September 1996 and October 1997.

In one break-in, Golder swiped $50,000 in jewelry from a master bedroom while 30 people were having a Rosh Hashana dinner.

After his jail stint, ``he got out and went right back to work,'' said Greenwich Police Capt. James Walters.

But neither Greenwich nor Lower Merion lawmen expect a return visit anytime soon.

If caught by the feds, he faces life in prison on parole violations. If caught by the Genovese crime family, it could be worse.

In 1980, Golder ratted on mobsters as part of a deal for a reduced sentence in the 1978 murder of millionaire Long Island developer Lawrence Lever.

Lever was shot by a Thai national who was helping Golder rob his mansion.

Golder entered the witness protection program after naming mobsters who fenced the millions in jewelry he stole.

But investigators and a former Los Angeles Times reporter who interviewed Golder for a book on his life question whether the upscale cat burglar could ever live a quiet life on the lam forsaking his talent.

``He always described stealing jewelry as a great high, a tremendous feeling, and he was always concerned he'd get sucked back in,'' said Bill Knoedelseder, whose book proposal, ``Precious Metal: Confessions of a Rock 'n Roll Jewel Thief,'' was located by police after they recently raided Golder's abandoned New York pad.

``I guess he didn't quit his night job.''

Working nights made Golder a wealthy man - quite a change from the dilapidated wooden shack in Queens where he grew up the son of a career criminal and a waitress.

He made his first heist - a Matchbox car - at age 6, and learned to steal what his mother could not afford to buy him.

At 16, he dropped out of high school to pursue crime full-time, first hitting small businesses and then home burglaries for baubles by Faberge, and jewelry from Harry Winston and David Webb.

By 21, according to Knoedelseder, Golder was stealing millions in jewels, funneling them onto the black market through a New York City jewelry store.

His equipment consisted of a ski mask, large flashlight and a long screwdriver. He never carried a gun, but always wore tan Isotoner gloves, which appeared less suspicious than black ones.

He also possessed an extraordinary memory.

``He could draw a map of Bel-Air with every bush and culvert,'' said Knoedelseder. ``He remembered every detail of every job.''

Between 1976 and 1980, the FBI estimated that Golder had stolen at least $25 million worth of gold and precious gems from the homes of some of the richest and most famous people in America.

And after he got them, the golden-haired, blue-eyed burglar knew how to spend his ill-gotten gains.

He told Knoedelseder he drove a white Lotus Esprit and hobnobbed with celebrities like John Belushi and Rod Stewart.

He supped on lobster and Dom Perignon with a bevy of groupies - all eager to play the next Bonnie to his Clyde.

``He likes the limelight,'' said Keenan. ``He certainly is not a shrinking violet.''

Knoedelseder said Golder became more brazen and confrontational as mob pressure increased to bring in bigger stones.

``He stripped a 6-carat pear-shaped diamond ring right off the finger of Mrs. Glen Campbell as she stood screaming in the dining room of her hilltop mansion,'' according to his book proposal.

A similar scene was repeated with oil baroness Marjorie Phillips, from whom Golder grabbed a 21-carat diamond, and from Johnny Carson's first ex-wife, Joanna, whom he forced to open a safe containing $250,000 in jewelry.

It all came crashing down after the Lever murder, when a former roommate and one-time driver gave up Golder to police after his arrest in an unrelated burglary.

Knoedelseder said Golder was promised safety under the witness protection program, but was refused protection after being paroled from prison in June 1996.

He ended up on Long Island with his mother. And months later, he allegedly paid visits to Greenwich and the Main Line, ironically overlapping briefly during the time Knoedelseder, and his wife, former Channel 29 reporter Bryn Freedman, lived two miles away in Merion.

Knoedelseder said Golder had called him every couple of months after his release until a few months ago.

Talk usually revolved around family and career options and the book proposal, which didn't get off the ground at the time.

Golder said he was studying to be a personal trainer and going to bartending school.

But Knoedelseder, now vice president for news at Barry Diller's USA Networks Broadcasting in Los Angeles, said Golder seemed depressed and troubled.

He kept describing a recurring dream.

``He's in a stand of trees and he walks to the clearing, looks out across the clearing and sees a beautiful neighborhood with beautiful houses,'' Knoedelseder said, recounting the story.

``Then as he begins to walk toward one of the houses he wakes up in jail.''

The dream has yet to come true.

Investigators suspect Golder has fled the East Coast and could be using an alias, Thomas A. Williamson, in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas or Clearwater, Fla.

``We're certain he's not going to willingly surrender because he's facing a return to prison,'' said Walters.

``He's not going to change his stripes,'' said Keenan.

Perhaps that was why he returned to an old hangout in New York City, only to be punched out by one of the mobsters he helped put away.

``It would be against his nature to hide in some rooming house,'' said Knoedelseder, who said he has no idea where Golder is.

``The last time he was on the street, he'd be walking around with 50 grand in his pocket. For him, going to bartending school isn't going to cut it.''

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